Commentary: A beloved neighbor and nurse humanizes the COVID-19 crisis

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Message for the health care workers at the DaVita Dialysis Center on Davison Road (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

By Paul Rozycki

With the 24/7 news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are days when the story becomes nothing more than a blur of infection numbers, death rates, protests, presidential press conferences, and predictions about when the curve will flatten, or when a vaccine with be found.  When the tsunami of news and numbers is so overwhelming, it’s easy to lose sight of the true impact of the crisis on individuals.

Sometimes it just takes the voice of one person to humanize the crisis in a way that all the numbers, charts, statistics, and medical reports can’t.

Shelly Rettberg-Chuleas is our neighbor in the East Court area.  We’ve known Shelly and her family for years, went to her wedding, attended family gatherings, celebrated her son’s graduation, and exchanged greetings over the backyard fence as our pets checked each other out.  She attended Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint as she earned her nursing degree almost a decade ago.

Shelly Rettburg-Chuleas, in face mask and cap made by her sister and nephew (Photo provided by Rettburg-Chuleas)

Shelly is now a nurse at a local hospital, and like all those in the health care profession, she has been dealing with the overwhelming impact of the COVID-19 crisis daily.  Like many health care workers, she’s lost colleagues to the virus in the recent months.  By every measure, it’s an emotionally draining challenge.  When we see her car in the driveway we know she has completed another 13-hour shift.

A few weeks ago, on Facebook, Shelly posted her personal reaction to losing her first COVID-19 patient that goes to the gut of what this crisis means.  In the last few months, there have been millions of words written and spoken about the COVID-19 pandemic, but sometimes a brief, honest response, from someone on the front lines, can say more than 10,000 words from those who aren’t there.  As one who is in the center of this, Shelly’s words give powerful meaning to the painful and emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She wrote:

“I lost my first Covid patient 😢

I have never felt so incredibly helpless.

It was like watching a train wreck that you were powerless to stop.

As a critical care nurse we have a different “magic bag of tricks” than the med surge floors do.

We frequently bring patients back from the brink of death and watch them walk out the front door.

We are all adrenaline junkies, we thrive in the chaos of it all and function together like a well-oiled machine.

But this shit, this is like nothing I have ever witnessed.

Not one trick in my “magic bag” worked, I felt helpless, useless, defeated…

I will never get over this one 💔

These are not just numbers on a leader board, these are human beings, and for us they are our extended family, we strive to treat each of our patients like one of our own relatives.

Please, please, stay home, do not burden your family with the horrific decision of letting you die versus continuing to suffer 😭

Shelly’s Facebook post says much about the emotional toll on those who must daily face the tragedy of the COVID-19 virus, not only in their workplaces and with their patients.  Not only do they feel the grief of losing a patient, but they must also deal with the continual fear that they may become infected themselves, or bring the virus home to their families.

Adding to those worries is the fact that so many doctors, nurses and other health care workers must face the virus without the necessary protection.  Across the nation, there are endless stories of medical personnel having to go into patients’ rooms with patchwork masks, gloves, gowns, or face-shields as the hospitals scramble to find adequate supplies.

In the most technologically advanced nation in the world, household sewing circles are creating masks, and high school shop classes are asked to make face shields.  States have been forced to compete with each other for scarce supplies as the virus moves from one “hot spot” to another.  More than a few hospitals have faced protests over the lack of protective gear.  (Even with full protective gear, the risk is significant for health care workers.)

Shelly’s face mask and cap were handmade by her nephew and her sister.

Someday, perhaps soon, in spite of all the bickering between the state and national governments, there will be enough protective gear for all hospital workers, as major industries begin to fill the void.  That will be great news for all medical workers, as well as their patients.  They will all be able to breathe a small sigh of relief, especially as the curve flattens.

But whenever that happens, we shouldn’t forget the courage and tenacity all medical workers showed when they had to make do with either makeshift protection, or none at all.  They went to work, not knowing if they would have the needed masks and gowns, and not knowing what it would mean for their own health, and that of their families.

While the nurses, doctors and other health care workers deserve all our thanks for what they do under challenging circumstances, we shouldn’t forget all the police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, postal workers, truck drivers, journalists, store clerks, and many others who don’t have the luxury of “staying home” as many of us do.  If this crisis has done anything, it may have given us a new appreciation of what an “essential” worker is.  The typical hedge fund manager or accountant can probably do most of his or her work from the safety of home.  The clerk at Wal-Mart, the truck driver, or the cop on the corner can’t.

And while the frustration of those who are facing major financial problems with the statewide shutdown is understandable, and real, we shouldn’t lose sight of the true human cost to those whose lives are threatened with the virus, and those who put their lives on the line to care for them.

With more than 25 million unemployed, we need to do whatever possible to aid those hurting financially.  But until the virus is history, and both employees and customers feel safe, business won’t bounce back to what it was before.

This crisis will end, not with raucous protests, or bombastic presidential tweets, but with the dedication, commitment, and scientific knowledge, of those who are on the front lines, day in and day out.

In the end, they all deserve our heartfelt thanks that go beyond mere words.

EVM Political Columnist and Staff Writer Paul Rozycki can be reached at paul.rozycki@mcc.edu.


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