Feelings from the Frontline

Emma Grey

Emma Grey eight hours into a twelve hour shift on a COVID positive unit.

At 7:30, whether it’s a.m. or p.m., I physically clock out from work. But, I wish it was that simple for my mind, that is still “clocked in” until 10 p.m., if not later. There are nights that I wake up at 3 a.m. before the next shift and find my heart pounding out of my chest, with a heart rate over 100, and a million thoughts swarming through my head. When I catch my breath and open my eyes, I realize I’m dreaming about work, my patients, messing something up, and putting a person’s life in jeopardy. 

But the truth is, this isn’t just some bad dream. This has been a typical work night for me since the beginning of March. I currently am a Registered Nurse in Philadelphia, where my unit was converted to one of the hospital’s first COVID positive units. When I tell my co-workers about my sleepless night, they nod their heads, replying, “Yup, me too. Hasn’t stopped since this all started.” 

This is what it’s like to be on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s something that none of us ever expected or agreed to do, but here we are, doing it willingly and coming back each day time and time again. And while being a “healthcare hero” is an honor, we need to address that it’s taking a more significant toll on our mental health than we could have ever imagined. Or maybe more than we even currently imagine.

Grey shortly after her floor was converted to a COVID-19 positive floor.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to work to take care of patients suffering from COVID-19. And when I say, to work, I mean to try. There are moments where you feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle from the second you get a report on your patients at 7 a.m. You’re busting your ass all day, sweating, always on your feet, donning and doffing your PPE, and going nonstop for 12 hours. And when you wash your hands for the millionth time after your 12 hour shift, you leave work always wondering if you did your best. 

It’s become one of those types of tiredness that simply can only be fixed by a massive hug from your Mom or a cold beer with your best friend. All you want to do is be with your family or friends or go somewhere you love. But, the reality is you can’t. And the icing on this pandemic cake is that everyone who you love and wants to see you, also really doesn’t want to see you. They miss you, but they don’t want to risk being around you. So you’re left out. There is a specific kind of FOMO seeing your friends seeing their other friends, their families, practicing social distancing, but in a more relaxed version of yours. 

What they don’t tell you about being a “hero” is that you’re even more socially isolated than before. In these moments of an uphill battle or loneliness, I’ve found myself faced with moments of rare, raw humanity. These moments aren’t the feel-good ones that you see on John Krasinski’s “Some Good News.” These moments don’t make it to Tik-Tok, but they are just as important. Moments where you are holding up an iPad while a family looks at their parents, crying, knowing they are saying their last “I love yous”, trying to get as many as possible in before the call is over. The feeling that you get when an elderly man, with a sick son across the hall, both COVID positive, looks at you in the eyes and says, “I am going to die, aren’t I?” is gut-wrenching. 

When you get home and leave your shoes outside your apartment and throw your scrubs in the wash, it’s still with you. There isn’t a metaphorical Gatorade or Michael Jordan’s “secret stuff” to help you replenish for the trauma of losing a patient. I catch myself crying at the simplest things. I know there’s no good Hallmark card for this, but it still hurts hearing those you love to say that “they don’t think they should be around you right now”. Are they right? A hundred percent. Does it hurt? A hundred percent. But I keep going, and since I keep showing up, I have had to find ways to cope with everything that is happening around me. 

Grey and co-worker getting ready for “just another day at the office”.

Since March, the word “PPE” has become a Google favorite. The commonly used medical term for personal protective equipment has now become the talk of the town. Our country is scrambling to find more physical PPE, like masks, gowns, respirators, and gloves. And they’re not wrong; we need it. But there’s a genuine part of me that wishes there was the same amount of urgency around “emotional PPE”. 

How, as a community, can “emotional PPE” be provided to not only frontline workers but everyday people living through this? For me, I have found this type of “equipment” in my co-workers, my hospital’s resources, my family, and myself. My hospital has been able to provide free peer counseling during the pandemic. We are now able to debrief with a trained mental health professional for free after something really shakes you up at work.

I’ve said earlier that COVID had brought moments of raw, rare humanity, and I still see that with my co-workers. They can be described by every positive word known to humankind. They are the only in-person contact I see besides patients, and they are going through the same experiences as me. It feels good to share these experiences, knowing that I am not alone. In these “unprecedented times”, I also find myself turning to my very precedent family and friends. Whether it’s a funny Snapchat from  my best friends, “The Chicklets,” or a group Facetime with the Grey Fam, I feel so lucky to have people in my life who listen and validate my feelings. People like that are more valuable than all the hand-sanitizer and toilet paper in the world. 

