"It was really surreal for a long time" - life as a nurse during the pandemic

Published: May. 27, 2020 at 6:26 PM AKDT
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It's been a long few months for us all. We're all finding ourselves having to do more to take care of ourselves, our families, and each other. For some, like Nurse Rachel Bridwell, doing all three has become even more essential.

Bridwell is the Nurse Manager for the Alaska Native Medical Center's drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic. The second of two sites is one she helped to set up after managing the staffing for the drive-thru clinic over on Lake Otis and Tudor for about 8 weeks.

At this point, she said it seems like that was forever ago.

"I mean we started in March when it was still snowing, and it was still dark outside, and concern was keeping people warm," she said.

They were trying, and surreal times according to Bridwell. In the beginning, she said the uncertainty of the virus caused for serious stress to her and her fellow healthcare providers.

She said not knowing if the virus was airborne or just droplets, whether or not there were asymptomatic patients, among other unknowns was cause for alarm. These were all thoughts in the back of her head as she helped people who knew even less than they did at the time.

Bridwell said it led to some very long days. She said she was working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week at one point. On more than one occasion, she said she and the other workers had to lean on each other and "cry it out and move on."

Those moments turned into a bond among those on the front line.

"We worked together seamlessly," she said, "and I really loved that we were able to do that and break the barrier of, 'what hospital do you belong to?'"

She's now working back in the hospital while managing the site staff. Like so many of us, the challenges of this pandemic don't stop when she clocks out.

Bridwell is also the mother of three girls, aged 16, 12 and 7. Additionally, she's about to get married. Her fiance, Eric, adds another two boys, 10 and 5, to the house.

Right now, she said her older girls are with their dad during the pandemic. Meanwhile, she said her fiance has been a huge help taking care of the house and kids while she continues the response to COVID.

However, her youngest, Kai, is still with them. Once Bridwell's done taking care of people at the hospital, she returns to taking care of her daughter and the rest of the family.

The past couple of years, Bridwell said that's also become a new challenge as she discovered Kai is on the autism spectrum.

She said she found herself having a hard time navigating all the resources and help she could get for her daughter. After getting a handle on what she needed to do, she decided she wanted to help other families going through the same.

So during this entire pandemic, and all the work she's put into healthcare during it, she's also been going back to school to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

"I mean what's the alternative? To just sit down and do nothing?" she said.

While it's been a long haul to get where we're at, Bridwell said she is thinking about the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus coming to Alaska. However, she's become confident in her colleagues and the state's ability to respond.

"I want to say, it wasn't just me," she said. "There were so many people that made this happen, that made it successful, that dedicated their workweeks to this. There was scheduling, staffing, resources, the list is really endless. I think something that I found is that when we needed to pull together, everybody really pulled together."

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