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Health Watch: Fairbanks Memorial Hospital Nurse shares experience working during COVID-19

Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 4:22 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - For two years, medical professionals have been fighting COVID-19 on the front line.

Danielle McDermott, RN Nurse Manager for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital (FMH), knew that she wanted to be a nurse at a young age.

“We laugh at work because I said, ‘Oh, I’ve always known I wanted to be a nurse since 3rd grade,’” McDermott explained. “I actually wrote a letter to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital because I’m a local here and I wanted to volunteer in 3rd grade, and they were like, ‘Sorry, we don’t really have a position for 3rd graders. You’ll have to wait till you’re 18.’ So I had to wait unfortunately. But my journey did start here in the gift shop when I was 16, and then when I turned 18 I became a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) at the Denali Center - and that just kind of really affirmed that I love this hospital and that I really wanted to pursue nursing.”

McDermott now works at FMH in the 2 South unit, caring for all kinds of patients.

“We’re the medical floor and that basically means we take any patient from 18 till death, I think our oldest patient I’ve cared for has been 100,” McDermott elaborated. “But anywhere in that range, anyone who’s not here for surgical reasons. That included a variety of diagnoses - that was kind of my favorite part of the job. Then as the pandemic started we became a balanced unit so we took both medical patients and COVID-19 patients, and then during surges when our COVID-19 population increased we had to kind of back off taking medical patients and really focus on those COVID-19 patients.”

McDermott continued by saying, “It’s been kind of a mixture. There are glimpses of what the ‘old 2 South’ is like, and as we’ve been through this pandemic we’ve talked a lot about if there’s ever going to be the old 2 South, or is this just the new normal for us?”

A constant issue facing the healthcare system currently is a lack of available labor. Due to this, many nurses like McDermott have had to go above and beyond to give patients the best care possible.

“The recruiting market is definitely different, we’ve had open positions posted for the entire two years,” McDermott commented, “and, you know, when you lose somebody, replacing them can take five months. So that lag time really impacts the team. People are very gracious with their personal time, and I would say everybody has chipped in to work extra shifts. We have been fortunate enough to get travel nurses, to have support from FEMA, and that has helped our staffing; but regardless, we haven’t always been able to staff for the census that we have and so that means people working extra.

McDermott also spoke to “just balancing your work and home life. We definitely check in with each other and say, ‘Hey are you doing ok? Is this extra shift going to be ok?’ But that’s largely how we’ve gotten through, is people pulling extra shifts.”

McDermott, who recorded a series of video diaries sharing her experience, also commented on the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on her and her fellow nurses.

“In one of my videos is when we had a surge,” McDermott recalled. “We had lost a patient every day for a week - and when you’re in it, you’re spending a lot of time and emotion helping families and patients for it to be the best experience that it can be for them. Also things are so fast paced... you kind of shove your own emotions down. In one of my videos, it was the first day somebody hadn’t died in over a week - and it’s times like that when you sit back and reflect on what’s happened, what you’ve been through, what patients have been through, and those families.”

And some of those in healthcare may have to distance themselves to cope according to McDermott. “So we say this is a marathon not a sprint, and so how do you maintain emotional well being over a long period of time like that? There have been times where to distance myself I don’t get to know my patients as well, and I didn’t recognize that was happening during that intense surge. But I’ve made it kind of a goal of my own. That’s why I got into nursing. I like to know the patients and I like to get to know their families, because they’re more than just their medical diagnoses. It hurts more when you know them, when you know about their story and you know their family and you can understand the dynamics and put yourself in their shoes. It hurts more, but it’s hard to do your job as a nurse the way that you want to without getting to know your patients.”

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