And, sometimes, the most “heroic” thing you can do is be your own emotional PPE at times. I am on my own on my days off now, and I have tried every de-stress tactic you can find on a Buzzfeed article. I have found solace in doing yoga and focusing on my breathing. It’s incredible how many times I’ve heard someone say that, but it’s even more amazing what taking a couple deep, cleansing breaths can do for your mind. I run and walk outside as much as possible on my days off. I listen to Whitney, Stevie, Dave, the JoBros, and more and dance in my apartment. At night, I use a weighted blanket, turn on some white noise, and try to create a healthy sleep environment; the list goes on. 

Grey and co-workers during Nurses week celebrating the Philadelphia community.

Without this “emotional PPE”, I don’t think we as nurses or other frontline workers would be able to continue to do our jobs and take care of ourselves. And when it seems like there is a shortage of “emotional PPE”, there are always people who want to help. It’s incredible the support we’ve seen from others outside the hospital, and I completely encourage it. It helps keep us going. But I hope you don’t forget about supporting yourself as well. Don’t forget your mask, of course, but try to remember your emotional personal protective equipment too. It feels nice to be considered “essential”, but really, we are all essential when it comes to taking care of ourselves.

We’re on the front lines. We are the first line. But the “front line” only works if there is the backup. If there’s a second line, a third line, to support and bolster the front line. And that’s not just for this pandemic. Dealing with anxiety and mental health, you are the “front line”. You can’t do it alone; you need the backup. For me, the second line is my family, friends, anyone who is reaching out a hand and saying, “I see you. I hear you. What can I do for you?” The third line is what I believe to be a sense of community. A sense of belonging to something that matters, whether that be a group of nurses, a team, a club, a family, a group of friends. I hope we take the time during this pandemic to realize that we are all essential and necessary. We cannot show up physically without showing up mentally. As businesses and restaurants start to open and life regains some normalcy, I hope that everyone will remember that the frontline workers will still be treating COVID-19 patients. And we will need your second and third line backup to get through the tough days. If we all show up for ourselves first and foremost, armed with our emotional PPE, we can show up for others. 


24 Replies to “Feelings from the Frontlines.”

  1. Emma-thank you for sharing this very human story; as a nurse you help people every day and now you have helped others who read your story who may be struggling emotionally during this pandemic. You have helped us. We love you and are so very proud of you. Mom & Dad😊

    1. Emma, you are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your beautifully written and touching story. You have a wonderful family and I know they are so proud of you. I wish you tons of emotional PPE. Lots of Love, Cynthia aka one of mom’s “chicklets”

    2. This was such a great story to stumble on today. Thanks, Emma. Great to see your heart alive in your work! Thanks for all you do. Tenui nec dimittam!

      Benjamin Ryan

  2. What a powerful and revealing essay. The responsibilities you deal with every day are hard for the rest of us civilians to imagine, so thank you for sharing this, Emma, and thank you for the work you are doing. I pray for your safety and well being every day.

  3. Emma, thanks for your heartfelt and thoughtful words. So insightful and heart breaking My heart goes out to those of you who are on the frontline. Know that you and your coworkers are in my prayers.
    Thanks for your selfless, caring and loving dedication.

  4. Wow Emma! Very profound depiction of the journey you are on. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for showing up and taking care of your patients. I pray your emotional PPE will give you balance and serenity in due time. You have an amazing support system in your life. You are an amazing young woman. 💜☮️

  5. Emma,
    We continue to pray for you and all you work with and work for. We know the toll this has taken and are amazed at the depth of your resilience. When we held you as a newborn we knew you were destined to do great things and be a hero to all of us. We love you…
    The Krencicki family

  6. Emma, you enabled many to better understand the frontline struggles via this candid view into your daily life during the pandemic. Sincere gratitude for what you and many other healthcare heroes are doing for patients every day. You all are making a difference. God bless.

  7. Emma, Thank you sharing your story with everyone. I think most people, myself included, do not appreciate the physical and mental toll your professions has endured these past few months. You words are so important not only today but for the future. I remember meeting you the first time and Sean said you were his friend. I could tell you and Sean would be friends forever. He was truly blessed to have you in his life. We are truly blessed to call you part of our family. Love you and God Bless. Chris and Norma Locke

  8. Emma – You are AMAZING! Thank you for sharing the raw emotion of being the “Front Line.” The patients you care for are in special hands. You are sensitive and caring and super smart! We are all thinking about you and your team. Take care!

