Avery Wrigley, who graduated from Stevenson University’s nursing program just two years ago, already has a robust story of triumph and hardships.
She’s been telling that story of being a nurse in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in a Facebook post that eventually ended up on the Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s website in Towson.
Her travails are all-too-familiar for nurses — seeing the utter damage that COVID-19 can cause to a person’s body each day. When the virus first began to spread widely in lMarch, Wrigley took it on headfirst with her team.
The scene was rough.
“It’s been 80 days. In these 80 days, I’ve seen more death and decline than in my entire career. I’ve seen so many families torn apart from this virus — all from behind a FaceTime screen since we don’t allow visitors at the moment,” Wrigley wrote on June 13.
“I’ve seen perfectly healthy individuals dance around the grave — and it’s our job to fix them. One minute they’re stable, the next they’re laying on their bellies getting intubated. And the only person there is someone behind a giant blue trash bag-like gown, a mask, and face shield. They can’t even see our faces.”
Wrigley began her career at GBMC as a student nurse technician in 2017, working there for a year and a half before graduating and transitioning to nursing. On the job, she learned something new every day as her floor became the quarantine unit of the hospital. It’s a situation that has constantly morphed from managing her daily routine as a telemetry and stroke unit nurse to dealing with the virus.
Her typical job entails taking care of stroke and heart failure victims, as well as wound care, dialysis and diabetic patients. Since they began using the wing for COVID-19, Wrigley said in an interview, “We haven’t seen a stroke patient in weeks to be honest.”
Steve Benko, Wrigley’s supervisor and a nurse manager for Unit 38, which is Wrigley’s team and the COVID unit, manages 70 employees. He sees the fear and anxiety that accompanies treating each coronavirus patient — the masking, the fear of exposure and all of the PPE that the nurses and the rest of the medical unit need to wear.
But he knew from the beginning that Wrigley would rise to the occasion.
“Being a nurse for 12 hours is tough enough during a non-pandemic, and then you add all of these stressors,” Benko said. “I knew when I saw these concerns that they’ve had [that] Avery’s always been a high-level performer since I’ve seen her get to this floor. To see her story and then just to see how quickly it grew; in just one week, it had thousands of shares and multiple media outlets were reaching out to her.”
For 80 days, the third-year nurse has constantly switched surgical and N95 masks, gowns, gloves and washing her hands, rubbing even her ears and nose raw while cleaning.
It’s repetitive, but necessary. She fears that she could give the virus to her husband or someone else she knows after returning home after each shift. There’s the constant terror of wondering where the virus might be lurking — in her hair, in the car, on her shoes. But concern for the health of her patients overrides the fears.
“Seeing the decline in patients that we’ve seen and seeing patients that have hospitalizations that are weeks and weeks long and they bounce between our unit and ICU, and sometimes they end up going to hospice because they can’t recover, it’s definitely put a new perspective on everything,” Wrigley said in an interview. “It’s a lot for us too and it’s hard. We’re not robots, we’re not computers, we’re humans and it takes a lot out of us to constantly see the same patients.”
Back on April 1, GBMC discharged its first coronavirus patient who required being hooked up to a ventilator; other cases followed. Fast forward three months, and John B. Chessare, president and CEO of the GBMC HealthCare System, noted in an email Thursday that GBMC had 12 COVID-19 positive patients with “only one requiring a ventilator.”
Also on Thursday, Maryland reported 14 straight days of a seven-day average testing positivity rate below 5% — a key benchmark set by the World Health Organization — for the first time since state officials began tracking the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March.
That said, Wrigley’s message to the general public? “Wear a mask.”
“I know it’s a pain, but a surgical mask is better than a ventilator,” Wrigley warned. “Stay away from large gatherings as much as possible. Wash your hands. I promise, from the other end of things, the country reopening is scary. So give us some time, some patience, and some love. We really need it.”
Benko applauds Wrigley’s honesty. Many stories discuss the successes and failures associated with treating illnesses, but they don’t completely flesh out the gravity of a situation as Wrigley’s does with COVID-19.
“I think we’ve always seen success stories and we’ve always seen loss of life throughout our careers, but it’s just so much more dramatic right now,” Benko said. “We have someone that’s on a ventilator — life support three weeks ago — we accept them after they’re not on the ventilator anymore and then we see them progress and are able to discharge them to rehab.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen it the other way. We’ve seen them decompensate and end up on a ventilator and not make it. So, the resilience that I’m seeing in them, that I’m able to support them to stay resilient, that’s what I find fascinating and meaningful.”