Crash Course in Caregiving: A New Nurse Steps Up as COVID Hits Houston

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the U.S., Houston has become a major hot spot. The southern Texas metropolis of about 2.4 million people has been hit hard in recent weeks, with more than 40,000 cases reported in Harris County and more than 400 deaths.

As a sea of patients places a crushing strain on the emergency department at Houston Methodist Hospital, one young nurse has been moving calmly and quickly to support and care for the sick: Kaliah Glenn, 23.

Glenn, who only graduated from nursing school in May 2019 and completed her residency training in December, was just getting into the groove and finding her feet when the novel coronavirus went global in March. “The emergency department started to change right before my eyes,” she says, as new policies and procedures were put in place to protect patients and caregivers alike. N95 masks and full personal protective equipment became the daily norm. Previously, full PPE had really only been used when dealing with tuberculous patients, she says.

From March through early June, Houston saw some cases of COVID-19, but the virus began surging a month ago, putting a real strain on area health care centers. On June 24, Dr. David Persse, Houston’s chief public health official, sounded the alarm about dwindling space in area emergency departments. He projected that Harris County could run out of intensive care beds by the July 4 weekend.

His warnings sounded eerily reminiscent of New York City in the earlier days of the pandemic, as Houston’s charts of new cases follow an Everest-like endlessly skyward trajectory. Texas Medical Center, a sprawling Houston facility, saw its population of COVID-19 patients increase by 47% during the last week of June.

[Read: New York Doctor Led 52 Urgent Care Clinics Through COVID-19 Peak]

Helping manage this surge are new nurses like Glenn, who never anticipated so much would be asked of them so soon into their careers. When she graduated from high school in 2015, Glenn knew she wanted to pursue a career centered around helping others. “I wanted to interact with people and be there for people during their most difficult times,” she recalls. “I decided nursing would be the best way to do that.”

But she never expected she’d be on the front lines of the biggest public health crisis the world has seen in a century. “I never thought I’d be dealing with something like this just a year into my nursing career,” she says.

As an emergency department nurse, Glenn really is the front line, treating patients with suspected cases of COVID-19 as they come in struggling to breathe. She says she chose emergency nursing after completing a clinical rotation in her last year of nursing school.

“I just fell in love with emergency nursing. I loved the teamwork. In the emergency department, you always have help. When a patient’s coding, there’s never just you in the room. Emergency nursing is hard, but it’s all about the most amazing team,” she says. Sunny and personable, Glenn has managed to radiate a sense of calm throughout the pandemic that has impressed her peers and managers and comforted patients in their moment of need. But the work hasn’t been easy, she says.

“There’s a big difference between freaking out on the inside and crumbling on the outside. I try to make it seem like I’m very calm,” she says. When the going gets tough, “I never let my patients see.”

[Read: Her Young Patient Got the First COVID-19 Double-Lung Transplant in the U.S.]

This commitment to being a rock for her patients is part of what makes Glenn such an outstanding nurse and an asset during this trying time; it speaks to a philosophy of care that always puts patients first. She reflects that her patients “are the ones who are having trouble breathing. They’re the ones whose heart or lungs are failing. This is their fight. We’re just in it with them, and we have to be in it with them. We have to be calm,” and be that safe space because “their troubles are 10 times bigger” than her own. “Everything we do is for them.”

But still, it’s been challenging to be on the front lines like this, especially as such a young professional just starting out. “I remember what it was like to walk into a patient’s room without a mask on,” she says while expressing empathy for new nurses and doctors just starting jobs in hospitals around the country this month in the midst of the pandemic. It’s a stark reminder of how much the world and her profession has changed in just a few short months. “Now, I don’t even know what my patients look like until I take the mask down to swab them” to test for COVID-19 infection.

Glenn says Houston Methodist has done a stellar job of making sure its staff members have all the protective equipment they need to stay safe, and she feels supported in the effort to keep herself and her coworkers free of infection. The hospital reconfigured the emergency department to create separation between patients. The hospital has also instituted a no-visitor policy to limit the number of people in the building. Waiting areas have much less furniture and have been rearranged to support social distancing practices to limit contact with crowds. “We now have a waiting room for the waiting room,” she says.

But even with protections in place and new protocols that draw on lessons learned in New York City and other previous hot spots, the work is challenging. “The main struggle is seeing the patients suffer. That’s been really hard,” she says. Trying to comfort someone who can’t breathe is upsetting, and “seeing them suffer and seeing them alone without their families and knowing that there’s nothing you can do…” she trails off. “It’s been very somber.”

Comforting those patients has been made more difficult by all the protective equipment she must wear, as patients can’t see her smile at them through her mask. Instead, she holds their hands (while fully protected with gloves, mask, face shield and gown) and soothes them as best she can as they die. She acts as a surrogate for the family members who can’t be with a loved one because of infection-control protocols.

[Read: Speech-Language Pathologists Join the COVID-19 Front Lines.]

The day to day has been heavy for sure, and Glenn says she no longer underestimates the value of a smile or of good support where she can find it. Though she’s had to stay physically distant from her own family to keep them safe, she says they have helped her through the toughest days. They talk frequently on the phone, and she’s visited with her mother from opposite ends of the driveway. “My family is the most import thing to me. Being able to have their support is the main way I’ve been getting through this.” Many bubble baths, a pedicure and some good-quality self care has helped her stay the course, too.

As this crisis deepens in Houston — a city that’s still struggling to rebound from devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 — and as the area wades deeper into another hurricane season, Glenn hopes that the positive signs she’s seen among Houstonians who’ve been wearing masks when out and about and complying with public health recommendations continues. “The citizens of Houston are complying and businesses are taking it seriously. I just hope it’s enough to slow the spread.”

More from U.S. News

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