‘Exhausted’ nurse on pandemic: ‘It was like nothing I’ve ever seen’

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SUFFOLK COUNTY, NY — When the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic have proven to be at their most unnerving, Nurse Michele Guelfi prays.

Guelfi, an acute care nurse, has turned to her faith to carry her through a pandemic that has relentlessly battered frontline healthcare workers tasked with helping those battling COVID-19.

Speaking to Patch this week, Guelfi said that even as numbers fall after a winter surge triggered by a highly transmissible Omicron variant, there are still those fighting the coronavirus who are seriously ill and dying: ” I’ve been praying hard lately that I won’t lose anyone on my shift,” she said.

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Asked about the experience of still struggling in the third wave of the coronavirus, Guelfi said simply, “Exhausting.”

Guelfi, 55, has dedicated her life to her profession as an emergency room nurse, care manager and nurse educator. “I love nursing,” she said. “I decided that moving back from administration to the other role would be a fun way to end my career. Little did I know I would graduate early due to a pandemic.”

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Guelfi – who declined to name the hospitals she has worked at in recent months – described the early days of the pandemic when everything was uncertain.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Guelfi. “We worked endlessly for fear of bringing it home, unvaccinated yet united. I hid myself during this time. I missed my family, but I knew it was worth it,” she said.

Born with civic duty in her blood, Guelfi said she comes from a long line of people committed to helping others, from the US Army to the NYPD. “We serve—that was my time to serve,” she said.

Nevertheless, Guelfi is tired after three waves, as are her colleagues, she said. “It’s exhausting,” she said again.

The financial incentives for extra shifts are helpful. However, she said: “The staffing challenges, the staff we’ve lost to early retirements, the vaccination orders, still make it exhausting. The majority of us now have COVID and are back at it.”

Guelfi addressed the December decision by Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shorten quarantines for healthcare workers ahead of the dramatic rise in omicron.

She added, “The frustration of having to return early felt wrong — like, ‘It’s okay you got sick, but we know you’re needed back, so if you just have a little bit of a cough and no fever – come back.'”

Guelfi acknowledged that hospital administration is trying to meet the growing needs of a staff struggling after months of directly dealing with the COVID-19 crisis – a fact for which she is grateful.

“Hospital systems go to great lengths to counsel staff, train resilience and show appreciation, so there is help — but I know many who would rather deal with PTSD alone,” she said. “Our employee wellness teams go to great lengths to provide mental support, but healthcare workers are all too known for looking after everyone but themselves.”

Many pursued travel nursing during the Surge and Flex plan, which moved staff to hospitals where the need was greatest, Guelfi said. Many of the travelers chose to do so “because of the lure of higher pay,” she said. “And working with people who earn more than you has started to divide the staff. There are some shifts where a familiar worker cannot be found because of all the agency and travel staff that comes along. That is a challenge.”

While agency employees are “a godsend,” sometimes there’s constant turnover and a lack of familiarity that causes problems, she said.

New nurses are being forced to face previously unthinkable circumstances, Guelfi said.

“A normal orientation in nursing has been called into question because of the pandemic – the new younger nurses working in conditions where their eyes sometimes fill with tears,” she said.

When asked how she found the strength to move forward, Guelfi said it hasn’t always been a smooth road.

“Seriously, some days I just want to escape to an island and forget all about healthcare, but then I remember why,” she said.

Your calling is deeply personal. “I’m doing this for my dad,” she said. “He died of colon cancer at 45. I was 18. I watched the nurses and admired them. I believe my job is to be an advocate for the patient, the family and even the system. I feel like a kind of bridge.”

With years of experience in so many different roles, Guelfi said she feels her latest role is really helping employees find peace in the midst of the pandemic.

“I still work at the bedside with patients, but I interact directly with the nurses,” she said. “I want to be someone they can rely on, knowing they will take care of our sick directly.

Even after so many years and stories, there are still days that tear her heart apart, Guelfi said.

“The hardest part is still pronouncing death. Going into a room with family by the bedside and really being there is something I don’t want to lose my respect for,” she said. “It’s a sacred moment.”

Guelfi said that while far fewer COVID-19 patients were hospitalized during the third wave, it struck her that many of “those who are there are critically ill.”

And so she prays, commissioned to offer comfort and dignity even in the last moments of a patient’s life.

Still, there are moments of serenity and joy.

“One fulfilling moment was making some employees smile and laugh,” she said. “I’m trying to be silly, so I told them a story about a nurse who called me at 4am and told me she was concerned because her patient seemed confused. I asked her why would she be judging a 90 year old at 4am I had a sleep aid and didn’t expect her to be confused? I then said that her call confused me – and I don’t know my name at 4am either. We all laughed,” she said. “The patient was fine. She was a new nurse and also thanked me for making her laugh.”

Another moment had great significance, said Guelfi. “I had a patient’s daughter and son who told me I was their angel. I helped them make the decision to place their mother in foster care. I didn’t feel like an angel – but I knew it was the right thing for the patient. She was ready.”

Even as a veteran nurse, Guelfi said she learned from the pandemic. “I’ve always known that working in a trauma room doesn’t guarantee life – and I work and play like any day could be my last day. But this pandemic has made it even more real,” she said. “I faced my mortality head-on, knowing that even if I did get COVID-19 and die from it, I was really doing my job the best I could.”

Guelfi definitely doesn’t want to die. She has big plans and dreams that she has yet to fulfill; During the pandemic, she finished and published a book and started a side business as a life coach.

“Time flies,” she said.

In March, Guelfi will host a retreat for healthcare workers on the beach to help them freshen up and focus on creating a little space and peace, she said.

Guelfi said she wants to do whatever she can to sing the praises of her colleagues and medical staff, who keep coming back day after day, no matter how tough those days and nights may be.

“I want to encourage the team to be of support to them,” she said. “After years in healthcare and nearing retirement, I want the next generation to know that this is a truly rewarding career. But it’s not about which hospital or system — it’s about what we bring to the bedside.”

Looking ahead, Guelfi said: “The third wave is slowing down and I don’t know about a fourth or fifth, but I plan to help our healthcare system in any way I can – knowing full well that this is a calling, that I will always be proud of.”

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