‘They don’t eat. They don’t sleep’: America’s nurses are in crisis amid COVID

COVID-19 nurse treating hospital patient
Registered nurse Elle Lauron cares for a COVID-19 patient in the improvised COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center on July 30, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. Photo credit Mario Tama/Getty Images
By , KYW Newsradio
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KYW Newsradio In Depth
"They don't eat. They don't sleep. They go home. They cry." Nurses are pushed to their limits and the crisis could get worse.
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Nurses are being pushed to their limits as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. They’re being asked to work longer days, handle larger workloads, and deal with hostile patients who refuse their care.

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“The state of nursing is very rough right now,” said Dr. Maggie Harkins, dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Holy Family University. “We have many of our nurses who are at the bedside working tirelessly with their patients and their families, trying to care for those at home as well. They’re exhausted.”

Harkins said some nurses go without the personal protective equipment that they need, or some may not have consistent access to it at all.

“They are struggling with dealing with patients who are dying. I spoke with one nurse who said that she has never put so many patients in body bags since this past year and a half,” Harkins said.

She’s been in nursing for 30 years, and she said she’s never seen the field this bad.

“It’s very challenging out there, especially those who are at the bedside. The ones that are at the bedside are doing eight-, 12-, 16-hour shifts,” she said. “They don’t eat. They don’t sleep. They go home, they cry. It’s very distressing.”

There’s been a shortage of nurses for a while, but Harkins said the pandemic exacerbated the situation, requiring nurses to have more grit and stamina than ever before. And while addressing burnout in critical hospital staff during a pandemic is a monumental task, she said there are measures that could help move the needle, like establishing a reasonable staff-to-patient ratio for nurses, similar to what currently exists in California.

“There are times where I would go into an acute care hospital to work and I would have upward of 10 patients. That’s an awful lot of patients to have,” Harkins recalled.

“Now, if you’re in a critical care unit, what I’m hearing out there is that those critical care nurses sometimes will have three or four patients, and these patients are on ventilators, these patients require a lot of [nursing] knowledge. They’re on a lot of IV meds. They require a lot of bedside one on one. And when nurses are spread that thin, hospitals need to realize they’re going to walk. There’s more opportunities out there for nurses.”

For all the trauma and burnout nurses are dealing with now, Harkins said the pandemic made crystal clear that nursing and critical care professions are essential. She hopes compassionate people who feel the call to care for others professionally will see nursing as the important and thriving career field it is.

For everyone else, she hopes people develop a realistic understanding of and respect for what nurses go through every day.

“All of us who need to go into a hospital for one thing or another, we have to get our act together,” she said. “We’ve got to start treating not only nurses, our health care professionals, in addition to all of those that are at the bedside — the certified nursing assistants, the radiologists — all of those ones that are there at the bedside caring for our patients and our loved ones.

“I hope that going forward … individuals recognize the importance of being a nurse and the stability of the job market. But we’ve got to treat them right.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Harkins on the latest episode of KYW Newsradio In Depth.

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