Saturday, September 19, 2020

Tales from the I.C.U.: Life as a Nurse During the Global Pandemic

Coronado resident Rebecca Sauer has strong opinions when it comes to wearing a mask, social distancing, and taking steps to stop the spread of COVID-19. As a critical care nurse in the I.C.U. at a large San Diego hospital, she knows the virus all too well.

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She discusses a recent experience with a younger patient—under the age of 30.

“She was a young, healthy woman,” says Rebecca. “She came in pregnant, almost at the end of her third trimester. When she deteriorated, they removed the baby by C-section. She may never meet that child, or he, his mother. Her lungs are destroyed. And, she’s not even the sickest patient in the unit.”

This isn’t Rebecca’s first rodeo. And this young woman isn’t the first she’s seen suffer with the virus.

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Rebecca, working in the I.C.U. in New York City.

Last April, Rebecca flew to New York City to work in the I.C.U. to help COVID-19 patients during the surge. She cared for several patients, including a female in her 40s who was in very bad shape. According to Rebecca, this patient was so low on oxygen she was placed on a ventilator. She was chemically paralyzed, kept alive by multiple IV medications, given a feeding tube, a urinary catheter, and a rectal tube. She suffered from terrible skin sloughing and blisters, even though she was treated to around-the-clock care.

Luckily, she made it.

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Others did not.

“It’s ugly, and it’s unfair, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason for who gets a mild case, and those for whom it’s fatal,” explained Rebecca back in May. “I feel like I’m getting the education of a lifetime, and the nursing experience of a career, but at a terrible cost.”

A patient being treated for COVID-19 requires many nurses, doctors, and medical staff to administer proper care.

Although Rebecca was glad to have the opportunity to help the patients she did, she says she wishes she could have gotten there sooner.

“I felt like I accomplished exactly what I went there to do,” says Rebecca. “The only regret I have is not getting there a week or two earlier, when those nurses’ needs were even more dire. I know I did the best I could, but I’ll probably always regret that the idea didn’t occur to me sooner.”

To read more about Rebecca’s experience in the I.C.U. in New York City,
see her diaries published here.

Back home in Coronado, Rebecca says she is dismayed at what she sees.

“I’m extremely troubled by what I’ve seen here, especially after the initial reopening,” says Rebecca. “It’s disheartening to see some shamefully bad behavior out there. It bothers me to see the island positively inundated by crowds, the majority of whom are not wearing masks or social distancing.”

Although masks are not particularly enjoyable, Rebecca says they are key to prevent the spread of the virus and subsequent lockdowns.

“No one needs to tell me how annoying masks are,” says Rebecca. “They’re hot, stifling, claustrophobic, and they fog up your glasses and get in the way of wearing cool earrings. But they’re also incomparably more comfortable than being on a ventilator. And they are absolutely key to avoiding lockdowns. This fact is incontrovertible.”

Patients on ventilators are monitored by many machines.

Rebecca says another reason people should be careful is that there are lot of unknowns when it comes to the virus. On the flip side, there’s a lot we do know, and most of it isn’t good.

“For example, we know that not only do those who survive critical Covid-19 infections sustain all manners of organ damage (often devastating and permanent) but most recently, it has come to light that asymptomatic carriers also show lung and other organ abnormalities as well,” says Rebecca. “That is very sobering.”

Rebecca laments that half-hearted efforts to control the spread of the virus (or blatant ignorance of it) have led to more lockdowns, school closures and economic hardship.  Rebecca shared that her husband has lost his job because of the closure of his place of business, and her son is struggling with virtual learning.

“I’m saddened that unlike most of the rest of the developed world, our country’s lack of appropriate response has led to schools not being able to safely reopen,” says Rebecca. “It didn’t have to be this way. My son just turned eight years old, and has an IEP. This is very damaging to him from a psychosocial and developmental perspective, and for every other child as well.”

Rebecca says that she understands that no one truly knows what the virus is like, unless they’ve experienced it first-hand, know someone who’s faced the virus, or work in a hospital.

“The foremost reason why I shared my diaries, was that there’s absolutely no way the general public can grasp the reality of the ICU,” says Rebecca. “I’ve been a critical care nurse for as long as I’ve been married—going on 15 years—and my own husband doesn’t understand what I do and see every day. I wanted to give people a real fly-on-the-wall insight into the horror and indignity of being critically ill.”

A patient being turned to help oxygen intake.

Rebecca says she is careful to surmise and draw conclusions only from her own personal experiences in nursing, or from scientists and epidemiologists of repute… not from politicians, pundits, and memes.

“We’re inundated with information, including a ton of misinformation from a hundred different directions, and I want to shout the truth from the rafters,” says Rebecca. “It’s very real. To anyone who thinks this is overblown, or some sort of wacky conspiracy, I ask that they read my diaries.”

Rebecca with her family.

When Rebecca isn’t busy nursing, she enjoys hanging out with her family, and when it’s safely outdoors, friends. They like to relax at the beach and swim in the bay, but don’t go out to eat often. When they do, they try to go when it’s not busy, and enjoy Villa Nueva, High Tide, or Clayton’s Bistro & Bakery. The family also likes Spiro’s Gyros, Nado Gelato, and anywhere Matt Heinecke is playing the guitar.

“Coronado simply feels like home,” says Rebecca. “I like knowing my neighbors, next door, across the street, and down the block. I like running into my son’s teachers at Boney’s, and my fitness instructors at Vons. I like knowing my pharmacists, cashiers, and business owners by name.”

Despite her busy schedule, Rebecca makes time to engage her creative side. She’s been doing mosaic for about 20 years, using stained glass, fused glass, and smalti, which is a chunky Venetian glass.

One of Rebecca’s many mosaics.

“Only in the last four years have I been really refining it,” says Rebecca. “I’m primarily inspired by the ocean.”

Rebecca was planning on making a mosaic surfboard with her son’s class for the CSF auction, but COVID arrived and shifted things around. She was also honored to have been chosen to be featured on a set of banners on Orange Avenue. She has had her work in a local gallery, and enjoys a business creating art for commission. (For more information on Rebecca’s mosaics, visit here website here.)

“Every time I come home over the bridge, I am blown away by how lucky I am to live in Coronado,” says Rebecca. “I’m grateful for my health, and for the health of my husband and young son. Being a part of this special community is a privilege I’ll never take for granted.”


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Christine Van Tuyl
Christine was born and raised in Texas, but moved to Coronado with her family as a teen in 1993. Although initially horrified by surfers, flannels and skateboards, she ultimately grew to love all things So-Cal. A graduate of UCSD, Christine got her first writing job on the KUSI ten o’clock news while simultaneously juggling a reporter position at the San Diego Community News Group. She worked as a public relations professional, a book editor, real estate professional, and a freelance writer before eventually succumbing to motherhood in 2008.A decade later, Christine resurfaced to start the Island Girl Blog, a Coronado lifestyle blog. In addition, she writes a monthly page for Crown City Magazine. Christine loves hanging out with her husband, Ian, and their two spirited daughters, Holland and Marley, who attend Village Elementary and Coronado Middle School. When she’s not working, you’ll find her practicing yoga, spilling coffee at school drop off, meeting friends for sushi, or sailing the Bay with her family and English Bulldog, Moshi. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to:


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