In early March 2022, the world’s known COVID-19 death toll surpassed 6 million people—a grim milestone that also ushered in the third year of the pandemic. Yet even in the U.S.’s new endemic phase, with easing restrictions and decreasing caseloads, many unknowns remain and the toll on the medical community is still fresh. To understand the experiences of frontline workers, we asked a group of Endicott nurses—alumni, current students, even instructors—to reflect on how day-to-day life and healthcare work shifted throughout the pandemic. Their stories—shared below in their own words—are powerful, and filled with perseverance, empathy, and resilience.
Matthew Medina M’15 (pictured above)
Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center, Boston
When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to deliver babies. For a while, I thought that meant med school but I grew up among nurses. When the time came to choose a path, I knew nursing was it. The pandemic didn’t change or deter me. Birthing families were still in need of compassionate family-centered care, but now with more PPE. Most of our patients are publicly insured and so many have housing needs. Living in shelters, sharing spaces with strangers in family housing, having minimal access to preventative healthcare—our patients who were deemed low-risk from an obstetrical perspective became most at-risk of COVID exposure, especially in the earliest stages of the disease. This risk didn’t deter the team I work on, nor I. It made us work harder to protect the sacredness of birth with minimal intervention as is our skill set and mission. I saw the pandemic with a wider lens in my nursing supervisor side gig. Eye. Opening. I spent time out of my comfort zone in Labor & Delivery to see the rest of the hospital in symphony. I saw some of the best nurses I’ve ever worked with tackle new and scary challenges, cry at immeasurable loss and stress, and rise from those ashes.
I found it my role to act as cheerleader, but I saw the ugly side of things as well. Filled morgue space and trailers of those who didn’t fit into that space. Rationing of PPE. I had to call the CFO of the hospital (not a clinician) to ask permission to be allowed into the Executive Suite of the hospital, where coveted supplies of N95s were kept, when I ran out of the 6 spare masks that I had been allotted access for the 12-hour shift and staff of ~75. I had to sign my life away when I took the small # of masks that the CFO would allow at 2 a.m. and count them like narcotics with the security personnel who let me in. I didn’t like that side of my job. Shouting encouragement to a birthing person who is pushing just the right way to bring out their newborn—that’s more my speed.
I’ll always be thankful that I had family to come home to after long shifts in way too hot PPE. My husband, Jesse, kept me grounded and even when I didn’t want to talk about what I’d seen, he’d just be there with a hug to help me deal.
Samantha Sapienti M’22
Shields Surgery Center, Medford
I was working in an ICU that I had been in for four years so far. I held, like everyone else, and rode the waves that came underneath us. At first, I thought it was going to be like a cold or flu, then after seeing multiple people die each shift, I became paralyzed with fear. Coworkers and I would sit in a cold sweat and exchange looks of horror between glass. After the first year, I left ICU feeling burnt out and questioning my career a lot. I changed specialties and locations. It got me away from COVID almost entirely. I certainly have had enough of that for a lifetime.
I went from feeling not strong or prepared enough to confident and sure about my role, to forgotten and taken as low hanging fruit for American corporate healthcare. In the early days we didn’t have enough supplies, we didn’t have answers, and we were the only people that others looked to for answers. Each day, we would try a new medication or treatment method. Days off, I would walk for miles, exercise for hours, sometimes cry, and get lost in television and paint by number. Coworker friends and I would isolate socially together for holidays and weekends. We used humor to push through the anger and fear. How soon we learned as a community firstly how important we actually were, and how unimportant the world may have perceived us to be pre-COVID. In a heartbeat we observed how the world will turn upside down without nurses. The system we thought we needed actually needs us!
Allison Theriault ’23
Addison Gilbert Hospital, Gloucester
From a young age, I’ve been passionate about providing support to others during difficult times, and knew that nursing would be a career that would allow me to utilize this. I am currently in the second semester of my junior year at Endicott, which has provided me with opportunities to attend clinical rotations at Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston Medical Center, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and Lawrence General Hospital.
When the pandemic started, I was in my freshman year of nursing school at Endicott. We ended up getting sent home from campus, and began Zoom classes. Our professors had to get creative. We were sent home with a package of materials and had to practice assessments on our family members, who acted as patients.
I began working as a nursing assistant at Addison Gilbert Hospital on Steele 1, which is a Med-Surg/Telemetry unit, in June of 2021. It wasn't until the more recent [delta and omicron] waves that we began admitting COVID patients. The numbers continued to climb until the majority of our unit was COVID positive. We were also dealing with this on top of the staffing issues that all hospitals are facing as a result of the pandemic. As nursing aides, we’re expected to provide direct patient care, including recording vital signs, washing patients, feeding those who cannot do so themselves, among many other tasks. We were doing all of this in full PPE. Our faces would often be rubbed red and raw from wearing the N95 for long shifts.
Personally, I, among all other healthcare workers who were in the same position, had to worry about taking COVID home to my family. We were dealing with the increase in cases right around the holidays, which brought a lot of stress. Despite all of the struggles that we faced, I was lucky to be working alongside such a supportive team. We managed to guide each other through these uncertain times.
Kayla Vitukevich M’21
Mass General Hospital, Boston
Nursing felt like the career that would make me feel like I’d have the most impact in the world and feel fulfilled myself. When the pandemic began, I was working full-time at Mass General Hospital, as a clinical instructor for sophomore Endicott nursing students, and was in my second semester as a student at Endicott for my master’s degree.
