Hope Blooms in Darkness: Finding Yourself in a Pandemic

Christen Lee

Certified Nurse Practitioner

The World Has Been Hijacked

It is Springtime in Ohio,
And a virus has invaded.
An invisible enemy has
Hijacked the globe.
We are all on lockdown, and
Earth’s emergency exits have failed.

March 22, 2020. The clinic remains open. One by one, doors are closing across the state, while ours remain wide open. Connected over daily 2 p.m. press releases, we grasp every morsel of discernible hope. We have learned what it means to “flatten the curve.” Epidemiology has reached the vernacular. On the upward slope of our own learning curve, we know nearly nothing about the virus, except that it can culminate in respiratory failure, three Ohioans have died, and face masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing are our only immediate hope for mitigation.

Not long after the stay-at-home order is issued, our first colleague tests positive. And our doors remain open. We petition management to close doors and institute proper disinfecting protocols, develop a reliable pre-screening system, and transition to virtual modalities. But we are briskly assured that our current efforts are sufficient. After all, our patients need us to stay open for ear infections, urinary tract infections, and vaccinations.

I work in our region’s busiest clinic. Nine years vested, I am a clinic lead, preceptor, one of our region’s most senior providers, and I am scared out of my mind. We are all frightened and depending upon a short supply of gloves, ill-fitting surgical masks, and flimsy eye shields to save us. N95s are as unattainable as toilet paper at this phase. Our clinic has two frayed polyester gowns to share between clinic partners for the foreseeable future.

As the World Spins Carelessly

I am on the inside, peering out. From the safety of my office, I survey a congested waiting area, punctuated by cacophonous coughing. Like a scene from an apocalyptic novel, only a few are masked. My preparedness ritual commences. Hands washed, sanitized, gloved. A triple threat against invasion. Eye shield upright, N95 air tight. All this I do with calculated precision as the world spins carelessly and the bell curve rises precipitously. My gloved hands adjust the pleated polyester gown that wraps me within a thin, tattered shell of safety. Fingers clumsily reach behind to tie the impossibly long sash to secure my ensemble. It feels like a practicum. Will I pass this test and emerge unscathed?

“Good morning,” we greet our first patient of the day. Twenty-two years old and otherwise healthy, chest rising and falling in rhythm with the steady ticking of the wall clock. My clinic partner and I exchange worried glances as she types and I assess. “Temperature 102, oxygen saturation 94%, lungs clear. John, you can remove your face mask while we swab your nose to test for influenza.” Flu A and B negative. Another probable COVID-19 case. At this early stage of the pandemic, COVID-19 testing capability is limited to major medical centers and for those at highest risk. We have little choice but to refer the most concerning cases to the local emergency departments and report all probable cases to the local health departments, which are unable to keep pace with soaring case reports. So that is what we do. We send our otherwise healthy twenty-two-year-old patient to the local emergency department, calling first to alert an exasperated ED nurse of his imminent arrival.

Closing Doors

It was 2020.
My fall from glory.
Oh, the irony
To see it all in hindsight.
A devoted health-care provider
Disillusioned by a pandemic.
Dispirited by the disbelievers.
The insurmountable work
Of protecting a dissenting public
Piled higher, steeper,
While my meager resources dwindled thinner, fleeting.
All the closing doors were closing in
Until there was
Nothing left but crumbling routines and habits
These kindly creature comforts.
It was 2020.
The year of breakdowns and false starts.
I poured my heart dry
Hopeful to save those not seeking salvation.
I hit empty, then started grasping frantically
Clutching disparate antidotes to despair
Anything to not collapse
Under the crushing weight of
Unrest, dead ends,
Exponential death tolls.
I am no stranger to desolation
But I am a stranger in this divisive land
Where entire worlds are funneled into collective divides.
Atomic disputes and calculated ambushes
Have escalated into the coldest war
Among one's own kind.
I feel my very cells splitting into opposing halves
Against the shearing forces of 2020.

The clinic remains open, but I close my door to call my manager. I feel tears brimming, and I’m unsure if it is guidance, support, or miracles that I seek. During my twenty years in health care, I’ve never seen anything like this. A healthy twenty-two year old struggling to breathe. “Were you both masked,” she asks. “Yes, for most of the visit.” “Were respiratory particles aerosolized during the visit?” “No, there was no coughing or sneezing while unmasked and no breathing treatments administered during the visit.” So the clinic remains open, but I’m mentally shutting down. It’s still early in the day and early in the course of things, and the future feels impossible at this moment in time. Door closed, I disinfect every visible and invisible surface, as blinding tears stream across my face. I reach for a pen and sheet of paper and begin frantically filling the white space with waves of words bottled under immense pressure.

Finding Yourself in a Pandemic

We are living through a pandemic
Without an end in sight.
The days stretch long
With nowhere to turn
Except the places we call home.

We are sheltered
Sheltered in the places we call home
Whose walls protect and save us every day.
We are living through a pandemic
The likes we’ve never known
But grateful for the living nonetheless.

The space is tangible
The open space between the passing moments
Once packed tightly side by side
A life hedged between habit and routine
Impermeable to raw existence.
Amazing what a pandemic can do.

It can strip you bare,
Leaving you shortchanged of the
Life you were once promised.
But it can save you, too,
Stripping you bare of endless
Distractions, rabbit holes, vampires, those
Hungry scavengers, the
Very self-conceived notion of you.
Transformation runs deep.

The days stretch long,
And longer still,
As we bravely welcome
A new and unrealized world inside and
Outside the places we call home.
Amongst the shadows there is a
Hopeful glimmer of unbound moments
Imperfectly strung together.

Somehow it has always been locked
Inside the places we call home.
Somehow we are all finding ourselves
Inside the places we call home.
Amazing what a pandemic can do.

Living words breathe life into my tired soul. Among these unbound moments, I discover my place in an unrealized world. I pause to wipe my eye shield clean and to soak in the sweet balm of healing hope that permeates the air. Today marks the start of a new chapter in my life. I resolve to find a safer, more effective way to serve my patients and community. I also commit to self-care in the form of reflective writing, because writing is my salvation. Words ground me firmly upon this land, my hearth, and remind me that all is never lost.

A New Chapter

Due to the evolving needs of the pandemic, many health care facilities have transitioned to virtual platforms, while also ramping up testing capacity and waiving fees for COVID-19-related visits. At this moment, I set my career course. I will apply for a position at a local clinic that is deeply invested in the community. Despite the challenges ahead, I am resigned to progress. Soon, I will be working alongside many others offering safe, accessible care, testing, and long-anticipated vaccination.

Resilience awakens from starless nights
Whispers all things are possible
For those who believe
For those who press
Feet into fertile ground
And feel hope bloom from buried seed.

The world is on lockdown, but the day must go on. With resolution, I don my mask and eye shield, and I open the door. There are patients to be seen, and an entire world of possibilities awaits.

Author Bio

Christen Lee has worked in the medical profession for twenty years, currently as a family nurse practitioner in the Cleveland area. Throughout the pandemic, writing has provided a safe haven. Christen is deeply grateful for the Voices from the Edge writing program which fostered the creation of her own pandemic memoir, while also connecting her to a vibrant literary community.

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