'This is a war': 2 nurses on opposite coasts battle the coronavirus pandemic

Jon San and Jacquie Cosgrove
·4 min read

Reporting by Jacquie Cosgrove

On the East Coast, Grace Schafer is in the thick of a surge of coronavirus patients. On the West Coast, John DeWig anxiously braces for that surge to arrive.

As much of the country stays inside, nurses across the country are on the frontlines of a battle that most Americans only see at a distance, filtered through blaring headlines, sobering statistics and chaotic hospital scenes.

DeWig, who has worked in healthcare for around 30 years, splits his time between two Los Angeles hospitals, working at one as an ICU nurse and the other as an ER nurse. “It’s eerily slow at the moment,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We are gearing up for the surge.”

For Schafer, an ICU nurse in New Jersey, it’s the opposite. She doesn’t have a moment to spare due to the massive influx of COVID-19 patients. “You don’t sit, you don’t eat, you don’t drink,” she says. “It’s hard to catch our breath.”

In addition to caring for their patients, DeWig and Schafer are understandably concerned with their own safety, too. And shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gowns and eyewear have made for a vocal rallying cry among nurses and doctors.

“This is a war,” DeWig says. “[But] we don't need bullets, planes, or military stuff. In this war, we need emergency medicines, we need the personal protective equipment and we need our sanitizing stuff.” Before the pandemic, DeWig says, masks were used when entering a patient’s room and discarded immediately after leaving. Now they are being asked to use one for the whole day — a day that could involve visiting an infected room 100 times.

To limit these visits, Schafer and her colleagues have become creative, rigging up IV poles outside the room by using under-the-door extension tubing and appointing “runners” to safely pass PPE to them.

Despite the abundance of caution, both DeWig and Schafer report that fellow nurses have contracted the coronavirus. In DeWig’s case, a few were in such a serious state that they had to be hospitalized. “That makes it real,” he says. “It really brings it home. Like, wow, I could be next. This could be me, this could be my family.”

Grace Schafer and John DeWig, both wearing personal protective equipment, are combating the coronavirus epidemic on both coasts. (Photo: Courtesy of Grace Schafer and John DeWig)
Grace Schafer and John DeWig, both wearing personal protective equipment, are combating the coronavirus epidemic on both coasts. (Photo: Courtesy of Grace Schafer and John DeWig)

Nurses have also absorbed the added burden of serving as proxies for patients too sick to physically visit with family members. And orchestrating phone calls and FaceTimes — each with a morbid urgency to them — is taking its toll. “You're trying your best to keep a brave face, but you end up crying with the patients,” says DeWig. “It is emotionally draining at the end of the day. It's difficult just to walk back to your car.”

For Schafer, the breakneck speed of her work results in feeling almost desensitized. Between the intubations, extubations, and deaths, it becomes a blur. “The sad thing is... I probably wouldn't be able to tell you their names because it's just, there's no time,” she says.

Even after a long, 12-hour shift, returning home has its own anxieties. For Schafer, she could potentially infect her husband or young kids. For DeWig, his girlfriend, also a nurse, is at risk. And to make things even more difficult, certain routines that used to provide comfort are now off-limits. “If you have kids, you know the moment they see you they will just want to come and run and hug you,” Schafer says. “And it's very hard not to do the same.”

Thankfully, the rest of the country is rightfully applauding nurses and other essential workers for their life-saving, life-risking work. Schafer says local places have provided her hospital with food and DeWig says he hasn’t bought or made lunch in a week.

“It feels good,” DeWig says, “when you see a spread of food that a company or someone has donated. It's a good feeling that we are appreciated.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.