Health care workers are used to dealing with worst-case scenarios — blunt traumas, drug overdoses, heart attacks.
But when the novel coronavirus hit more than a year ago, they had few answers to guide them. There was no protocol, and a limited understanding of the virus and its severity.
“It was kind of a moment of, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’ ” said Scott Aldrich, an administrative clinical supervisor at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene who is also a registered nurse, “... because we locked down tight, so it was very much like there’s a calm, but is there going to be a storm?”
And a storm there was. Cases climbed rapidly in New Hampshire and beyond, prompting stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and social-distancing guidelines.
Cheshire Medical, like other health care providers, squirreled away personal protective equipment, barred visitors for most patients and suspended nonessential procedures.
On top of that, hospital nurses and doctors had to adopt significantly stricter patient protocols than they were used to, according to Aldrich, a Harrisville resident who is responsible for supporting all of the hospital’s acute units, including managing patient and staff flow.
Before COVID-19, he said, the main precaution — which was optional — was wearing gloves when entering a patient’s room if the nurse or doctor might be exposed to bodily fluid.
But now, every patient — whether they have COVID or not — needs a face mask and face shield. When working with COVID-positive patients, Aldrich said he must wear an N95 face mask, face shield, gown and gloves.
“From a technical perspective, there is a lot of work that goes into taking care of a COVID patient,” said Aldrich, 38. “... All of the steps to ensure that you’re not spreading this virus, that translates to an increased workload for the nurse, obviously.”
Aldrich — who started as a licensed nursing assistant at Cheshire Medical in 2004, and then returned as a registered nurse in 2017 — recalled his first time assisting with a patient who’d contracted the virus. The patient was in the ICU, and he needed to be taken to an imaging procedure.
“It was, ‘This is what we’re gonna do before we go into the room, this is what we’re gonna do when we come out of the room, this is what we’re gonna do when we go to the elevator’ ... I wanted to make sure it was appropriately coordinated,” he said.
Now, more than a year later, Aldrich can’t even remember how many COVID patients he’s dealt with. He tried to keep track at first, but said it became impossible.
And he’s seen many patients die from the disease’s complications, the trauma exacerbated by loved ones not being able to visit. (The hospital relaxed its visitation policy last month, allowing at least one person for all patients.)
“These COVID-positive patients that are in our ICU that are dying, we could do phone visits and tele-visits for family when appropriate, but yeah, they are dying without their loved ones because we can’t let them come in,” he said.
For months, these dark days persisted — more cases, more deaths, more exhaustion.
It wasn’t until late spring, when cases first started to dip in New Hampshire, that Aldrich said he felt a glimmer of hope.
“I remember looking at that and thinking, ‘Yeah, alright, baby,’ ”he said with a laugh. “Or not even [going] down — plateau. The numbers were like plateauing, and I was like, ‘Thank God!’ ”
The thought of fewer cases was not only exciting from a personal standpoint, but also for the hospital as a whole.
“There’s this perception that the hospitals, that we run empty all the time and that we are just sitting here waiting for the pandemic patients. No. There are sick people that we take care of on a day-to-day basis,” Aldrich said. “On a day-to-day basis, my ICU is full, on a day-to-day basis my [medical surgical] unit is full, so all these people that have the attitude of ‘Oh they’re alright. They can just take the load.’ — like, no.”
Aldrich also finds it difficult to hear of people not taking the virus seriously or asserting it’s the same as getting the flu.
In 2020, the novel coronavirus contributed to more than 380,000 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the 2019 flu season — before masks became a staple in public, which health experts say contributed to a lower number of flu cases this season — about 34,000 people died of influenza, CDC data show.
Aldrich added that he’s disappointed by how the virus has become politicized.
“It came down to money versus lives, right? You know, they wanted to keep the economy going, so the economy keeps running. Meanwhile people are dying,” he said. “... We can fix money; we can’t fix people dying. We can’t give someone their grandma back.”
The stress of the pandemic also bled into his home life, Aldrich said.
His wife, Merissa, and his youngest daughter, who is 6, are both immunocompromised, meaning they’re at higher risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19.
“So I decided to come home and come in through the bulkhead and go in through the basement ... so I’d take off my shoes and take off my scrubs and beeline it to the shower,” he said.
But even with this added precaution, Aldrich said he still constantly worries that he, or someone else, will spread the viral disease to his family.
“This thing that COVID does to people ... where it hyper-activates the immune system, my daughter’s body does that baseline, kind of, so the amount of red blood cells in her body will decrease by half if she gets a common cold,” he said. “So she really can’t, or shouldn’t, get this virus.”
Since Merissa is a stay-at-home mom, and his daughters are learning remotely, the family has easily kept themselves in a quarantine bubble, aside from Aldrich heading to work three times a week.
Because of this, he said, his daughters are continuing with remote schooling at least until the end of the school year.
Meanwhile, at the hospital, things are looking up. Just last week, Aldrich said he had his first day with no COVID-19 patients admitted — almost as if the calm is coming back.
And until more days like that, he and his colleagues will keep doing what they do best.
“If there’s a fire, you send in firemen, if there’s a riot, you send in the policemen, if there’s a pandemic, you send in the nurses,” Aldrich said. “It’s what we signed up for.”
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