Once I realized the severity of COVID and how little we knew at the beginning, I was extremely worried and overwhelmed. There were many times when I had no idea how I was going to handle it all. But I also knew that, as a nurse working in the ICU, I had to keep showing up and I felt empowered and honored in a way that I was able to do that, so I tried to stick with that mindset when the days got really hard. Looking back, I found comfort and reassurance from the students in clinicals that I was teaching because I was responsible for continuing to give them some form of a clinical experience they deserved. Their desire and ambition to become nurses and to trust me to guide them gave me the extra boost I needed to keep showing up as best as I could. Being an ICU nurse during the pandemic had many, many challenges but it has made me even more eager than I already was about continuing my nursing career.
Being an ICU nurse for over 10 years, dealing with suffering isn’t foreign to me. I’ve learned to do my best at building a barrier in order to prevent the emotionally exhausting and difficult patient situations from affecting me outside of my 12-hour shifts. The suffering in isolation and families saying goodbye to loved ones via Zoom that we witnessed during some of the peaks of the pandemic was a level of suffering beyond what I have experienced in my career—and I hope to never experience again. I just had to figure out how to deal with it, move on, and keep going because I had to.
My-The Trinh M’22
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston
I still vividly remember our first COVID patient. I was a nurse in a medical-surgical unit at BIDMC. One nurse assigned to the patient wore full PPE and I could feel the palpable tension on the floor as the patient was being transferred from the ICU. We were all terrified because we knew nothing about COVID. Within a week, as things escalated, and as the numbers increased, everything changed.
I volunteered to be redeployed to a makeshift ICU unit to help the ICU nurses. My first day on the unit was pretty distressing because the patient was young and so, so sick. The patient was intubated, prone (I had never even heard of that term until then!), heavily sedated, paralyzed, on pressors (medications to keep their blood pressure up), and on this machine called the “Arctic sun” to regulate temperature. The patient had two med-surg nurses and one ICU nurse and we spent all day in that room with our full gear on trying to keep the patient alive.
It was difficult not seeing my family for months because I was so scared of giving them COVID and seeing people complain about something as simple as having to social distance, stay home, wear masks, or get vaccinated on social media or in the news. One of the most difficult things for me was that these patients had to die alone, isolated from their families. On many levels, I am still processing what happened.
Even now, after our latest surge, we are dealing with the repercussions of COVID. I have a young patient with no past medical history who has been in the hospital for 175 days. I offered to wash the patient’s hair the other day and their excitement and the way their face lit up made me feel the most accomplished as a nurse. I still haven’t flown anywhere since the pandemic and would love to go on a long vacation somewhere tropical and relaxing!
Jessica Spinali ’19
Fenway Community Health
Once I started nursing school, I realized that there are communities of people who do not receive the same level of healthcare as others for some disqualifying factor such as gender identity, sexuality, race, immigration status, gender, or substance use, and this prompted me to want to care for these folks on a community-level rather than the bedside.
When the pandemic hit, I was a nurse and a student attending Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, slightly more than halfway done with a Master’s of Science of Nursing and Masters of Public Health joint degree. When I graduated, I immediately applied to Fenway Community Health Center, a center renowned for their expertise in LGBTQ+ medicine and low threshold care.
We are now almost exactly a year from my hire date and still in a pandemic. I have seen the cracks in the healthcare system, but also some of the victories. Prior to COVID, the ACCESS Drug User Health Program was a refuge for unhoused folks who were struggling with substance use disorder. It was a place they could come, sit, chat, eat, and ultimately relax and connect with staff and each other. There would be ladies’ nights and movie nights for our clients to enjoy, but also ways to access medical care and case management. We are also a fully operational syringe exchange; we provide an extremely essential service to those who inject drugs.
We did not shut down during the pandemic but found ways to provide syringe exchanges and harm reduction, while reducing person to person contact. However, because of COVID protocols, we struggle to offer some of the basic necessities that we used to, like a place to warm up on a frigid day. We often experience COVID breakouts in shelters, then have to manage emergency housing and isolation for our unhoused clients who test positive and are no longer welcome in shelters. We have had to navigate overdose responses, client crises, changing protocols, New England weather, and our own personal lives while also navigating a pandemic.
The most challenging part is feeling like you are never doing enough to serve your clients, who are worthy of love and appreciation as well as the same quality of care and access that the rest of us receive. So, when something prevents that from happening, it’s a terrible feeling that you bring home and marinate in. Self-care is essential in this line of work. Taking care of yourself by doing things that bring you peace and happiness is a must. I’m so thankful for and appreciative of my clients for the joy they bring us and that they provide me with a job I absolutely adore.
Jolanta Astrauskaite ’19 M’22
In November 2019, I accepted a new position as an Emergency Department (ED) nurse at the MGB Salem Hospital. In January 2020, news spread about the virus in China, and at the time I thought, “It’s far away. We are going to be okay.”
In March, we started getting more and more sick people in the ED. I watched as the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Map covered the world in red dots. It was spreading very fast. In the following weeks and months, I was afraid to bring the virus home and infect my family, but it never crossed my mind to quit. Who is going to work? Who is going to help these sick people? Besides, I wanted to know what was going on with the virus, the signs and symptoms of the illness, its treatment options.
I was anxious and afraid, washed my hands constantly, changed my work clothes downstairs, and washed them separately. I was careful at work and used every precaution possible. Once I stopped following the map, my anxiety subsided. I got myself together and was ready to do everything I could. I knew how to protect myself, but new symptoms of the virus kept emerging. Almost every day, we found something new. The worst was the unknown. How long will it last? How do we stop it? How long can we run on low supplies and short-staff? The most heartbreaking part was watching people die, struggling to catch their breath, fighting the virus all alone, and scared for their lives.
We all tried our best to save every single one of our patients. Unfortunately, we had lost many battles. At work, we had to help and support each other. We had to support patients and their families while dealing with our fears and traumatic demons.