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Opinion: A local nurse learns to cope with the coronavirus toll 

click to enlarge Kelsi Miller always wanted to be a nurse. - COURTESY KELSI MILLER
  • Courtesy Kelsi Miller
  • Kelsi Miller always wanted to be a nurse.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has the potential to completely change the way society functions. Young people are beginning their adult lives in a world they couldn’t possibly have predicted. Those new to the medical field must have to dig deep to find the courage to work in the midst of sheer terror.

Kelsi Miller, a 23-year-old Springs native, says she has always been drawn to health care and helping people in a way that merges compassion and science. In 2019, she graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Beth-El College of Nursing. It was all going according to plan as she started her life as a registered nurse. She applied to be an intensive care unit nurse at a local hospital and was over the moon with excitement when she finally landed her dream job at the end of last summer.

She admits, “I had a very romanticized thought of nursing.” While she did expect a lot of growth and learning, she could never have expected that would happen working in an ICU during a pandemic.

In late February and early March, when Miller began receiving emails of incident reports, and changing protocols and policies, she knew this was going to be far more challenging than she could ever have imagined. Miller says “seeing everyone gowned up in full PPE [personal protective equipment], it just put it into realization this is [real], I am going to have to wear a mask, double gloves, face shields, the whole 12 to 13 hours I’m here.”

Miller says the journey has been overwhelming. “I didn’t know what to expect from the disease. I mean, medical experts didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I was very scared and fearful. I live with my mother, who is in her early 50s. ... [At that time] they were saying the worst effects were with people who were in the elderly population, but I was working with patients in their 40s and 50s who were extremely sick on breathing tubes and ventilators.”

Miller describes one patient who was maxing out a ventilator’s settings and whose oxygen saturation was well below a healthy adult’s. She had been medically sedated and when taken off, she didn’t wake up; her neurological functions had ceased. Even moving her was not recommended.

“At this point I am standing looking at her through glass… thinking about my duties as a nurse… to continue a plan of care, to think of recommendations, to give my patient the best care possible. … I was spitballing, firing things off when the respiratory therapist put his hand on my back and looked at me and through body language communicated, ‘We’re doing all we can do,’” Miller says.
As a new nurse already struggling with confidence, it hit her hard to think that the care she could provide was tapped out. Eventually, the patient’s body shut down. “It was horrific, and then she passed,” Miller says.
Thinking back, Miller can see how experiences like this affected her mental health. “I was in a hypervigilant, anxious sense of awareness all the time, dreading work and getting off work,” she says.

Miller quarantined herself, fearful she was asymptomatic and could infect others. “I am a very social person and not being able to socially interact with my support system was incredibly hard for me. Not being able to talk about something that not only I didn’t know how to deal with but the whole country didn’t know how to deal with, was incredibly hard,” she says.

“I am an empath, and this is in no way nonchalant, but learning how to detach is against my nature,” she continues. “I had to tell myself this is a novel virus, we are not in a fantasy land and this is not a fantasy world. We do our best but we just can’t save everyone. I had to tell myself this and I had to become OK with that.”

Miller says it was the wisdom of other medical professionals and her mom that helped her through to this resolve.

“Most mornings, I would come home from work, hop straight into the shower and just cry, and would cry out to God begging him for this to end, because it was too much.”

As cases across the country begin to spike and reach new peaks, Miller offers some advice: “Please continue to wear your masks, please continue to abide by the social distancing rules, and wash your hands,” she says. ”It’s not just about you and your family, it’s about all of us as a whole. This very narrow mindset [makes some] feel as if they are invincible to this disease and there is no need to protect themselves, which is also not protecting the people they are around. Take a second and realize that the virus is very real ... and actual people died.”

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