A nurse writes about the calm before the COVID-19 storm

A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on February 28, 2020 in Nutley, New Jersey. Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images.

My name is Emily Allen and I am a registered nurse at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. 

I currently work on the intensive care unit as a bedside care nurse and also as a charge nurse for our 24 bed unit. 

Being a nurse was not always what I wanted. After two years of preparing to be a chemistry teacher, I knew that it was not what my heart was calling me to do. 

My mom said “Have you ever thought about nursing?”  

I decided to take a two week nursing assistant’s course. I will never forget when the lightbulb in my head went off. I was lying in a bed pretending to be a patient who just had a stroke while a classmate was practicing helping me. 

In the second I felt helpless and realized all of the things that we as healthy humans take for granted every day. I knew then that nursing was my calling.

I wanted to help people in their ultimate time of need. I wanted to be that smile, ray of light in what was sure to be some of the darkest times for our patients. 

Becoming a nurse was one of the hardest and most challenging things that I have ever done in my life. Thankfully, I met my husband Joe, who was determined to support me during nursing school. He was my practice patient, flashcard partner and No. 1 fan pushing me when I felt like there was no way I would make it to graduation. 

I finished my two-year nursing degree at Century College and then completed my four-year degree at Bemidji State.  

Being a nurse fills my heart every single day just as much as being a mom to our three children Leo, 4; Lillian, 3; and Sullivan, 11 months. 

At the hospital the past few weeks, COVID-19 is on everyone’s minds. So many questions with unknown answers. 

How will the patients look? 

Are we safe? 

Will I bring it home to my family?

We are running dangerously low on equipment, including N-95 respirator masks, gowns, face shields and gloves. 

We are being asked to save the equipment — including masks — that we use each shift and bring them back for the next shift. 

Also new: When treating a patient who has tested positive or for whom we are awaiting results, we use just one pair of gloves to preserve dwindling supplies. This is not typical.

We have also changed our visitor policy so that no visitors are allowed unless a patient faces imminent death. 

I feel that changing our visitor policy was the right thing to do to help with the spread of COVID-19. But I also put myself in our patients’ shoes, which is what most of us nurses do. 

Could you imagine being scared or on your deathbed with no personal or physical support from your family or loved ones? 

This is putting new pressure on nurses. We have to step in and become more than just a nurse — we have to become family to these people. But we’ll do it. 

I recall a patient last week who came in with suspected COVID-19. She looked terrified, and I was terrified for her. But what did I do? I put on a smile, held her hand and supported her in whatever way I could. 

But I must be honest. I’m afraid. 

Working on a unit with people who are crashing and need ventilator support — which takes multiple health care workers to manage safely — I’m afraid that we will run out of personal protective equipment. 

I am afraid of the rate that this disease is spreading and how long it takes to get test results back. I know that the state and federal government are working feverishly to try and get a handle on the equipment and testing issues. But I can’t help but think that it’s not quick enough. We should have been more prepared. 

Also scary: People who are testing positive with no symptoms. That’s why we are begging the public to stay at home and practice social distancing. It is a key to preventing this virus from spreading faster than it already is. 

Fairview Health Services, which St. Joseph’s is part of, has designated a COVID-19 hospital and asked nurses to volunteer to work there. Several of us are willing but only with hazard pay and assurances that we’ll have good equipment.

At this time Fairview has declined.

Currently on the unit, I am working on our census, which is the number of patients. Because elective surgeries have been cancelled, our numbers are actually on the low side. 

We feel that this is the calm before the storm. I worry for the day when the storm does hit. I don’t think any of us know exactly what we are in for. 

We on the frontlines are doing what we do best — and leaning on each other. I look to my family for support, and especially my parents, husband and children. The unknown is particularly scary for us because my husband is a police officer for North St. Paul. We both work 12 hour shifts already and who knows how many hours we’ll be working in the weeks to come. 

Health care workers appreciate all the gratitude and signs of compassion that the public is showing! 

But please take seriously what government officials are saying. 

And remember to stay home for us, because we want to be here for you.