Note: As told to Page Leggett

Jo Ann Behounek, RN, is an emergency room nurse at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center. Since the COVID-19 crisis first began, she’s been working in the forward triage station just outside the ER. Her duties include helping test and triage patients who may have COVID-19.

I want to start by thanking you. If you’ve stayed home during this lockdown, you’ve made a huge difference for humanity. You’ve allowed us – health care workers – to take care of our community. The only way we can do our jobs effectively is if you followed stay-at-home guidelines. You’ve made tremendous sacrifices, and we are grateful.  

Jo Ann Behounek

Let me tell you – or try to – what our emergency department looks like now. I’ve been a nurse for 33 years, and the ER is always – prior to, during and after COVID – controlled chaos. But it’s even more so now. We’re used to constant change. Every day, we face something new. But with COVID, we’re facing something new every 30 minutes.

Our team – we’re like a tribe now – meets daily to discuss the new guidance we’ve gotten from our leadership. Then, we figure out how to make it work for patients, staff and the community.

The pace is different, too. A pandemic is urgent, but it doesn’t feel like the emergency situations we’re used to. Speed is secondary now. We have to move and act cautiously.

Wearing the full PPE is essential, and that’s something we’ve had to get used to. As nurses, our first instinct is to run and help. To put others first. Now, we have to slow down a beat and think of ourselves, too. It’s counter to everything we’ve been taught and put into practice. We have to resist that initial impulse to rush to someone’s aid and make sure we’re properly equipped.

The nurses help each other out. We’ve had to catch each other and say, “Stop! Don’t go in that room until you’re suited up.”

It doesn’t take long – maybe 30 seconds – for us to put on the right gear. We’re always masked. Our goggles are propped up on our heads. We have to put on a face shield and apron, and those are bagged together and on carts throughout the hallway. All we have to do is reach for one. There’s no time to go hunting for equipment. We keep our own N95 masks.

The protective gear isn’t just for our sakes. We have to do it for our patients, our families, our communities and ourselves. If I get sick, who’s going to take care of my patients? That thought is always on my mind.

Behounek is in the top left of this painting, "Unsung Heroes," painted by one of her fellow team members, Janine Rosenberg.
Behounek is in the top left of this painting, "Unsung Heroes," painted by one of her fellow team members, Janine Rosenberg.

Another big difference in the ER now vs. before the pandemic: There’s no family around. For my patients, I am their family for the moment. I slow down – actually, it’s more like screeching to a halt – and listen to them. It’s made me grow as a nurse. It’s a blessing, really.

Our patients are afraid. And we never forget that. When people ask if I’m afraid, I answer honestly. I tell them, "I am scared, but we’re going to do this together."

The ER feels different during a pandemic – and not in the way we had predicted. We’re not as busy, and that concerns us.

We know people who need care are staying away because of their fear of COVID. We’re seeing patients who’ve been having chest pains for three days. That’s not good. Life goes on during a pandemic. People get sick with things unrelated to the coronavirus. We’re doing our best to reassure people that it’s safe to come to the hospital. We’re taking extra precautions. Patients are now in a single room in the ER. Don’t delay getting care.

We have to keep believing that good that will come out of this. We’re all scared now, but every day, we gain more knowledge and more tools to combat this disease. Every day, there’s progress.

And everyone is doing what they can, and that is a lovely thing to witness. From the neighbor who left a thank-you card on my windshield to the kids who draw rainbows and messages of hope in sidewalk chalk, everyone is playing a role.

And it all makes a difference.

Every day, there’s reason for me to think: Just look at us. We’re checking on each other. We have come together. We’re showing our humanity. Thank you, for what you’re doing to help.

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