A nurse at Grady Memorial Hospital, Lauren Skinner is also pitching in to help keep her co-workers safe in the time of coronavirus. She’s taken to designing and sewing N95 mask covers and leading a Facebook group to show others how to do it, too.
I STARTED WORKING AT GRADY ALMOST SIX YEARS AGO in the surgical trauma intensive care unit, and I transferred to the burn unit this past August.
It’s been very different since the coronavirus outbreak, to say the least. In the burn unit, because our patients have such a high infection rate, we’ve been pretty isolated from coronavirus. Having a highly infectious respiratory patient in the burn unit is a bad idea.
A couple years ago, I joined the hazardous infectious disease team that was formed at Grady in response to Ebola. If we were to have an Ebola patient, I would be one of the nurses called in. Because of that, earlier in February, Barbara McLean, who heads the team, had those of us who were willing and able start doing personal protective equipment (PPE) training all over the hospital.
Four of us went to every single unit where they had either a COVID-positive patient or a patient under investigation (PUI) for COVID-19. We trained every unit, during every shift, day and night, for about six or seven weeks, showing exactly what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates on PPE guidance were. At our busiest, I worked just over 100 hours in one week, and we trained roughly 1,500 employees.
In addition to that, we knew we needed to create masks to cover our N95 respirators. I love to sew, so I tried a couple of patterns I found online, but they either had too many folds or too much fabric, or they didn’t completely cover the N95, so I ended up designing one myself.
Normally, if we had a respiratory patient, our N95 would be for one-day or single-patient use. Because we don’t have enough of them, we needed to protect the outside of the mask. The respirator protects us, but if a COVID-positive patient coughs and it gets on the outside of the N95 mask, we don’t want to then take it into a room of another patient who is COVID-negative. It would put them at risk.
The original CDC guidelines were to cover the N95s with a surgical mask and discard the surgical mask after every use. Well, even back in February, the surgical masks were in short supply.
An outer mask helps protect our patients and our co-workers and prolongs the life of the N95, which we’re wearing for weeks at a time.
We started a Facebook group, BaLa N95 Cover for Frontline Healthcare Workers, organizing people to volunteer to make mask covers. We call them BaLa covers — short for Barbara and Lauren.
We’ve had close to 2,000 made and distributed to people throughout Grady as well as to some other people in need. One of our employees who went to New York to do relief nursing was sent up with 500 covers.
I’m putting together templates and fabric to send off to people willing to trace, cut and sew.
It’s complicated in the burn unit because patients coming in with inhalation injuries have all the same symptoms as a COVID-19 patient — fever, shortness of breath, a chest X-ray showing inflammation and that kind of thing — so a lot of our patients coming in from house fires are considered PUIs until confirmed negative. We did have one patient who came in positive, and this was early on, so we weren’t wearing masks at all times in the hospital. We ended up having to get tested just to make sure because so many of us did come into contact with this patient.
I’ve been up on the units taking care of COVID-19 patients since I’m delivering masks. I’m also working with another volunteer organization that’s delivering meals and other supplies. I can see how hard they’re working and what they’re having to go through to take care of these patients.
You can always tell who is staffing those units because they come home with the marks on their faces every day.
We’ve had a couple employees test positive, and they ended up requiring fluids and nebulizer treatments at home. And these are young, healthy people. These are people who run marathons. They don’t smoke. They eat healthy diets and have no health history. Even a couple of weeks after being cleared to come back to work, they’re exhausted after about eight hours. They still don’t have the stamina they did. They’re still feeling it. It really took a toll on them.
“I’ve been up on the units taking care of COVID-19 patients since I’m delivering masks. I’m also working with another volunteer organization that’s delivering meals and other supplies. I can see how hard they’re working and what they’re having to go through to take care of these patients.”
Being a nurse was not my original plan. I started off studying neuroscience, and I was working in a lab doing electrophysiology with a plan to go to graduate school for neuroscience.
I ended up getting sick with a gastrointestinal infection that had me in the hospital for a few days, and I had a terrible nurse one night. She pretty much accused me of drug-seeking. I was alone, scared, in pain and crying all night. It was a really traumatic experience for me.
Afterward, I was like, “I can do her job, and I can do her job well. I can make sure none of my patients ever feel the way I did that night.”
So, instead of going to graduate school, I decided to go to nursing school, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I was in the accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program at Georgia State, and I’ve been a nurse for almost 13 years now. And I love it. It is hard. It is tiring. It is trying. But it is also extremely satisfying. I still love my job, even when I come home in tears or exhausted.
Photos by Meg Buscema