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‘Why am I a nurse?’: A Brigham and Women’s nurse on facing new challenges during the pandemic

"I have considered walking away from this career altogether," Melissa Coughlin, a Brigham and Women's nurse, wrote.

Melissa Coughlin, a registered nurse in the neuroscience unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, shares facing new challenges during the past year of the pandemic.

Boston.com first heard from Melissa Coughlin, a registered nurse in the neuroscience unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one year ago when we asked readers to submit their stories about the impact of COVID-19. Coughlin worked through the crisis, facing new challenges, and describes what it was like to defend what she knew to be true about preventing the spread of coronavirus while questioning her future as a nurse. 

Why am I a nurse?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this question has haunted me, sometimes keeping me up at night. In fact, I have considered walking away from this career altogether.

This past year has tempted me to betray some of my basic standards of care because of fear of the blind unknown and, frankly, bone deep fatigue. Initially, I was afraid of falling ill with this virus and in turn terrified of getting my own family sick at my expense. I was afraid that I would carry this fear to work, and it would prevent me from being able to nurture my patients to my fullest capacity. I was always afraid. As months passed by and nationwide COVID fatigue set in, nurses faced a new challenge. We frequently found ourselves defending our positions regarding what we knew to be true about infection control. It was our lifeline, our truths. We saw real-life suffering while others did not. As a result, doubt and uncertainty brewed as people felt their rights and freedoms had been stripped away, leaving most people unsettled and unhinged. Overnight we went from heroes to naysayers. My faith in my profession was slipping.

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Restoration of my love of nursing came back in the most ordinary of ways.

This weekend I took care of a teacher, a retired coach, a mother, an unemployed patient with a substance abuse disorder, and a veterinarian.

The truth is, they were all just my patients with their own stories to tell. You see, when a person comes into the hospital and takes off their street clothes and puts on a hospital johnny (gown), they become equal; they become my patients.

Melissa Coughlin

Nurses do not see color or creed, religion or political views, financial status or sexual preference when the johnny gets donned. We see a stroke, a brain tumor, a cervical fusion, or a seizure disorder. We see a vulnerable human in need of caring. It is perhaps the most humbling part of my job. I have met and been welcomed into the lives of so many different types of people that I would never otherwise have gotten to know. I have been invited to walk alongside strangers on their journey to healing or, in some cases, transition to peaceful passing.

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On Sunday night at 6 p.m. on the 23rd hour of my weekend, I had my fourth patient arrive on the floor from the emergency department. I was tired and just wanted to go home.

When I approached his room and looked into his terrified eyes, I was reminded of why I do what I do. I helped him out of his jeans and sweatshirt and into his johnny and just like that he became my patient. In the process of filling out the admission paperwork, we had a deep and intimate conversation. I was once again getting invited into a stranger’s life. He was kind and interesting, quite a unique and deeply soulful human who was newly diagnosed with a devastating condition.

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I swallowed my exhaustion and did my best to comfort him with my eyes because my masked smile is no longer visible. At the end of a twelve-hour day, I would not feel such life-affirming nourishment in any other setting as I do in nursing.

Last year, I wrote about loss of humanity in the hospital setting, feeling as though we had stripped our patients of their greatest comforts and needs. Yet, here is the thing I did not realize: humanity was not lost. In fact, humanity, which is defined as the virtues that make us human, including loving one another and having compassion, has never shone brighter. We are fighters, we are warriors, we are the epitome of humanity. We are nurses. My job is a gift. I just needed a reminder.

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

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