- Title: I can't take it anymore - U.S. nurses' COVID-19 grief pours out
- Date: 7th August 2021
- Summary: UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION, MISSISSIPPI, UNITED STATES (AUGUST 6, 2021) (REUTERS) (SOUNDBITE) (English) CRITICAL CARE NURSE, NICHOLE ATHERTON, SAYING: "Watching someone die, more than that: coding someone, doing chest compressions on someone, breaking their ribs - when you know there's no hope for them. You know if you get them back that all you're doing is delaying the inevitable. It feels like torturing people. I don't want to do that. I don't."
- Embargoed: 21st August 2021 02:12
- Keywords: COVID-19 ICU PTSD intensive care medical workers mental health nurses pandemic trauma
- Location: UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION, MISSISSIPPI & ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES
- City: UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION, MISSISSIPPI & ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, UNITED STATES
- Country: USA
- Topics: Health/Medicine,United States
- Reuters ID: LVA00CEP594JR
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: Nichole Atherton couldn't take it anymore.
The intensive care nurse watched helplessly last year as COVID-19 sufferers died in her Mississippi hospital - slowly, painfully and alone. Then in July she was again confronted with a wave of deathly ill patients, even though almost all likely could have saved themselves by getting the coronavirus vaccine.
"To watch someone suffer for weeks, unable to eat, unable to drink, struggling for every breath - it changes you," the 39-year-old mother of two said. "I see these people over and over again when I try and sleep, suffering, and I hear their last words. It's a big burden to bear to hear someone's last words, especially when those words are meant for their family that can't be there."
As the United States grapples with rising infections, hospitalizations and deaths amid a surge of the virus' Delta variant, exhausted and desperate health care workers are struggling to describe the grim reality they face.
"It's frustrating to hear people call us heroes and thank us when that's great, and we appreciate that, but what we need is for people to wear masks and get vaccines. That's how we want to be thanked," Atherton said.
For some, communicating is cathartic, a way of processing their grief and anxiety. Others see it as a responsibility, using their devastating encounters with death to try to convince skeptical Americans to take the pandemic seriously, saying in this wave, most of the critically ill could have prevented it by masking, vaccinating, maintaining social distance and hand washing.
New daily coronavirus cases in the United States have hit a six-month high, with the seven-day average reaching nearly 95,000. That rate is five times higher than it was less than a month ago, Reuters data shows.
Health officials have said the surge has been driven almost entirely by the unvaccinated. Vaccines are not widely available in many other countries, yet in the United States just 49% of the population of 330 million is fully vaccinated.
Doctors, nurses and hospital leaders interviewed by Reuters in six states described a workforce that is depleted and demoralized by wards overflowing with mostly unvaccinated patients.
The health providers who have waded into public forums in an effort to counter disinformation said they have sometimes been attacked online by anti-vaccine skeptics.
Despair drove Atherton, the Mississippi nurse, to speak out.
She described in harrowing detail an unvaccinated woman struggling to breathe and scared of leaving her children behind without a mother.
At one point, the woman was desperate for a sip of water, and Atherton - despite her misgivings - agreed to remove her oxygen for a few seconds to offer her a drink. Soon after, the woman was intubated, having seen her family for the last time via video call.
"When someone is laying there, as a human, suffering, and their mouth is dry and you see that they just want a little bit of comfort, it's hard to tell someone 'No,' even if you know if that choice may inevitably end their life," she said.
Atherton wrote on Facebook that she wonders if the woman would still be alive had she not given her the water - although she knows, rationally, that she was too sick.
But the accumulated strain of seeing so much death has become too much for Atherton, who told her hospital last week she is resigning.
She plans to work as a nurse elsewhere, she said. She just can no longer bear witness to COVID-19's daily toll on members of her own community.
"In the beginning, they're critical, they're on a lot of oxygen, but they can still talk to you and communicate. To watch this person deteriorate and ultimately die alone in a hospital bed, to watch the culmination of someone's life -- they had careers, they had families, they were like you and I -- be reduced to someone gasping for breath, alone in a hospital bed, alone, I just, I can't take it anymore," she said.
(Production: Deborah Lutterbeck, Arlene Eiras)
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