Megan Ammermann — Guest Writer
Pulses of red light flashed above the doorway filling the hall while sirens screamed, modeling the heartbeat of the patient who would take their last breath. As the flat line dashed across the monitor, the pulses of light grew dim. Everything went silent. 22 sirens from one week in April, she counted. She would never forget that. She couldn’t forget them.
Madison Niemeyer, a former Dordt student, has been combating the COVID-19 pandemic since April at the Sanford Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. Feeling unprepared to fight this battle, she sat down in her car at 7:00 a.m. and drove to the hospital to start her shift.
She took a deep breath and slipped into her navy-blue scrubs, tightened her shoelaces, stretched up her latex blue gloves, tied her long hair into a bun, and pressed her N95 mask against her face—looping the elastic straps from one ear to the other.
In late November, the Department of Health and Human services concluded that more than 1,000 hospitals across the United States were “critically” short on staff. 18 percent of hospitals that spanned across all 50 states reported their staffing status to the HHS as in need of help and recruitment. The number of short-staffed hospitals was expected to grow, with 21 percent of hospitals reporting that they anticipated the same shortages to come.
With fellow nurses contracting the virus and hospitals running short on staff, most nurses employed at the Sanford hospital had to work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. Normally they work four days a week. Niemeyer found herself working these twelve hour shifts alongside her fellow nurses, exhausted.
In the thick of the pandemic, she would wake up in the morning with a pit in her stomach, weary for what the day would hold.
“It took a lot of strength to simply get into my car and drive to the hospital. Before you get there, you know that there is going to be bad patient outcomes.” Niemeyer said. “You know there are going to be patients crying because their families can’t be there with them. You know the nurses are going to be overwhelmed because our floors were so short staffed.”
Back in March, healthcare and political leaders begged the citizens of the United States to stay in their homes and take part in “flattening the curve” during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals needed to take extreme measures to continue treating patients as supplies, resources, and beds decreased. As nurses and doctors poured everything into saving their patients, their own mental health decreased.
“You would go into work knowing that your patients weren’t doing well. You had the intuition that they were going to die. It was awful.” Niemeyer said. “Due to limited resources, I had to decide who would get a ventilator and who wouldn’t. It didn’t feel right making a decision like that.”
There were times when Niemeyer had to wheel lifeless patients to the morgue every time she worked.
The nurses didn’t feel heard. The condition of their mental health was met with emotional support dog visits, pizza parties, and trips to Great Shots. The actual problems did not get addressed, though.
They needed resources. They needed counseling. They needed supplies. They needed support. They needed staff. They simply needed someone to listen.
Niemeyer walked down the wing of her floor, flipping through the reports of each patient she grew to have a connection with. On this day, no lights pulsed, no cries were heard, and no sirens screamed. All the reports looked hopeful, she thought.
She walked into the room of her patient who had been there for a week.
“I just want to die,” the 80-year-old man murmured.
Niemeyer was speechless. Everything within her dropped. Her face turned pale. She tried to mutter out a word.
“Umm, I’m sorry… Why? You can recover from this.” Niemeyer responded. She thought he was making progress in his recovery.
“I know I’m not going to leave the hospital. I know this is going to be it for me,” he said. “I never expected I would go this way, but I know I will. I’m tired of receiving treatment. Take me off of this ventilator. I just want to go. I want to go home.”
She ran to get her supervisor.
“Did I have it all wrong?” Niemeyer thought. “I really thought he was going to make it out of this hospital within a week.”
At least, she had heard such in every previous conversation with him as she checked his vitals. She felt discouraged.
Her supervisor dialed his family’s phone number. He explained to his family that he wanted to go into comfort care—the care received near the end of someone’s life. His family begged to see him. They needed their goodbye. The hospital could only let one family member into the room of a COVID-19 patient who was on comfort care. Despite this limited opportunity, the 80-year-old wouldn’t allow it.
“No. They can’t see me like this. I can’t have this be their last memory of me. I refuse to let them come,” he said.
The clock reached 7:00 p.m.—the end of her shift. The alarms blared, signifying his passing.
Niemeyer walked into the locker room. She unlaced her shoes and pulled down her navy-blue scrubs, placing them into a bin to be decontaminated. She stripped off her latex blue gloves and threw them into the garbage can. She unwound her bun, and let her curls fall to her shoulders. She unlooped her mask, letting it fall to the floor, and released a deep sigh.
The 80-year-old man died and was sent home. Without his family, but with her, just before she left the hospital.
She changed into a fresh pair of scrubs. Sitting in the locker room alone, tears rolled down her face.
“I failed him,” she thought.
She wondered if her efforts meant anything. Her confidence drained from her with each tear that fell. She heard the door open and footsteps walking closer.
It was her supervisor.
“I can’t believe that just happened. I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” she said.
“Madison, this is the hardest part of the job. People will die. If you can do what you just did, you can get through anything,” he said, cutting her off.
She cried harder.
“I’m really proud of you and the work you put into this patient” he added, patting her back.
After her tears stopped falling, she lifted her head and got her things ready to go home. Getting into her car, she turned on her favorite Spotify playlist: one consisting of happy, upbeat songs. She hoped the volume of the music would swallow her thoughts and emotions. Instead, Niemeyer filtered the sound of the music in her car as if it was white noise.
“I just want to die.”
His words couldn’t leave her head. She couldn’t un-hear the screaming alarms. She couldn’t unsee his face. She missed the presence that his body once had. She would never forget him. She still hasn’t.
Following the heartbreak of his death, Niemeyer’s purpose was strangely confirmed. She works with a mission—one focused on God’s kingdom more than her own.
“Jesus’ whole ministry was focused on loving others and the miracles he performed healed people. The blind regained their sight, the deaf could hear, the lame could walk again, and the dead were raised to life.” Niemeyer said.
Patients have asked her to pray with them as they lay sick in their beds and she believes praying with them changes things. She recognizes that every person she has helped heal is not an outcome of her doing, but God’s.
“I know I can’t raise a dead man to life or make someone walk again,” Niemeyer said, “but I know that the work that I’m doing is helping people live another day. I’m inspired by Jesus every time I walk into the hospital, because I know that’s exactly what He would be doing too.”
Her favorite part of the job is forming relationships with her patients. When their families can’t sit at the hospital with them, Niemeyer doesn’t just stand in the room providing medical comfort. She fills the gap by providing familial comfort.
“One man told me that I looked just like his granddaughter before he passed away with his hand in mine.” Niemeyer said.
She has questioned why she continuously goes into the hospital to fight COVID-19. She often wonders if it is worth the exhaustion, heartbreak, and stress. But she is confident this is her purpose and calling. To heal and to love, just like Jesus did.
“If anything, this pandemic has reaffirmed my desire to be a nurse even more.” Niemeyer said on reflecting on her experience at the hospital since April, “Because it’s stuff like that that makes it worth it, especially when they get to go home to their families.”
The next day, Niemeyer woke up at 6:00 a.m. and drove to her 7:00 a.m. shift at the hospital, again. She slipped into her navy-blue scrubs, pulled up her latex blue gloves, and tightened her N95 mask, leaving the locker room to assess her patient reports.
“Good morning, sir. “Niemeyer said to a patient. “How are you feeling? I’m just going to check your vitals real quick.”