AORN Blog - The Periop Life

An OR Nurse’s Unknowing Life-or-Death Battle with COVID-19 

Call of Duty
July 8, 2020

Back in February, before the World Health Organization had deemed COVID-19 a pandemic, Kristi Hull, MSN, RN, PHN was in California from Minnesota visiting some perioperative nurse friends she had met years ago when she was a nurse stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

She wasn’t expecting these same friends would soon see her rushed to the hospital by ambulance after she began to experience severe shortness of breath and vomiting. By the time she was admitted, Kristi had influenza B, pneumonia, and sepsis. Far from home, her prognosis took a turn for the worse and she ultimately spent 22 days in critical care—nine of those intubated. From there she spent another week in acute rehab still not able to eat, breathe, sit, or stand on her own. At extubation, she was down to only 90 pounds. During her hospitalization, she also experienced pneumothorax, DVTs, and ARDS.

Because this was prior to COVID-19 being widespread in the U.S., she was not tested for COVID-19. Eventually, after returning home to Minnesota, and seeing COVID-19 patients experiencing many of her same symptoms, she had her antibodies tested, and they came back COVID-19 positive.

After barely surviving what she now knows was COVID-19, Kristi was humbled by the lessons she learned being on the other side of the nurse-patient experience, and is grateful to the facility that treated her and credits the staff with saving her life. Here she shares six important nurse lessons she learned as a patient:

  1. Really, listen. I was in the hospital for over a month. I had chest tubes, PICC lines, telemetry, oximetry, catheters, etc. holding me down, and a clock right in front of me to remind me how slow time was moving. A genuine second of someone’s time, that wasn’t prompted by a call light, meant the world to me.
  2. Be open to patient advocacy. Let me preface this with, I was cared for by a compassionate, professional, and capable staff. But as a nurse, I want to now remember to let patients and their families be their own advocates, if they want to be. Let them ask questions and take their questions seriously. My family and friends found a DVT in my arm (my hand was swelling), advocated for the doctor to be called from home when a pneumothorax was seen on my chest X-ray (my mom is a radiologic technician), and pointed out pressure sores forming on my ankles. Sometimes family and friends see and know things healthcare workers don’t, and we need to accept that, humbly.
  3. Remember that everyone has a story. We are so used to referring to people by their room number, diagnosis, or procedure, that we forget they’re a “someone.” When I first woke up from being intubated, the first thing I saw was a picture my nine-year-old son drew of the sun setting over the ocean. The people who asked about that picture found out a lot about me in the time it took them to ask and learned that I’m a mom, a widow, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a many things. Just ask.
  4. I want to learn from you. As a nurse, we all dislike taking care of another nurse because, at least for me, I think I’m being judged. I can honestly say, the only thing I ever judged anyone on was their attitude. I just like to watch what you’re doing and take what I don’t know to improve my own nursing practice. Nurses are cool, and so are their tricks.
  5. Share your patient story. As a nurse, if you have a story of hope and recovery, share it. Being a patient is emotional. You’re scared, dependent, tired, sad, uncomfortable, and you feel totally alone in those emotions, no matter who is physically around you. One of my rehab nurses took a minute to tell me about her TBI, and how, after two years, she’d just come back to work; we both cried. She knew. She’d been where I was, and she overcame. Every time I saw her after that, she was like a beacon for me, reminding me of my goal and where I was headed. She was a huge motivator for me in those days when getting back to being “me” seemed impossible.
  6. Stay humble. The most obvious thing I’ve learned is that, in an instant, we can go from being the nurse, to being the patient. Some of the nurses and doctors I used to work with ended up being part of my care team, which was an incredibly humbling experience. You never know where life will take you, or who will come back into your life to help save yours.

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