HOUSTON — This week marks one year since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States.
It’s been a harrowing year for healthcare workers. One Houston nurse helped save lives on the front lines but it’s an experience that might take her a lifetime to recover from herself.
Even in a mask, you can see from Lindsey Johnson’s smiling eyes that she is joyfully resilient.
Johnson is an intensive care unit nurse. Her experiences the past year working in COVID ICUs have tested her to the core.
Last year, as New York City was overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, Johnson boarded a plane.
“I never saw myself coming back,” Johnson said. “I thought that I was going there and that it would kill me.”
For two months she worked in Mt. Vernon’s COVID ICU bearing witness to life’s most gut-wrenching moments. Moments most people don’t even like to think about was her job day in and day out.
“The worst part of it is when you’re about to be intubated,” Johnson said. “You have the intubation trays ready and we let them know, ‘Hey, when you can’t do it anymore ... when you cannot breathe anymore, you need to give us a signal.’"
If time allowed, Johnson would Facetime her patients' families at that moment, so they could say goodbye.
Often, her patients were too weak to speak or be heard so they’d ask her to tell their families they loved them.
“And you just want to look at them and say, ‘No. You’re going to tell them. And you’re going to tell them when you wake up. You will tell them.’ And then the intubation happened. And for them, they didn’t know if that was it," Johnson said.
When asked what it was like looking into her patient’s eyes during that terrifying moment, she says she struggles with those memories daily.
“You have to be their cheerleader. You have to tell them, ‘You can do this.' Like, 'You’ve got this!’ But, you know that not everyone’s coming out of that.”
Most of her patients didn’t come out of it. Johnson says that over her two-month time working in NY, only three of her patients survived. Dozens died.
“My mental health is horrible,” Johnson said. “I have constant, constant, constant anxiety … and I definitely suffer with depression.”
There are bright spots; moments that keep her going like when New Yorkers would cheer from their balconies and the streets as healthcare workers walked by.
“It made you feel like anything was possible because everyone was behind you," she said.
But that feeling faded.
“The worst, worst, worst for me was that the virus was politicized. When you see a virus killing people and then you hear people wanting to argue about it. It wrecked me,” she said.
She also struggles with what she calls a blatant disrespect for human life; those who refuse to wear a mask.
“They won’t do the bare minimum, but they want you to risk your life to take care of them (if they get sick). Because every single time I walk in that room my life is at risk.”
In New York, hospitals and healthcare workers were overwhelmed. Johnson says at least one of her patients died because there simply wasn’t a doctor available to intubate him. Johnson says that’s still happening and that health care workers are overwhelmed now in Houston.
Johnson is currently recovering from surgery but says she’s in touch with several of her Houston nurse friends who tell her they are, “Overwhelmed. Just, I don’t know that I can do it anymore. I am so sad. I’m so sad.”
Currently, about 3,000 Americans die from the virus every day; young, old, healthy, infirmed. Frontline workers are tired. Johnson said what she experienced the past year could take her a lifetime to recover from.
“I think I’ll be OK but I know that I’ll need to actively work on it … to feel OK about it,” she said.
How to support our healthcare workers
If you’d like to support our nurses and doctors, there are several ways to do so. We’ve posted several links below with ideas:
Send a note to Memorial Hermann workers: click here.
Send a note to Houston Methodist workers: click here.
Send a pizza! Papa John’s has a buy one give one special. When you order a large 1-topping pizza, they’ll send one to a hospital, urgent-care facility, or first-responder. click here.
Send a note to HCA workers: click here.
Post your notes, pictures and drawings of encouragement, support and appreciation on social media with the tag #HoustonWeCan.