"Breaks are what you make of them. On a night shift, you sit by your desk, you hoard some food down quickly, and there you go, that’s your break," says Russ-Em Tracy Johnson, pictured here. Credit: Russ-Em Tracy Johnson

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Russ-Em Tracy Johnson, 31, registered nurse, North Memorial Health Hospital, cardiovascular ICU

In the last month or so, we’ve seen more younger people coming in. In 2020, a lot of people who came in sick were older folks. You’d see 67-year-olds battling heart disease and diabetes. We saw a lot of people from nursing homes on ventilators. Not that it makes the story less sad, but it’s more understandable to see how this person got really sick.

Now, we see a lot of people who didn’t have prior medical conditions come in. During my last shift, a 37-year-old came in. He didn’t have comorbidities. This man drove himself to the hospital, within a week and a half he went from needing a little oxygen to being ventilated. The next day he had to be proned. He passed away within a week. 

In 2020, a lot of people would be hanging in there for weeks, really not getting worse but not better. And then one night they’d get really bad and they come to us in the ICU. We would have time to prepare and tell the family what’s going to happen. Now the sickness accelerates much faster.

At North Memorial, for the last six months we’ve been consistently short. Each floor is usually four to six nurses short. Our charge nurses have to manage the workers and also take one or two patients.

I recently took care of a patient who had major abdominal surgery. He needed somebody to sit next to him to guide from his hand to mouth to chew when he ate. He was at a very high risk of aspiration, and we didn’t have aides to help us. Here I am trying to help a patient eat and my other patient is trying to get out of bed. I had to rush and tell them, ‘Don’t worry, you’re OK. I need you to sit down.’ That was a safety hazard. What if my patient took a bite while I was gone and started choking?

In spring 2020, we were all overwhelmed from taking care of a disease we didn’t know much about, but there was camaraderie, people were still coming in for their shifts. By the spring and summer of 2021, we lost a lot of people on our floors—to travel nursing, to getting sick, to just being sick of being on the floor. Last fall it got so crazy that the charge nurse would ask us, ‘We’re short three nurses next shift, are you able to do a double?’

I used to work 130 hours per pay period, but by last fall I couldn’t do that anymore. Fall 2021 is when it got unmanageable.

One issue I’ve been seeing on top of the burnout is now you’ve got angry patients on the floor. During 2020, when COVID patients came to the floor, you could see the fear in their eyes. They would frequently ask, “Am I going to make it?” Now, COVID is so politicized, you care for people who are angry and don’t want to listen to doctors. They feel they know better based on what they read or what a newscaster said. 

Breaks are what you make of them. On a night shift, you sit by your desk, you hoard some food down quickly, and there you go, that’s your break.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...