Postcards From The Pandemic: Cleveland Clinic ICU Nurse's COVID Stress

ICU nurses at Cleveland Clinic Marymount Hospital.
Megan DiFranco (front right) has been an intensive care nurse at Cleveland Clinic Marymount Hospital in Garfield Heights for 14 years. [Megan DiFranco]
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Megan DiFranco is an intensive care nurse at Cleveland Clinic Marymount Hospital in Garfield Heights. In her 14 years on the job, she has never gone through anything like the coronavirus pandemic.

Postcards From The Pandemic

Despite her experience treating severely ill patients, the level of intensity in caring for each patient with COVID-19 has ramped up the stress for health workers like DiFranco. 

“You’re in the room two hours in the beginning," she explained of the experience of caring for new coronavirus patients in the ICU. "You're intubating so you're putting them to sleep, putting them on the breathing machine. You're in the room for two hours at the beginning, just doing lines and drains and tubes.

 And you're in these rooms with, your gown and your and N95 (mask) and your face shield and your goggles. And now you're in a mask all the time. So you can go into, like, the break room and take off, like, your regular surgical mask to take a drink and take a break for a minute."

Panic attack

About 80 percent of the patients in the Marymount Hospital ICU are COVID patients, and they have had some rough days, DiFranco said.

You’ll be coasting for a little while and people will be discharged and it will be all positive. And then you’ll have a 12-hour period where three or four people die.

So at the beginning when it was more unknown and we were still trying to iron out the process and the kinks and stuff, it was super stressful. And I think it was probably the first week, honestly, when we were really getting COVID (patients). And I walked out of the room, and I sat at the nursing station, and I was like, I don't feel good. My heart's racing. It feels hard to breathe.

 And she's like, you having a panic attack. What are you thinking about right now? And I'm, like, honestly, when I walked out of work, the last thing my mom said to me that morning was, 'What happens if you bring it home to me? What if I do die?' I think that's stuck with me. And I didn't even realize it struck me. 

Megan DiFranco with her children.

Megan DiFranco and her three children ages 5 to 11 years old. [Megan DiFranco]

Keeping Her Family Safe

Those words hit home because DiFranco lives with her mother, who has health issues. She also has three children, ranging in age from 5 to 11 years old.

I would be lying if I said that I was not afraid to bring this home to my family.

I do have three kids and I do have an elderly mom. So it was always, like, bringing it home to them, do I not go home? Do I go somewhere else? But I didn't really have that option.

So when you're leaving work, you change back into your normal clothes. You put your scrubs in the designated bins. So then when I get home, I'll take off my home clothes at the back door, throw them in a basket that I have there. Then I run upstairs through my house in my underwear. My kids know, they're like, 'Don't touch, mom. Just let her go.'  

My five-year-old doesn't really know much except she just thinks COVID is ruining everything. She just talks about when COVID's done. The nine and 11-year-old, so they know more. But I had to talk very early on that more people are getting better than are not getting better.

DiFranco leaves her shoes at the door of her home when she returns from a shift in the ICU. [Megan DiFranco]

There is Hope

Despite the stress of this time, the nurses and other health workers on the ICU floor work together to find ways to lift each others' spirits. They celebrate the successes when a patient gets better and is moved out of ICU to another area of the hospital.

So now that I've seen, like, the people going home and with the people being discharged, there's hope. It’s not all doom and gloom.

We do a clap out. So we line the halls and then everyone has signs out and then you clap as they bring them by. And the patients will like give us thumbs up or they'll be crying. And those are the best days to work when you're part of one of those.

The ICU staff makes signs and pictures to tape to the glass doors to present positive messages to the patients and other staff. "‘Be strong.' 'You’ve got this.' 'Sunny days are ahead.' And sometimes they are just rainbows or hearts. It’s nice to see something colorful and cheery," says DiFranco. [Megan DiFranco]

She is grateful for the appreciation and gratitude that frontline workers including nurses are receiving.

“I totally think we all should be patting ourselves on the back right now because we are going through a time that no one could have predicted, and we don’t know what’s yet to come,” she said.

Like many others, DiFranco longs for the days when the pandemic has subsided and she can return to sitting with friends, watching the sunset somewhere, and enjoying life.

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