ICU nurse Christy Mulder says the images of families saying goodbye to dying loved ones over FaceTime are forever seared in her memory. They mark some of the most heartbreaking moments of her career. “We would prepare the call, and families would talk to a husband or mom or grandparent for the last time,” she says. She works in an area of University of Utah Hospital devoted to the sickest of the sick. She says patients weren’t always coherent, but those final conversations meant everything to the families they left behind. “At the end of the call, folks would watch a loved one take those final breaths on a computer screen…It was unimaginable.”
From final goodbyes to funerary rites, Coronavirus hijacked death’s dignity. Hospital rooms that should have been the scene of loving spouses, children and grandchildren surrounding the bed of a dying patient instead lay quietly still, with only the sounds of modern medical machinery and the footsteps of overworked doctors and nurses in the halls.
“There was a reverence in knowing that I was the person that somebody was going to die with,” Mulder says. “Yet the workload was so great that I felt constantly conflicted—there was so much death, I don’t think—even now—I’ve properly processed everything.”
Acting as a reassuring voice became a duty as important as providing the best possible medical care. But how do you comfort someone isolated from family and friends while wearing a science-fictiony spacesuit? How do you make meaningful connections that mitigate fear and communicate compassion to someone in an almost-apocalyptic hospital setting?
“There’s a lot that can’t be communicated in all the gear we’ve had to wear over the past year, so I’ve had to change the way I care for patients,” Mulder says. “It’s always a busy place, and usually, with family at the bedside, we’re free to move in and out of rooms pretty quickly.” But when visitors were barred from entering hospitals, Mulder says she made the decision to do her charting and other tasks in the patient’s room instead of at the nursing station, so she could spend as much time with them as possible. “They just needed to hear another person’s voice.”
With so many unknowns about the spread of COVID-19 in the early months, that was no small decision. Many health care workers were rightly concerned about their own safety.
“Some people were talking about our rights as caregivers. Should we put our lives on the line? Our families’ lives?” Mulder says. She adds that the rapid deterioration of people with the disease coupled with the early images of New York’s tragic fight against the virus were frightening for healthcare workers. She faced an invisible enemy whose tactics were often evasive and unpredictable. “So it was scary to make the decision to work.”
When, in December 2020, after what felt like an eternity of dark days, Mulder was asked if she would like to be the first person in Utah to receive the COVID-19, she was honored. “The vaccine gave me and my colleagues new reasons to go forward,” she says. “I felt as if they’d asked me to be an ambassador for hope.”
This story is part of our series on coronavirus heroes. Read all of them here.