Brigham and Women's

Brigham and Women’s bedside nurse: ‘COVID-19 has stripped our humanity’

"Nurses are stretched beyond anything we have ever dreamed of."

Melissa Coughlin is a registered nurse in the neuroscience unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Melissa Coughlin

Coronavirus is affecting everyday life — even for those who have not been infected. We are sharing stories of its impact on local people. To share your own, please submit this form or email us at [email protected]

This story was submitted by Melissa Coughlin, a registered nurse in the neuroscience unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

I am a mother, wife, daughter, substitute school nurse, camp nurse, graduate advanced practice nurse (APN) student, member of my town’s Board of Health, and a 20-year bedside nurse at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s neuroscience unit, but not a writer, never a writer.

I saw the opportunity to submit a personal account of our experience on the front lines and I must write. I must write to share what our patients cannot tell you. I must write to share what my colleagues have seen and are doing — what you must know.


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Almost twenty years ago, September 11, 2001, I biked to work from my apartment in Watertown knowing that this day would change my life forever. It was my first day as a nurse. Around 9 a.m. my life really did change forever; all our lives changed. The first tower came down. I watched from my first-ever patient’s room. Life as a nurse became real. So real. I learned most of it was not taught in the classroom. Empathy, compassion, handholding, getting to know my patients, who they are, who they were, what they need, how they feel, their fears, and dreams.


In the past twenty years, I have held hands with patients who are dying, who are getting news about new brain tumors, new strokes, new diagnoses of MS; the list is endless. I have held hands with family members while their loved ones are being diagnosed with horrible life-changing diseases.

This is different; worse, so much worse. We are scared. We are holding down the fort. We are gowned and gloved and covered. We cannot hold hands with the family members. We cannot hug them. We deny them the rights to be at their loved ones’ sides. We tell them, ‘No.’ When we tell their wife, son, daughter, husband, mother, or father that their beloved relative will likely not make it through the weekend, we do it over FaceTime.


COVID-19 has stripped our humanity.

I do not work on a COVID-19 unit. I am not deployed. I am on our step-down unit and will stay to care for our population of extremely sick neuro patients. We have COVID-19 patients under investigation, we have recovering COVID-19 patients, and we have lots of enhanced respiratory precaution patients. We have sick patients. Patients who are alert enough to be scared, lonely and who know they are sick enough to have to be there.

Nurses are stretched beyond anything we have ever dreamed of. We are the family members, we are the eyes for the doctors, we are the therapists, we go into the room. When we have a critical event, we gown up and go into the room. We do not social distance. We can’t.


Yet, despite the daily unknowns, we show up. We actually climb the stairs and show up. Yes, the elevators only allow four riders. So we walk up the stairs with masks on to get to work. My unit is on the tenth and twelfth floors. We climb — literally and metaphorically — to work every day.

We do not need praise. I promise you this is not why we do this. We do not consider ourselves heroes. We all just want this to be over. I assure you this is not media hype. This is very real. We want our patients to get the care and love they deserve. We want to feel safe.


We want our humanity back.

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