By HIROYUKI KIMURA/ Staff Writer
February 8, 2021 at 17:08 JST
Nurses in the Tokyo metropolitan area have long been under stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the recent surge in deaths has exacerbated the strain and spread a sense of guilt among them.
The novel coronavirus is something they had never dealt with before, and they have had to alter their usual treatments and words of comfort. Now, they must deal with an abnormal number of deaths of patients under their care.
On one day in January, a male nurse in his 30s noticed something had gone wrong when he went to work at a hospital in Tokyo. A colleague was cleaning an empty bed, which had been occupied by an elderly woman.
“She passed away today,” the colleague said.
The nurse had taken care of the patient since soon after she was admitted to the hospital’s unit for COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms.
When he was connecting her to an artificial respirator, the nurse gave the patient some words of encouragement: “I’m going to insert a tube through your mouth. But please hang on because you will get better.”
Her condition briefly improved, and they celebrated together.
He said he had believed his job was rewarding, and patients had always thanked him after getting well.
But things have been different under the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of his time at work is spent putting on and removing protective gear and cleaning negative-air-pressure rooms. The time he spends with patients has dwindled.
The elderly woman’s death crushed his spirit.
“I wonder if I could have done more,” he said he thought when he saw her empty bed.
Although the hospital is a major health care provider in the area, patients had rarely died there. But then, the third wave of novel coronavirus infections started in autumn last year.
The death toll has sharply increased in 2021 and topped 6,000 nationwide on Feb. 3. On one day in Tokyo alone, more than 30 COVID-19 deaths were confirmed.
The nurse estimates that about 10 inpatients at the hospital died from COVID-19 in the past month and a half. Most of them were elderly.
Because of the infection risks, family members were not allowed to get close to the patients on their deathbeds. They said their last goodbyes through glass windows.
Witnessing such scenes underscored the differences between COVID-19 and other diseases in terms of treatment, the nurse said.
Hospital workers must pay even more careful attention to COVID-19 patients by, for example, ensuring ventilators are properly connected and intravenous tubes are flowing.
Sometimes, a COVID-19 patient pulls out the artificial ventilator because it felt uncomfortable. Medical workers in such cases must run into the negative-air-pressure room to reconnect the breathing device. They do not always have time to put on protective gear.
Preventing themselves from contracting the virus has added to the difficulties.
The male nurse said he had to temporarily sleep in a separate room from his family at home.
In his spare time, he has seen clueless comments on social media about nurses and their jobs in the pandemic.
One such post, he said, read, “I envy nurses because they have so many places to work.”
Nurses and other medical workers on the front line of the pandemic have received praise and encouragement for their tireless work.
In May 2020, the Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse flew over the capital to thank and send cheers to health care workers.
But the nurse said, “We could definitely not see it because we are busy during the day.”
He added, “I appreciate those sending cheers to us, but I would rather receive tangible support.”
He urged the central and metropolitan governments to provide more manpower, a better working environment and appropriate benefits for unsafe work.
“That is our true feeling,” he said.
Megumi Moriyasu, a nurse who has taken care of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms at Kitasato University Hospital in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, has been distressed with a sense of guilt.
One of her patients recently got better and was moved to another unit.
“Thank you,” the patient told Moriyasu. “But I also apologize to you because I have put you at risk of contracting the disease that you can die from.”
Moriyasu said it was a heart-wrenching moment. She said it was painful realizing that the patient was not only fighting against the fear of death but also carrying feelings of apology.
She has also seen many family members of COVID-19 patients blaming themselves, wondering if they had infected their loved ones.
Moriyasu uses rubber gloves to touch the COVID-19 patients, who can only see her eyes because all other parts of her body are covered by protective gear.
“I bet the patients don’t like it,” she said.
She hopes the day will soon come when nobody has to chide themselves over the virus.
“We have to get through this until then,” she said.
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