MCPHS Responds: Alexandra Hall BSN, RN, CCRN
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers all over the world have been called upon to face new risks and unprecedented challenges. They have continued to do their jobs—and more—in the most trying of circumstances. As a healthcare education university, MCPHS has seen students, alumni, faculty, and staff perform bravely on the front lines in a variety of healthcare roles. We want to shine a light on some of these individuals and their work in the time of coronavirus. We encourage you, members of the MCPHS community, to share your front-line stories using the hashtag #MCPHSResponds.
Alexandra Hall’s world changed in early March. A registered nurse at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Hall ordinarily works in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) with about 70 other nurses. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, about half of them—including Alexandra—have been redeployed to help treat COVID-19 patients. Hall now works in a surge intensive care unit (ICU) that, at 40 beds, is far bigger than any of the hospital’s regular ICUs. The scene, she says, has been grim.
“They're all sedated. They're all critically, critically ill patients. Unfortunately, most of them haven't gotten better…. Not the most uplifting place to be working, unfortunately.” She’s been redeployed to the COVID-19 floor for months and doesn’t know when she’ll go back to her normal job on the PACU. "I have been nowhere else. That's all I've been doing.” She hasn’t spent time with her family in months, and she missed her dad’s, her brother’s, and her mother’s birthdays.
Hall, who works night shifts, says her new normal is uncomfortable and can be dispiriting. Because of the lack of effective treatments for COVID-19, the results she sees often frustrate her. “It is a very disappointing place to work because you don't feel like you're really helping anyone. I hate to say it. It's like a self-defeating floor at the moment.” Seeing patients suffer is devastating, and it can hit close to home. Says Hall: "I'm 31 years old and I took care of at least four people my age. And not all of them had good outcomes." She also finds limiting patient contact counterintuitive: “It’s not what you're taught in nursing school and absolutely not the way your nursing brain works.” But she also knows this is not an ordinary time calling for ordinary procedures.
Hall says she’s grateful to Beth Israel for making her feel as safe as possible. “They were very transparent, very honest with us. I never felt unsafe. I always had PPE." But that doesn’t mean she feels comfortable. PPE requirements and volume of patients made for long, difficult shifts. It’s difficult to breathe wearing masks, and keeping them on for a full 12 hours can produce anxiety—especially in a hot space like the surge ICU. “It was so incredibly hot,” says Hall. “There wasn't a place for reprieve. You also couldn't leave the room because we were stretched so thin for nurses…. honestly, going to the bathroom and drinking water have been a total luxury at work lately."
But Hall knows better than most just how necessary PPE and other precautions are. Her significant other is also a nurse, at a different hospital—and he tested positive for coronavirus a few weeks into the pandemic. He was sick and feverish for several weeks, and while it was scary, Hall says that their expertise helped them stay calm. “thankfully, both of us being nurses made it much easier to keep him home because you kind of had to flip on the nurse brain and be like, he's OK at home.” They segregated in their house, and her partner recovered after self-quarantine. Hall says she constantly wore an N95 mask to be safe—she was terrified of bringing any germs to work—and their precautions kept her healthy. She tested negative and never stopped working. She says Beth Israel was supportive and checked up on her partner, which helped them get through the ordeal.
And while this experience has been utterly draining, Hall has been able to see some silver linings. First and most importantly, she says, the past few weeks have given some reason for optimism. "It's getting much better, thankfully. Probably for eight weeks we had all 40 beds full. In the past week, we have greatly, greatly dropped numbers."
For Hall, there has been another ray of light during difficult times at work. She loves teaching, and she tutors in the nursing program at MCPHS. So she was thrilled when her “floor got the opportunity to take a graduate nurse….It's actually been really nice to be able to teach someone.” She also believes that Beth Israel as a whole has come together like never before, with even more collaboration and learning. "We're all learning together, which I'm hoping...doesn't dissipate, and that everyone remembers there was a time where we all worked very closely together, and we all worked amazingly together.”
Hall says her colleagues and supervisors have been incredibly supportive and check up on her regularly to see how she’s coping with the stresses of working on the front lines. She’s also made new friends at work—though, she jokes, she has no idea what they look like without masks on.
She’s felt the gratitude from outside the hospital, too. Local restaurants will spontaneously drop by meals, and companies will donate gifts. Individuals donate supplies and food. She says her neighbors have been amazing. “One day, we came home, and our neighbors had put signs up in our house, saying ‘You're our hero.’ They somehow knew [my partner and I were nurses], and there was a little flag. It was lovely.”
And one final bright spot? “There's a very large group of MCPHS alums at Beth Israel,” including a close friend and also a former roommate, who’d mostly kept in touch via text before the pandemic. Now, with all hands on deck, they find themselves actually seeing each other at work. “All three of us got to go on break together and sit down….We actually took a nice little family photo, and it was like, ‘Oh, MCPHS alum photo!’” She continues, “I think everybody from MCPHS is very happy to have gone to school there. The community of MCPHS—and I have to say, [Dean of the School of Nursing] Kathleen Polley-Payne—has been great. Personally texting to check up on me too.”
And at the end of the day, even during this trying, Hall says she loves being a nurse. “Absolutely, without a doubt. Could not foresee myself doing anything other than what I do now."