Mother living in the hospital finds a way to give back during COVID-19 surge

Nurses say they are at their breaking point and would love public support

Medical mama Michelle Fullington has had a front-row seat to this summer’s hospital meltdown. 

It hasn’t been easy to watch. But she did find a way to spark joy even in these dark times.

Mom to 18-year-old Kira — who has been hospitalized in Portland, Ore. since July 19 — Fullington watched as staffing and resources got stretched to the limit in August during the Delta-variant-fueled COVID-19 surge.

“Things are getting beyond dicey in-patient,” she said this week. Fullington asked that Medical Motherhood not name the Portland-area hospital she is staying at in order to speak candidly. 

“It is so beyond insane. There’s just not a way to describe how bad things are right now,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think how things could get worse. I can’t even think about that because it’s already so bad.”

In Oregon, it likely will get worse. Current projections show a peak of more than 1,200 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Monday, Sept. 6.

Joshua Holt, a nurse and leader in the 6,000-member Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said the situation is even worse than the numbers show: Health care workers are burned out and demoralized.

In a recent survey of OFNHP nurses, Holt said, nearly two-thirds reported they were seriously considering leaving the entire nursing profession in the next two years. Holt said he believes this is a nationwide sentiment due to a trend of underfunding, increasingly difficult workloads and now the extra demands of the pandemic.

“As a profession, we are so incredibly beat down right now,” Holt said. “This tunnel has been very dark for very long and there’s doesn’t seem to be any light at the end.”

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Fullington felt that despair, too, and wanted to do something about it.

“I was struggling,” she said. The Southeast Portland resident asked herself last week why she had to be stuck in the hospital at this particularly stressful time. “The answer was: Bloom where you are planted. In other words, look for good and do good.”

Fullington wrote a Facebook post and collected $250 from friends and family to buy various treats and healthy snacks — as well as thank you stickers to put on each and every item — as a token of appreciation to the staff.

“You wouldn’t believe the impact that tiny little bag of M&Ms has on someone who is running on fumes and feels like they are being stabbed in the back for everything they are doing,” she said.

Fullington said a charge nurse on her pediatric floor helped send the treats over to the adult COVID-19 unit. 

As a longtime medical mama, Fullington is on a fixed income — both she and her husband are paid caregivers to three disabled family members. Every year, they already hunkered down to avoid the regular cold and flu season; with COVID-19, they are even more restricted. The family now gets everything delivered or they go without. Fullington doesn’t even use communal spaces in the hospital; she does her laundry in the room’s sink and gets delivery to avoid the hospital’s family kitchen or cafeterias. 

She would appreciate donations for more of these “Snack Attacks” (her Venmo or Paypal), but she strongly encouraged Medical Motherhood readers to create their own shows of support at their local hospitals and clinics.

“It doesn’t matter what state, where you are: Try to find a way to let health care workers know they are appreciated,” she said. “Cut out hearts and write thank you on them. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be food.”

Asked if these shows of support would help, Holt said the question almost brought him to tears.

“Yes. Yeah,” he said. “Little notes of ‘You’re appreciated,’ ‘You mean the world to us,’ ‘We still see you,’ ‘We still think you’re our heroes,’ ‘Every day that you go to work means the world to someone’s family,’ — that is going to completely change someone’s day.” Holt added that the early-pandemic cheering has faded away: “We were seen a year ago and then life moved on.”

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Fullington isn’t sure when she will be able to bring her daughter home, but she is hoping it is soon. 

“The bottom line is it’s not safe for us to be here longer than we have to,” she said. 

COVID-19 has stretched resources to the point that health care officials are having to ration care, or press “go” on interventions that they would rather wait on. Fullington said she worries Kira won’t qualify for a bed if they need to come back after discharge.

“We’re faced with options we don’t like,” Fullington said. “But the nurses, the (respiratory therapists), the cleaning people, still show up with a smile on their face. That is bravery. That is nothing short of being heroic in my book.”


How to thank a nurse (and other health care staff)

If you do plan to make cards or other gestures of support, be sure to call the hospital or clinic to arrange a time to drop them off — now is not the time to show up as a surprise.

Oregon Nurses Association spokesperson Kevin Mealy also said the biggest thing the public could do right now to thank a nurse is to do their best to avoid needing medical care.

“Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Keep distance. And get vaccinated,” Mealy said, adding that if people do need emergency medicine to be patient and kind.

He also said it’s imperative that people do what they can to keep up their own physical and mental health. Mental Health America says Oregon has the highest rate in the nation for adults with mental illness, and youth aren’t far behind. Mealy said teenagers are struggling particularly hard right now.

“We’ve seen adolescent mental health drop off a cliff during COVID,” Mealy said.

In the bigger picture, Mealy said the public needs to support additional funding for nurse training and retention programs. He called for frontline workers to have a seat at the table in policy decisions.

Joshua Holt, head of the Registered Nurses committee of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, echoed those calls.

“We have been really in a fight for our lives even before COVID to try to get our employer and the industry to get substantive improvements on nurse staffing,” Holt said. “We have been whittled down to a spreadsheet and productivity numbers.”

Holt, whose group is in the middle of contract negotiations with employer Kaiser Permanente, said the public could help improve working conditions by attending a rally Sept. 28 or signing a petition. He also encouraged Kaiser members to complain to administrators if they are unhappy with patient care because, Holt said, so are nurses.

“If you are frustrated, we would like for you to share it,” he said.


Medical Motherhood’s news roundup

• From ProPublica: A Boy With an Autoimmune Disease Was Ready to Learn in Person. Then His State Banned Mask Mandates.

But for families like the Gambrels, the stakes are exponentially higher. Children like Jayden, with complex health conditions, often are among those most in need of direct, specialized instruction that can only be delivered in person. Those same health conditions can also put children like Jayden at higher risk of infection and illness.

• From New York Times Opinion: The Intolerable Wait for a Kids’ Vaccine

Personally, I’m losing that trust. I fear the F.D.A. knows it will be blamed if anything goes wrong with the vaccine, but not necessarily if kids get horribly sick for lack of it.

Even with Delta, kids are far less likely to die than adults. But it’s hard to take comfort in that while children’s hospital beds are filling up. In a letter to President Biden, the chief executive of the Children’s Hospital Association recently wrote, “With pediatric volumes at or near capacity and the upcoming school season expected to increase demand, there may not be sufficient bed capacity or expert staff to care for children and families in need.”

…The F.D.A. can minimize risk to itself by taking its time. Families don’t have that luxury.

• From Disability Scoop: Ed Department: Mask Mandate Bans May Violate Rights Of Students With Disabilities

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights sent letters this week to the chief state school officers in IowaOklahomaSouth CarolinaTennessee and Utah notifying them of the investigations, which will examine whether each state is complying with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

…At issue are various state actions designed to keep schools from requiring universal masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Without masking requirements, many parents of students with disabilities and those with medical conditions who are at heightened risk of severe illness from the coronavirus are leery of sending their vulnerable children to school in person. The situation is especially fraught since students with disabilities are among those who have struggled most with remote education during the pandemic.


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