Was it only a year ago that life as we knew it, came to a swift and unexpected halt as, what was then, a strange new virus, Covid-19, was moving like wildfire through Europe and Asia and then it was suddenly on our doorstep.
“A pandemic is upon us. Two weeks.” they said, “will allow us to flatten the curve and defeat the disease.” And we listened and we locked our doors, we masked up, we stood in long lonely lines, and ventured out anxiously and only when absolutely necessary.
But for nurses and medical professionals, leaving our comfort zones was an absolute daily necessity. We donned our PPE and ventured into the dark abyss of disease every day. Our patients could only see our eyes through the cloud of gauze and plastic that we wore and if they heard us at all, they heard muffled words of support and hope. And for their families and loved ones, the misery was compounded by the isolation required of the disease. It was a time of such misery and moments of hopelessness that it seemed it would last forever.
And as the weeks and then the months of adhering to the rigid rules the virus imposed passed, we grew restless. We ate too much, exercised too little and grew lonelier still nestled in our own little cocoons. We grew accustomed to the daily death toll and the photos of the refrigerator trucks holding the bodies of the dead, too many for local morgues to handle. It seemed at the time, the nightmare would never end.
And for nurses, who suited up every day in almost suffocating PPE, the struggle was all too real. Patients in extremis undergoing desperate but so often futile efforts to save them until they died alone amidst the hum and whir of machines that couldn’t keep ravaged hearts and lungs alive.
And there were others, afraid to come to the hospital for fear of catching the virus, and they stayed at home while their chronic diseases grew worse, their own days marred by fear and failing health. The virus wasn’t just killing its own victims but so many others indirectly. The days were long, the nights longer still, the deep quiet replaced by the hum of machinery and the cries of the dying.
And then, in the chill of early winter, a glimmer of hope—the vaccines had arrived, and it seemed the end of our long, lonely descent would soon be over. We clamored for appointments, for our chance to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to feel the sun on our faces, the touch of a loved one.
I am a nurse, and I was lucky enough to be vaccinated early and then to be a part of the team at the Boston Medical Center that is administering vaccines, two thousand and more vaccines a day, a seemingly impossible number but also joyfully reached. Administering the vaccines has allowed me to witness the absolute joy visible in my patients’ eyes, sometimes tear stained, sometimes crinkling with joy. And though we are all masked, the vaccines create a bond between us, for however fleeting the moment, I am forever a part of their recovery, their return to real life. And with each vaccine, I ask “What are your post-vaccine plans?” And the answers are as varied as the patients; there are weddings and family vacations and travel and for many, the simple promise of a longed-for embrace.
With each vaccine, I am helping to provide, not just an end to the pandemic, but a promise of life, a return of smiles and laughter and hugs and get togethers. Soon, because of the vaccine and the incredibly hard work of the scientists who created them, Covid will be but a faint echo in the recesses of our minds. The sharp edges of our saddest memories will be softened in time, but our hearts, our longing for one another, will be forever strengthened, more resolute, imprinted with the natural need to be close to each other. It is an opportunity to become our best selves, more open to life’s wonders and all the richer in appreciation because of our enforced isolation.
As a nurse I have been there from the start, but it is here as the end is in sight, that I can finally appreciate how the world came together to defeat this disease. In the midst of this misery, it was a nurse who leaned in and gently whispered, You’ll be okay. Hold my hand. These days, the fear in my patients’ eyes has been replaced by a glimmer of hope, a tentative smile just visible through the mask for soon enough, we will be shaking hands, swapping hugs, planting kisses on cheeks desperate for a touch.
And as we emerge from the long, lonely cocoon of the last year, beautiful butterflies all of us, blinking at the light, we remember the sadness and though it will echo forever in our hearts and our memories, it will not define us. And for those of us who are nurses, our own practice and dedication to our work has been more clearly defined. We have been there for this pandemic, but we have always been there, struggling to save lives and families and precious moments, as we strive to make a difference for our patients.
As we round this last curve in the road and turn for a final look at those dark day and nights of disease, the evidence is clear—Covid’s lasting impact has been to strengthen our collective spirit and to recognize our resilience and perhaps to appreciate the everyday beauty that surrounds us still. We’ve learned that we can do anything. As long as we do it together.
Copyright © 2021 Roberta Gately
Roberta Gately, a nurse, novelist, and former humanitarian aid worker, has provided medical care from Africa to Afghanistan. She has written extensively on the subject of refugees for The Journal of Emergency Nursing as well as a series of articles for the BBC World News Online and the Huffington Post. Gately lives in Boston where she works as a nurse at The Boston Medical Center. Her two previous novels, Lipstick in Afghanistan and The Bracelet were followed by a memoir, Footprints in the Dust. Her third novel, Dead Girl Walking, will be released on November 24, 2020.