  9. Knowing why you do what you do, I am praying that you and your peers can find strength in our hopes and wishes. Nursing is a calling, and you have great fortitude. Please take care.
    Knowing your family, they raise wonderful kids! Two of us seniors (74&76) really feel loved by health professionals.

    Love and blessings,
    Mel and Yolie

  10. Dear Emma – thank you for sharing your gifts with the people of Philadelphia and your words of wisdom and inspiration through this blog. You have a special family and know they are busting with pride and love for you. May God wrap his loving arms around you, keep you safe and give you the strength in the days ahead,

    Kathy Mal – another one of mom’s “Chicklets”

  11. Dear Emma – thank you for sharing your gifts with the people of Philadelphia and your words of wisdom and inspiration through this blog. You have a special family and know they are busting with pride and love for you. May God wrap his loving arms around you, keep you safe and give you the strength in the days ahead,

    Kathy Mal – another one of mom’s “Chicklets”

  12. Emma, I have thought of you during this crisis. I worried about you, a new nurse, working in an epicenter of covid cases.
    But now, reading your essay, I see amazing growth in you. I hear the power of your empathy as you describe an awareness of your patient’s suffering balanced with your instinct and desire to help. Although it is hard to process all the humanity you witness, what I hear you saying is that you rely on the strength your empathy and self-awareness gives you to get through these long shifts and fretful sleeps.
    I love the image of “emotional PPE” as part of a nursing practice… and life! I am relieved to learn that the hospital supports you and that you make time to care for your health. And come on, how fun is a Grey Fam ZOOM? We need these moments. Declaring my own as “emotional PPE” will help me to appreciate them more.
    Emma, you are doing important work and it matters deeply to your patients. I have learned this because my Dad contracted the virus and we are separated. I think of you to remind me that there are wonderful nurses on every team and that he is in good hands. Thank you.

  13. E, reading this over and over again holding back tears thinking of what you’re going through and how proud I am of you. I haven’t stopped thinking of you at all during these months. Thank you so much for sharing this and making us all better understand the struggles of being on the frontlines. You are a hero and I love you so much

  14. Emma – thank you so much for sharing your journey but more importantly thank you for being on the front line. It takes a very special person to always put others before themselves.

  15. Dear sweet Emma- what do you say to someone you still see as the 12 year old your daughter used to play with that’s out there saving the world.? Thank you. For showing up. For staying strong. For sharing your life with us. Keep the faith and know you and your patients are always in our thoughts.

  16. So young, so educated, so dedicated, so willing, so prepared, so ready…to put to use what text books contained and professors proclaimed.

    How tragic that despite all this, Emma, when you were faced with dealing with a virus so new, so unprecedented, so pervasive, so infectious, so cruel, so deadly, you found that it could bypass any attempt you made at its destruction.

    And understandably, Emma, from your heart come words so filled with truth, honesty, passion, pride, sorrow, sincerity, desperation, exhaustion and pleading

    But in your heart and soul also is hope, Emma, and i will pray that in your mind and body there will be an increase of courage, strength, perseverance, and endurance. I commend you for all that ypu have done to make your patients happy, comfortable, and even well again. Each day, will have its dawn and sunset. What happens in between is rarely predictable. But i will be earnest in my prayer, because if The Master Planner, our God, is left out of this equation , then there is no hope for a cure ! (With pride and joy, I sign off as Adrienne Newton’s Grandmother)

  17. Beautifully written, true and raw reflection, Emma. Thank you for taking the time to share this very important perspective of the importance of “Emotional PPE” with us. God bless you and all our health care workers. Please know we pray for strength and comfort for you and are so very grateful for you. Love, Mrs. Carlsen (and mama of 2 RNs who misses being able to hug her girls too.❤️)

  18. Emma, God bless you and all of the frontline workers. I am so proud of you! Thank you for what you do and your words are so well written and have true meaning of life during these trying times. Stay strong and stay safe also know we are all hear to support you and everyone. Let’s get through this together. Love you kiddo

  19. Emma,
    Thank you for the work you are doing, especially the emotional part. And thank you for being such a great reporter of your experiences and those of others who are there with you. I hope that soon you can have a massive hug from mom and a cold beer with your best friends.
    Prof. Bill Rose (anatomy & physiology 2014 spring)

  20. Emma,
    This is so well expressed. My thoughts are with you during this hard time and I sincerely thank you for the work you are doing! I hope you get a chance to remember the sunny beaches of Raglan to help you de-stress!

    Dr. Getchell

  21. Emma, if you didn’t become a RN you could truly have been a writer! Such an inspirational story. You should be so proud of your work! Nanny would have been so proud of you!
    Aunt Mary

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