What's It Like To Be An ICU Nurse Treating COVID-19 Patients?

Two ICU nurses share their stories with Newsy.
Posted at 5:33 PM, Apr 17, 2020

Every evening at 7 p.m., New York stops and cheers. An outpouring of gratitude and support for the heroes on the front lines fighting the coronavirus. 

It’s for people like Dan Renzi, who came to New York all the way from Kansas City to do his part.

"We're here by choice and we have to get to work. And whatever it takes to get through our day, then we do it," Renzi told Newsy.

He’s in the middle of working 21 days straight, on the overnight shift in a hospital as part of FEMA’s response to COVID-19. So far hundreds of nurses have died from the coronavirus, and studies show in the future, front line health care workers could face anxiety andburnout, if they haven’t already. 

"We also have to remember that as awful as this is, there are also lots of happy, successful stories of patients who check out of a hospital and go home," Renzi said.

For Lauren Yamashita, an ICU nurse at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital, her team is putting extra thought into who goes into the COVID-19 patient rooms, among high concentrations of the virus and limited PPE. 

"Actually an ICU right now. Our staff is doubled every day, pretty much. These patients, I mean, they just get sick so quickly that it's just every little detail we have to be watching for," she said.

For ICU nurses, there’s a technical expertise that usually comes with several weeks of training. Monitoring machines and numbers like IV lines, ventilators, central line care, catheters and vital signs. In the time of COVID-19, it’s a crash course.

"There's no time for you to be scared. There's no time for you to feel sorry for yourself. Just find a bag of IV fluids that needs replaced and replace them. And look at the numbers that are on the machines. The doctors will tell you, OK, this number has to be this, this number has to be that, if this number goes too high, press that button," Renzi said.

And while Renzi says he’s seen many patients recover and return home, there’s loss happening too. 

"My job has been I'm the guy who gets the people ready to put in the body bags. And, you know, looking at their faces. There's just a finality in it. That what's done is done. And I think that death is not the tragedy. I think the tragedy is losing the fight. And it is much sadder watching the person expire. Once it's done, it's done. And I guess I compartmentalize it," Renzi said.

But for now, these two, and hundreds of others, keep working hard. For them, a big part of that includes the connection and empathy they say is so key to their job. 

"I always ask family, is there something you want me to tell them? Because sometimes there's a message, and I feel like that would probably bring the family comfort knowing that the person gets the message and the person can hear, patient can hear that would give them comfort," Yamashita said. 

"There's respect and across the board, everywhere I've seen, no matter where I've been in this process, there is a respect for what these people have gone through, and that really helps take away some of the sting," Renzi said.