A tattoo tells part of Eryn Davis’ story. It’s a stethoscope inside a heart, a design she selected to celebrate her graduation from nursing school in 2019. Davis worked her first year as a nurse in a medical intensive care unit at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Then COVID-19 hit, and she volunteered to care exclusively for COVID patients as part of a group that her boss, Jenny Walters, nicknamed the “COVID warriors.”

In recognition of Davis’ contributions to her community, the Greater Wilmington Business Journal named her one of its health care heroes. “Eryn has a great deal of passion for patients,” Walters said. “She is always a strong advocate for what they need. You can tell she absolutely loves what she does.”

Here, Davis, 42, talks about nursing through the pandemic, what she learned about herself in the process, and how she survived it all. Hint: Davis and her husband, Chris, have a set of matching tattoos. His says, “You keep me wild.” Hers says, “You keep me safe.”

I met Chris when he was in the Air Force. At one point we lived in Germany for three years and had kids really young. I stayed at home with the children. As they got older, I thought about what else I wanted to do. I had studied international relations and French in college but never really used the degree. My mom’s a long-term care nurse, and I’ve always admired her.

Then Chris got sick in 2013 with stage three colon cancer. He was only 32.

During his treatment we spent so much time with oncology nurses. Their care and compassion really solidified my thoughts about becoming a nurse. Not oncology – that was a little too close to home. I thought I’d do labor and delivery when I started nursing school in 2017, but ended up focusing on critical care.

Our three sons – they’re 17, 15 and 13 now – were supportive. Chris, who had fully recovered, became more of the on-site provider for the kids because I was gone at school and clinicals, day and night. It was an adjustment. As a mom, you don’t want to give up that control. But Chris was extremely supportive. I don’t think I could have done it without him.

Following a new grad residency program, I started on a medical intensive care unit at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. We treat patients with pneumonia, sepsis, respiratory failure, gastrointestinal bleeds and other very serious medical issues. Even before the pandemic, it was probably the most intensive department I could have picked. I liked having to rely on critical thinking skills. I also appreciated the trust that the doctors have in their nurses to make decisions that need to be made.

From intensive care to COVID-19

One year later, in March 2020, I volunteered to care for patients in our COVID-19 unit. A few of us volunteered to work all our shifts there and became a COVID team.

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These were the most critical patients we had. When COVID first started, no one knew exactly what it was or how it spread. The COVID unit was sectioned off from the rest of the ICU, with patients in “negative pressure” isolation rooms so their air wasn’t circulating elsewhere in the hospital.

For about the first six months, we wore “space suits” with gloves and coverings for our head and shoes for the entire 12-hour shift. We couldn’t take the full breaks we usually get, between the attire and our patients’ urgent needs. To leave for the day, we would go through an anteroom where we would take off all of our gear to make sure we weren’t taking contaminants with us. Eventually, the protocol relaxed so that we could wear N95 masks. The more we learned about COVID, the more we adapted to it.

I was charge nurse on some days. That person manages staffing, the flow of patients and any issues that arise with families. When we didn't have enough nurses, our management team was right at the bedside, helping out. They never asked us to do anything they wouldn't do themselves.

When families couldn’t be there

It was a hard time for the families. We weren't allowing any visitors into the unit because of the risk of the disease spreading. I felt a higher purpose to be there when families couldn’t. The consistency of having the same nurses there was important. A lot of our COVID patients were there for a long time. We wanted to have a familiar voice for families to talk to so they weren't getting different nurses all the time.

In the ICU, we deal a lot with end-of-life care. Once a patient was intubated and placed on life support, the patient’s odds of coming off that ventilator often weren't very high. We wanted to do our best to make sure that family got to speak with the patient on a video call before we intubated. Often, that would be the last time they would talk with to their loved ones. Sometimes we would prop the phone or tablet and leave the room to give them privacy; other times, we stayed by the patient’s side.

None of our COVID patients died alone. We always made sure there was a nurse present to talk with them, play music and let them know we were there. It’s an honor to be at their side, hold their hands. We didn't know what they could feel or hear, but just wanted to make sure it was as peaceful a death as we could make it. It's never easy. I think if it ever does get easier, it's the time to stop being a nurse. You never forget any of them.

I find peace in helping patients have a good death when we've exhausted all measures to try to save them. That's a side of nursing that probably doesn't get discussed often. We’re honoring and helping someone transition, being there for patients and family. And unfortunately, that was way too often during COVID.

‘We can rely on each other’

There were many tears shed, just the sheer volume of deaths that we were dealing with. I think it probably caused a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder in our nursing team. It’s part of the job.

To handle the stress, I’d run after work, lose myself in the gym, play some music or talk with my husband. I would come home crying a shower of tears sometimes. Having a strong network of family, friends and co-workers who understood everything helped.

I didn't do anything above and beyond what any of my co-workers did. My friends put me up for the Heroes award, but they're equally as deserving if not more so. And truth be told, I was not crazy about being the focus here. We have an amazing, cohesive group of nurses in the ICU. We can rely on each other without a second thought. A lot of times, you can't do it alone. You need that second set of hands or eyes to be with that patient who’s in extremely critical condition. There’s no one else I would rather work with than all of our nurses and management. They're just incredible.

I learned during COVID that I can handle a lot more than I thought. I came straight out of nursing school into the ICU, and then into COVID. It was a little intimidating, but my training paid off.

I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else now.

*As told to Andrea Cooper