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Serving on the Front Lines You Can See Smiles in Their Eyes

Kim Sorensen

By Bill Barlow

Some days are better than others, said Lynn Schraishuhn, of Ocean City, who’s a registered nurse at Shore Medical Center, in Somers Point.
Like almost everyone working in healthcare, she faces new challenges and extraordinary pressures with the rise of COVID-19. New steps she takes to protect herself and her patients have added a strange dimension to her job.
Schraishuhn and other nurses who agreed to be interviewed, say the medical profession continues to learn about the coronavirus, and that staff members at every level have gone to extraordinary lengths for patients.
In down time, they turn to exercise and the outdoors to stay well, but there’s no use pretending: It’s been hard. In 30 years of nursing, Schraishuhn said she’s never seen anything like this. The pressure is extreme.
“We’ve all cried about it,” she said.
Sweeping Changes
This was not how Molly Cusack’s spring was supposed to happen. A resident of Linwood, who has worked as a registered nurse for almost five years, she was set to be married March 28, with plans to honeymoon in Saint Lucia.
Instead, the emergency restrictions put in place over COVID-19 meant canceling the wedding, and traveling was out of the question. At almost the same time, the pediatric ward where she works, at Cape Regional Medical Center, became the hospital’s COVID ward. In several weeks, much of her life changed.
“It’s been a crazy time,” she said. “It was a lot of changes all at once.”
The wedding has been postponed until September. Cusack said she is praying that everything slows down enough by then.
“With this situation, you just kind of have to take it day by day,” she said.
As the number of COVID-19 cases in Cape May County grows, the hospital is no longer performing any elective procedures, and there are no children in the pediatric unit. While hospital intensive care units and emergency rooms in northern New Jersey have reported being close to overwhelmed, with double the usual number of patients and shortages of equipment, Cusack said the numbers in Cape Regional have remained manageable thus far, and that staff has the protective equipment they need.
Suiting Up
Working in separate hospitals, Cusack and Schraishuhn rely on layers of protective equipment to keep them safe and to prevent the spread of the virus within the hospital. That includes a gown over their regular cloth scrubs, gloves, a hair covering, protective covers on their shoes, and two layers of masks. One’s an N95 mask covered by a disposable surgical mask.
Over time, the masks begin to irritate, especially for those who must wear it throughout 12-or 13-hour shifts. Schraishuhn also wears a headband with buttons instead of looping the surgical mask around her ears, one of the spots that are sore from keeping the mask on too long.
Staff members learn to recognize each other by their eyes and know whether they are smiling by the wrinkles in the corners of their faces.
There is also a clear plastic face shield protecting the nurses’ eyes. The personal protective equipment is known as PPE, a once-obscure acronym that, like N95, has entered everyday language in the past two months.
“The first time I put on the whole garb, it was really, really scary,” Schraishuhn said. “It was even more scary to take it off.”
After being exposed to a COVID-positive patient, the PPE must be removed in a specific order and carefully disinfected. The nurses change at the hospital to leave anything worn in the COVID ward out of their homes.
It sometimes feels difficult to make a connection with patients while separated by the PPE, Cusack said, but she holds patients’ hands with her gloves on, giving some human contact, “which I think helps.”
Visitors Not Allowed
The strict guidelines imposed during the pandemic mean patients do not get to see family members or friends, which Schraishuhn described as one of the most difficult aspects of the crisis. The rule applies to all patients, not just those who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. 
“These patients are completely by themselves, except for the people who are taking care of them,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. People have to die by themselves.”
It also makes the connections with the hospital staff that much more important. She, too, holds the hands of her patients. She described the joy and relief when a COVID-19 patient is well enough to go home.
Schraishuhn began working as a nurse during the AIDS crisis, which she described as her closest experience to the current crisis. Then, too, healthcare workers with limited treatment options struggled to help their patients, even as researchers sought to understand the nature of the disease and ways to fight it. 
“This is unchartered territory. It does seem like we’re learning more and more every day,” said Cusack.
No Symptoms Can be Dangerous
“It’s surprising how many people test positive who don’t have any symptoms,” said Kim Sorensen, a Wildwood Crest resident, who works at the Cape Regional Urgent Care Center, on Rio Grande Avenue, in Wildwood.
That can be very dangerous, she said. As has been extensively reported, people can have the virus in their systems and spread it to others around them, all while feeling healthy for weeks.
Sorensen said testing has improved quickly, and more tests are available. A nasal swab would take days to show results, but a blood test is now being done at the urgent care center. Other locations, too, can have results more quickly.
Before the test was available, everything was slow at the facility since Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency orders were established, in early March. Sorensen said people were not doing a lot of the things they normally do, which meant fewer scrapes, cuts, and other injuries.
Sorensen is a full-time school nurse, who usually works part-time at the urgent care facility. With schools out of session, she’s working full-time at the center.
She said there remains a lot to learn about COVID-19. Like most people, she remains isolated, as far as that is possible with five children and a husband, who also works in healthcare. She hasn’t seen her parents in person since the crisis began.
Schraishuhn and Cusack both look to yoga and time outdoors to stay healthy and to keep a good attitude.
“What helps is that on days off, I do a lot of self-care. I spend as much time outside as I can,” Cusack said.
 “I just try to take my dog out for walks around the neighborhood. I think any bit of fresh air and sunshine is a good thing,” Cusack said. Her fiancé also works in healthcare, and they both understand the steps required to keep safe. “We haven’t seen any of our other friends or family in over a month. We’re doing a lot of Facetime.”
Technology has also helped Cusack’s patients. The hospital has iPads, which can be used for patients to see their family members’ faces and to safely interact remotely.
Each nurse said they would do what needed doing throughout the crisis.
“I am so impressed and in awe of the people that I work with,” Schraishuhn said. Not just the nurses, she said, but also the doctors, the food staff, the cleaning crew, and staff at every level. “Everybody has really stepped up. Everybody helps each other and works together.”
“We have a great group of coworkers. They’re the best part of the job,” Cusack said.
“Everybody is helping each other. Everybody’s committed to doing this. Everybody’s exhausted,” Schraishuhn said.
Is it worth it? 
“I would not be doing anything else,” Schraishuhn said. “It’s painful, but it’s a privilege to be able to help.  Sometimes, I feel like I’m not doing enough.”
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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