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‘The spirit of nursing’: During National Nurses Week, Maryland’s nurses reflect on COVID fight

During a video meeting Friday, scores of people in scrubs and surgical masks populated grainy little boxes on the screen — nurses, assistants and respiratory therapists from Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore.

The nursing staff was attending a second virtual Nurse of the Year awards ceremony, one of a range of events organized by LifeBridge Health in recognition of National Nurses Week, which began Thursday. At Maryland hospitals, the celebrations offered an opportunity to reflect on being a nurse on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, just as many are starting to move on from the urgency. The theme was caring for the caregiver.

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“The sacrifices that you’ve made and the care that you provide during this pandemic has been extraordinary, and it has not gone unnoticed,” Debra Morton, Sinai’s chief nursing officer, told her staff. “It will forever be remembered for generations to come. This is your time; it’s your legacy.”

Across the county line, at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, nurses were wrapping up their weeklong celebration.

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Nicole Beeson, the hospital’s chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services, said they discussed the challenges and tragedies of the pandemic and vowed to prioritize their own health. She recalled when the first patient arrived and “courageous” health care workers stepped up, not knowing what lay ahead.

“There was a heaviness because you were at battle with an enemy you couldn’t see, feel or touch,” Beeson said. “We didn’t know if the PPE we had would work. We didn’t know if we could bring this home to our families.”

Over the coming months, they’d care for countless coronavirus patients. A critical illness liked COVID-19 could strip away someone’s dignity, but her staff ensured it didn’t. No visitors were allowed during much of the pandemic, but Beeson said none of their patients died alone: Nurses held their hands, many of them on video calls with loved ones, when they took their last breaths, she said.

“It captured and really showcased the spirit of nursing, this last year,” Beeson said. “It’s not just the resilience but the grit of the tribe that’s so impeccable. They really dug deep and just kept pushing.”

Traumatic, to be sure, but there were positive take-aways. Leaders emerged along with innovations in patient care and stronger bonds among co-workers. And when the nursing staff learned vaccines were on the way, “it was palpable that there was hope in the air,” she said.

But while many Marylanders focused on getting their immunizations, the number of people hospitalized in the state increased for the second half of March and much of April.

There are still 200 coronavirus patients across the University of Maryland Medical System, Beeson said. “You’re not seeing it as much in the news right now, but the battle is still on.”

And the public support for their work has waned, Beeson said. While at the beginning of the pandemic health care workers were lauded as heroes, she said, her staff feels they’re something of an afterthought now.

“I am hearing them say, ‘It feels like everyone else has moved on,’ ” Beeson said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, offered his support in a tweet Thursday. He praised nurses as “fearless, dedicated, compassionate” men and woman doing “lifesaving work” compounded by the pandemic.

Johns Hopkins Medicine and MedStar Health highlighted nurses’ work in tweets, with the former encouraging people to post their gratitude to an online message board. The University of Maryland Medical System planned a week of celebrations at each of its hospitals, and the University of Maryland School of Nursing planned virtual events from Thursday to Wednesday, International Nurses Day.

Northwest Hospital in Randallstown, also owned by LifeBridge, kicked off their festivities earlier this week with a dinner for nurses with at least 25 years’ experience, said Kim Bushnell, the chief nursing officer. The event was under a large tent outside the hospital, and Bushnell said nurses talked about what they’d been through. Still masked, Bushnell said, some staff embraced.

Bushnell said her team recently cheered upon releasing their 1,000th coronavirus patient, proof that the disease is still a threat.

But more people are getting vaccinated every day, giving some level of relief for hospital workers worried about bringing the virus home, Bushnell said.

About a year ago her staff repurposed a unit slated for construction into a 20-bed intensive care unit, where they’d help patients battle a disease they knew little about.

Things are different now, Bushnell said. “At least we understand it, know how to treat and care for those patients.”

Still, amid the celebration there was a sigh of relief.

“When some of the nurses were coming in for the senior nurse dinner,” Bushnell said, “it was like ‘OK, we survived.’ ”

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