If I die, I don’t want to be remembered as a hero. I want my death to make you angry too. I want you to politicize my death. I want you to use it as fuel to demand change in this industry, to demand protection, living wages, and safe working conditions for nurses and ALL workers. Use my death to mobilize others.
– Emily Pierskalla, a nurse in USA
As the corona virus rips through the world’s richest and mightiest state, infecting millions and killing thousands, professional health care workers, including nurses and doctors, who are in the front line of this ‘war’ against the invisible ‘enemy’, are among the worst affected. The economic and military superpower is seen unable to provide even basic necessities like masks, gloves, personal protective gears to even its health workers.
Meanwhile, more than 9,000 health care workers across the U.S. contracted COVID-19 and at least has 27 died, between February 12 and April 9, 2020, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This figure is likely an underestimation because HCP (Health Care Professionals) status was available for only 16% of reported cases nationwide. HCP with mild or asymptomatic infections were less likely to be tested. The CDC conceded the report’s findings underestimate the number of cases among health care workers because of uneven reporting across the country. While in some states only 3% of COVID-19 patients were health care personnel, the number was closer to 11% in those states with more complete reporting.
U.S. nurses unions, representing 230,000 nurses across the country have joined forces to demand hospitals and the government to give nurses optimal personal protective equipment (PPE)—including N95 masks. Bonnie Castillo, National Nurses United Executive Director, said “Instead of answering the demands nurses have been making for months to their employers and elected officials to ensure safe workplaces to protect themselves, their patients, and the public, hospitals have instead sent nurses to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic with bandanas, scarves, and trash bags as protection.” She added, “Now at least 15 nurses across the country have tragically died. How many more nurses have to die before the richest country in the world will act to protect us, so we can protect our patients?”
The unions, in a joint statement said
“Nurses are not willing to unnecessarily lose their lives, leaving their patients and families behind, just because employers and our government would not invest in the highest level of protections … Who will care for America’s patients if the nurses are gone? Leaving health care workers to die is immoral, and frankly, criminal. We demand strong and immediate action—now, today—before one more nurse is lost.”
Emily Pierskalla, RN and member of Minnesota Nurses Association, penned her anguish, anger and frustration at the crumbling health care system of USA, as the virus ravages the country and its population. The original unedited version of it is given below.
What is it like being a nurse in a pandemic? Every day I bounce through the stages of grief like a pinball. The ricochet and whiplash leaves my soul tired and bruised.
Denial: I have spent less and less time in the denial stage. Still, I see many of my loved ones, politicians, and laypersons still stuck in this phase.
Anger: When our elders and immuno-suppressed folks are referred to as disposable members of society, when the pocketbooks of stockholders are considered more important than human lives, when we’ve known for decades this pandemic was coming, I burn with anger, anger at the system that prioritizes profits over health. It’s the system that regularly runs out of “essential” and “critical” supplies seasonally. I have anger knowing the fragility of our supply chain has been exposed time and time again, especially after the earthquakes in Puerto Rico, and yet nothing was done to reinforce them.
Bargaining: The governing bodies bargaining with supply chain availability over scientific evidence. A paper bag is given magic powers to somehow preserve masks that are already expired and soiled. Droplet precautions are now satisfactory for airborne illnesses (but don’t you dare leave scotch tape on the walls).
Depression: Heaviness in my heart knowing my co-workers and friends will become unwilling sacrifices so the system can continue in its self-destructive path. And there’s grief for the many people I will not have the resources to care for and save.
Acceptance: I have accepted that I will be infected with COVID-19 at some point. I am not scared of getting sick. I am scared of infecting those who will not survive. I check every day on our state’s available hospital beds and ventilators. I wonder, if my illness becomes severe, will there be resources left for me?
And then I’m tagged in another social media post praising me for being “a hero.” And I’m instantly flung back into the pinball machine as my emotions ricochet through the stages.
If I die, I don’t want to be remembered as a hero.
I want my death to make you angry too.
I want you to politicize my death. I want you to use it as fuel to demand change in this industry, to demand protection, living wages, and safe working conditions for nurses and ALL workers.
Use my death to mobilize others.
Use my name at the bargaining table.
Use my name to shame those who have profited or failed to act, leaving us to clean up the mess.
Don’t say “heaven has gained an angel.” Tell them negligence and greed has murdered a person for choosing a career dedicated to compassion and service.
What Pierskalla’s narrative, then, demands, is a re-orientation of the lens through which we are seeing the pandemic and the issues of healthcare embroiled within. A pandemic cannot be dealt with through de-politicization of the existing social and political structures. In fact, more politicization is needed. Of course, that politicization, needs to happen on our terms, the peoples’ terms. Not theirs.