Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
When New Mexico hospitals began seeing a surge of COVID-19 patients in the spring, Ashley Apodaca, then a charge nurse at Presbyterian Hospital, wanted to find a way to manage her stress and commemorate the patients who never got to go home.
So Apodaca began crafting small paper roses — some bright red, others deep blue or pale yellow — as a way to remember the patients she lost.
“These people were here for days, weeks,” Apodaca said. “You started to know them; you were there with them when they passed.”
As the number of patients lost to the virus kept climbing, so too did the number of roses. They outgrew the shadow box Apodaca had planned to showcase them in.
Around the 70th rose, Apodaca’s project shifted. Rather than making them a monument to those who had died, she began giving them to patients who survive the disease.
“I realized around December that it wasn’t going to end,” she said. “Not for a while.”
In New Mexico and across the country, intensive care nurses have been pushed to the brink during the pandemic. Nurses have been asked to learn new skills and manage feelings of burnout and emotional fatigue. With cases rising again in New Mexico due to the highly contagious delta variant, two nurses talked to the Journal about having to confront those feelings again.
“We’re not even fully recovered from this past year,” said Sergio Torres, an intensive care nurse working at Lovelace Hospital. “I mean, we’ve all been affected.”
At the beginning
Torres has worked as a nurse since 2013, in specialties including long-term care and rehab. In late 2019, Torres decided he was ready for another change and moved into intensive care nursing.
“Two weeks later after (my) starting, COVID happens,” he said.
Torres and Apodaca both remember the fear of the unknown that accompanied the start of the pandemic: the uncertainty about treatments to use for sick patients, the lack of knowledge about whether the virus spread through the air or through surface contact, and, above all, fear of contracting it and giving it to family and friends.
“We were all scared, especially those on the front lines,” Torres said.
Apodaca remembers having to absorb new information about the virus and potential treatments quickly.
“We had to grow at a quick pace, to acclimate, to learn how to care for these patients,” she said.
Especially for Torres, the learning curve was significant, and the disappointment at losing a patient was difficult to take. Torres described telling families that a patient was dying over FaceTime, when no one was allowed in the room.
“It was a hard, hard, hard year. And that was just around the first year, the first go-around,” Torres said. “And then we experienced the second surge.”
Stress during delta
On July 1, New Mexico reported an average of 64 daily COVID-19 cases over the past seven days. By late August, that seven-day average had ballooned to more than 800 daily cases, driven by the delta variant, which health officials consider significantly more contagious than many other strains. This rise in cases has corresponded in some places with nurses and other medical professionals leaving the profession due to stress and burnout, which in turn left hospitals crowded and understaffed, according to national reports.
When cases began rising again this summer, Torres said he felt something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Torres acknowledged that he’s thought about leaving the profession since the pandemic began, and said he’s been feeling frustrated lately, as hospitals fill with largely unvaccinated patients.
“We’ve seen so much, we’ve dealt with so many failures, and it’s upsetting because the vaccine is the best thing we’ve come up with,” Torres said.
Torres urged New Mexicans who have not been vaccinated to get the shot, calling it “the best thing anyone can do right now.” Apodaca focused on masks and social distancing, acknowledging that the loss of community has been challenging but urging New Mexicans to do what they can to keep their loved ones safe.
“It’s not just about you and your masking,” she said. “It’s your neighbor, it’s your friend, it’s your mom, it’s your cousins, it’s your family that we have to protect.”
With cases up again, both Apodaca and Torres are doing what they can to keep their stress at bay. Torres advised other medical professionals to take time off when they can, and talk to someone about the issues they may be facing.
“If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anybody else,” Torres said.
As for Apodaca, she’s still giving out roses, though she’s shifted into a position that has her doing less direct patient care. Beyond the roses, Apodaca has taken to listening to meditative music as a way to de-stress in a challenging job. Her advice to other practitioners: Find something rewarding outside work, and watch for signs of burnout.
“Because most of the time, you just keep going and going,” Apodaca said. “And then all of a sudden, you look up and you’re crashing and burning.”