ICU nurse recounts challenging year since pandemic began: "COVID equated to a lot of death"

Posted at 11:41 PM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 07:38:47-05

HANOVER, Va. -- One year since the first case of COVID was identified in Virginia, a Memorial Regional Medical Center ICU nurse said she never expected some of the challenges she would face.

"It’s a lot. It was very heavy. You could kind of feel that weight on the staff in the unit," said Kelley Jenkins as she stood outside the hospital Wednesday. "Because for us, particularly in the intensive care unit, COVID equated to a lot of death. And it was really hard."

In August, the nurse of seven years and mother made the transition from doing outpatient work at St. Mary's Hospital, to working with COVID patients in the intensive care unit at Memorial Regional Medical Center.

"It's really hard walking into my home and telling my children who are running up to me that, 'no, no, don’t touch Mommy, she’s dirty. I have to go take a shower,'" Jenkins said.

But those early months, Jenkins said, didn't compare to the spike seen in January and February -- with COVID numbers almost doubled what the hospital was seeing less than a year prior.

"I knew I would be in the middle of it. I didn’t know I would have days where both patients would die in the same 12 hours. I didn’t know that I would have days where we would code five different people on the unit in the same 12 hours. I didn’t know all of that," Jenkins said

She said the hardest part, was having to tell family members they couldn't be with their sick loved ones.

"Being the last person at a patient's bedside when they pass -- it shouldn’t be us," Jenkins said, adding that the team of nurses she worked with ensured patients did not die alone.

"If you don’t know a nurse, you don’t know somebody who has compassion the size of the universe -- so we’re going to be there and we’re going to make sure that patient doesn’t die alone."

But Wednesday afternoon, Jenkins said in the last couple of weeks, things were looking up.

"Right now our numbers are down so it’s been a nice kind of breath of fresh air," Jenkins said

With three effective vaccinations being administered, VCU Infectious Disease Epidemiologist, Dr. Richard Wenzel expected that trend to continue.

"I think we will have herd immunity, certainly by the fall, hopefully, even in the summer," said Dr. Wenzel.

However, he said COVID was here to stay.

"I think if you look at the big picture, we're not going to get rid of coronavirus, COVID-19. What we will see though, is confined sort of upsurges each winter, just like influenza," Dr. Wenzel said.

In the meantime, Jenkins said she hoped for a brighter future -- but also saw the good that came from a year of hardship -- citing teamwork as the biggest evolvement.

"It’s built stronger people, it’s built stronger healthcare systems, and I just hope with the coming months and maybe year as people continue to get vaccinated that we will kind of see our way through this and look back on how we were able to grow through this process," Jenkins said.