Some heroes wear masks; health professionals give an inside look behind the scenes during pandemic

By Leanne Hamilton

Executive Editor reporting from Pittsfield, Mass.

Emma Merritt, 23, walks into her daily shift at the emergency department at the Berkshire Medical Complex in Pittsfield, Mass. Monitors beep as patients fill every room, while still more people wait to be seen. More and more patients around Merritt’s age, older and even younger, are finding themselves in the hospital. They struggle to breathe without the assistance of a ventilator. Even though attempts to keep COVID positive patients in air tight rooms have been made, the growing numbers of positive patients have left nurses like Merritt no choice but to use regular rooms to house these sick patients. 

“In recent weeks, it’s been incredibly stressful. Supplies are low and there are new travelers [travel nurses for travel assignments that were hired as extra staff during the COVID crisis] in the hospital that aren’t used to the way we do things here. This new disease and these new faces make us feel like strangers in our own department,” said Merritt, a registered nurse.

 While we all stay at home safe from potential exposure to COVID19, our nurses and doctors risk exposure everyday walking through those hospital doors. They work around the clock on the frontlines of this pandemic to care for not only those of us that have contracted COVID19, but the everyday patients that need to be in the hospital for other illnesses. 

“Working in the hospital during this pandemic has been nerve wracking and scary. We all leave our families everyday knowing there is a chance regardless of how much PPE [personal protective equipment] we have on, that we could contract the virus and ultimately bring it home to our families” said Caroline Whitman, a Unit Assistant in the ED at Berkshire Medical Complex, as well as my cousin. “Thankfully now my hospital has begun providing us with hospital scrubs so my coworkers and I can change out of them and into our normal clothes before leaving work. Besides making sure all my things from work were cleaned, I have been disinfecting at least four4 times a week around my house.” 

“We still have regular people come in, such as overdoses, trauma, and psych consultations, on top of a virus that we really know nothing about,” Merritt said through a phone interview.  When these nurses come in for a shift, they risk exposing themselves to COVID positive patients, but they also risk the chance of exposing other patients to the virus. 

To minimize the risk, the staff take extra precautions. “We are required to always have a mask and goggles on at all times. Going into a patient’s room suspected of COVID19, we need to use n95 masks. Wash your hands, not to touch anything, wear different gloves, just always be conscious of your surroundings,” said Merritt. Because there are too few masks, they need to reuse them rather than change masks between patients. “We get one at the beginning of a shift and need to have that one for the entire shift.” Not only do these nurses and doctors have to worry about exposing themselves and other patients, but their families they go home to at the end of a long shift. 

“Another thing that keeps me going even when I’m tired or scared is remembering that my patients I help treat are also scared”

Caroline Whitman, ED Unit Assistant at Berkshire Medical Complex

When she treats patients, COVID positive or otherwise, Whitman said she follows every possible safety protocol to keep patients safe. “To be quite honest I don’t necessarily think about it. At this point in the pandemic we treat everyone as if they have the virus,” said Whitman. “We don’t allow ourselves to possibly expose another patient; washing hands and changing scrubs when needed, making sure possible COVID rooms are deep cleaned and UV ray treated.”

Being on the frontlines doesn’t allow much time to worry about oneself when taking care of others. Each nurse and doctor knows they can contract the virus, but try to keep fear at bay.

“I definitely have my concerns and worry being on the frontlines. But I always try to remind myself that not only can I catch it at work, but I could also catch it out in the community,” said Whitman. “Another thing that keeps me going even when I’m tired or scared is remembering that my patients I help treat are also scared, especially now that most hospitals aren’t allowing visitors. They need us even more. I try my best to be a backup family member to my patients and treat them like I would my own.” 

Emma Merritt says the fear of the virus didn’t really hit her until more and more patients came into the ED. “I’m seeing people my age come in with it and I think ‘Oh my god’. I live with my parents so I could expose them to it. Thankfully we are able to take care of our scrubs at work and not have to worry about bringing them home.” 

As for the actual count of COVID positive patients, there isn’t an exact number. “We never know if a person is truly COVID positive until about 5-7 days after we have tested them. The doctors and nurses at our hospital and within the Emergency Department are pretty good at determining if someone is going to test positive,” Whitman said. “I have been in direct contact with about 10, and those are the ones that I have been screened for. I’m sure there are more to come.”

Currently there is no known vaccine or cure for COVID19, however, many are working hard to develop a vaccine, or at least a solid treatment to combat the virus. Jenna Hamilton, also my cousin and a staff member in the manufacturing department at Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing in Lee, Mass., is doing just that. “We have the most physical contact with the product and are responsible for filling vials, syringes, and cartridges (depending on what the client wants). We receive product from the client and formulate it into a liquid form using pre-sterilized utensils and materials” said Hamilton. This product can come in powdered form, but cannot be explained further as Hamilton is under contract and cannot breach specific information. 

When COVID19 made its debut in the U.S., those at Berkshire Sterile were eager to join the fight against the virus. “Work has certainly been very busy ever since COVID-19 has affected the world. “When clients came forward with plans to aid people who are affected (or could be) with Coronavirus, the president of our company decided to start doing the COVID-19 fills on the weekends (when we are normally closed). Staff from several different departments have been working longer or extra hours because of it, but are happy to help and are excited to be a part of these developments.”

While departments are working on developments, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no miracle cure, Hamilton said. “Some people envision that we have a miracle COVID-19 vaccine (only in a perfect world). I always try to explain to people that it’s important to know what Coronavirus targets in the body,” Hamilton explained, noting that the lungs are particularly vulnerable to this virus. “Pharmaceutical companies are developing products to help strengthen those parts of the body to combat this virus. These products are mainly to boost the immune system and/or support lung health.

“I’m very lucky to work in a clean room during this time, it’s probably one of the safest places to be!” Hamilton said, explaining that the environment for developing these products requires sterile environments that are cleaned daily. “There are several barriers before getting into the clean room and they are constantly being cleaned across shifts,”  Hamilton said. “Staff have full gowning too, of course. We have been using social distancing and not letting rooms get too crowded. A lot more people who are able to work from home are doing so. We also keep Lysol and hand sanitizer on deck!”

While we grow tired of the same four walls, our nurses and doctors work around the clock on the frontlines to help us see a day outside of quarantine. Manufacturers such as Jenna Hamilton may be more behind the scenes, but they are tirelessly working on breakthrough treatments, so that COVID19 can no longer be such a threat. 

They have a few words of advice for those that don’t think this virus is something to take seriously. “It’s frustrating because the reason that we are short on masks and having to have all these extra travelers is because these young people won’t stay away from each other,” said Merritt. “It can be up to two weeks from when you get exposed and when you start showing symptoms. We could expose 20-50 people and not even know! Just because you feel healthy doesn’t mean there isn’t something inside you.” 

Caroline Whitman pleads for people to just stay home. She understands it’s no fun being stuck inside, but the more we limit the chance of the virus spreading, the sooner we can end quarantine and she can see fewer patients in the hospital. 

“STAY HOME! Regardless of if you are asymptomatic you could be a carrier of the virus. Those around you who may have compromised immune systems will not be okay,” said Whitman. “My coworkers and I go to work every day to help fight this virus so that you and your family are safe. Stay home for us!”