Stories from the frontline: Anesthesia for Nurses students reflect on working in COVID ICUs during the pandemic

Jessie Bradley
June 24, 2021

While gaining the critical care experience they needed to apply for the MUSC Anesthesia for Nurses program, students like Jesse Greene and Matthew Bauer, made the bold decision to volunteer in the COVID ICU in 2020. Greene and Bauer shared what their experiences were like and how it impacted their lives, careers, and educational goals.

Meet Matthew Bauer, SRNA, Class of 2024

Matthew Bauer

Why did you choose to volunteer in a COVID unit?

I volunteered to work in MUSC’s COVID ICU back in March or April of 2020 when we first started to separate COVID-19 patients. It was a unique opportunity for us as clinicians and as academics to spearhead treatment in a pandemic. Filling in the gaps, challenging traditional practices, trialing medicines and modalities, being forced to process outside of the box - all of this with a goal of serving our community in desperate need.

What was that experience like and in what ways might it have been similar or different from what the public may have seen on the news?

During a pandemic, working in intensive care highlighted how differently we see the world as clinicians compared to those outside of health care. Being faced with mortality will always be a fundamental part of our job. Still, the brevity and rapid deterioration in our COVID population left us disarmed and perplexed in the early months of the pandemic. We poured over clinical data from respected medical publications, challenged acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) practices, and clinically trialed every drug and modality in our repertoire. Despite that, it felt like our efforts were not turning the tide.

It was such a unique scenario to spend 12 hours in full PPE, treating patients, some of whom did not survive, to go home, change, and eat in your garage while your family had dinner in a separate room, fearing the risk of exposure. Normalcy couldn’t have been further away. It was isolation in its truest form.

How did the experience affect your mental and physical health, and do you foresee any long-term impacts?

This pandemic allowed me to grow, it forced introspection. I looked at my own mortality, my place in society. Do I want to use health care as a consistent, earnest profession, or do I want to leave a legacy?

I’m an academic at heart and watching clinical information be misconstrued or manipulated in the media was particularly challenging. It felt as though expert research was being discarded as if it were mere opinion. I struggled with this aspect more than anything.

Meet Jesse Greene, SRNA, Class of 2024

Jesse Green

Why did you choose to work in a COVID ICU?

In a small rural hospital, the responsibilities of a registered nurse (RN) are often expanded, and expectations of those responsibilities rise in the event of a crisis. I chose to work at this facility right out of nursing school as it gave me immediate ICU experience. The goal was to speed up being accepted in certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) school. After the first year and a half, COVID hit, and I was determined not to abandon my colleagues or the comorbid patient population.

What was that experience like and in what ways might it have been similar or different from what the public may have seen on the news?

The public just doesn’t understand the severity of the illness and how quickly things can take a turn for the worst in a matter of seconds. If the public could watch a patient (who previously lived a normal life) literally gasp for air and suffocate on a ventilator, there would be a new respect for trying to keep each other safe with proper hygiene practices.

Do you have any memorable patient stories from your time there?

The biggest heartbreak involves a very young patient with a new baby and spouse at home. The patient fought for their life for weeks and ultimately ended in a very sad humble withdrawal of care. As more complications occurred, more tubes were inserted, and the patient’s demise progressed. I have watched friends die and I have watched patients’ fears become realities as they take their last breath before being placed on a ventilator that will ultimately never offer any hope.

Has working in this environment changed any of your career goals?

It has only strengthened my goal of becoming a CRNA, as I wish to become more focused on one patient at a time as I provide more advanced skills and impact my patient in a deeper way.