By Megha Shah, BSN, RN, OCN®

As oncology nurses in Chicago, IL, on the front lines of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the United States, fear, anxiety, anger, and frustration are just some of the emotions that have been festering in me and my coworkers since the beginning of 2020. It seems like an endless era, and I’m scared: for my patients, coworkers, and family. 

I remember reading a newspaper article about coronavirus, back when it was called coronavirus, and how it was heavily affecting a population in China. A few days later, I watched as it spread to other countries, even killing people.  

At that time, I thought the United States would never be in as bad a shape as China. In fact, I thought we wouldn’t even get it in this country. Then, on January 21, 2020, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the first case of travel-related coronavirus in Washington state. We still didn’t know much about the virus at that point, but I felt uneasy learning it was here.   

Megha Shah, BSN, RN, OCN®
Megha Shah, BSN, RN, OCN® 

Fast-forward to March: We quickly went from oblivious to defensive. The country declared a national emergency. Most U.S. states instituted some level of shelter-in-place mandates and closed schools and essential businesses to keep residents at a safe social distance. CDC kept updating information daily, as did the local authorities and hospital systems. However, as a frontline nurse, the information was conflicting and seemed unreliable. We went from being told we need N95 face masks to protect ourselves, to being told to only use one surgical mask a week. We went from following strict USP <800> guidelines to using one chemotherapy gown per patient. All because of the perpetuating shortage of personal protective equipment and testing supplies. 

I grew increasingly frustrated because I felt that nationally, locally, and across hospital systems, we weren’t taking enough steps to protect our most vulnerable patients with cancer. I started losing sleep, fearing for the safety of my coworkers and family. I wanted to better equip myself by gaining more knowledge on how to protect everyone in my life from the virus.  

It is now April 2020. I change my clothes before leaving work, I remove my shoes outside my house, and I don’t hug my child before I’ve showered. I do all this while praying that I am not an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19, unknowingly infecting everyone I come into contact with.  

Patients with cancer and healthcare workers across the United States are dying from the virus, forced to be alone in hospitals. Where did we go wrong? All I can do is hope we are flattening the curve, that we can revert to normalcy before the end of summer.  

I know I’m not alone in feeling the burden of these emotions. Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with me at TheOncologyNurse@gmail.com. And remember, stay safe and try to cope.