It’s 07:40 am as I arrive at the hospital. I walk through empty, silent corridors that just a few months earlier bustled with relatives, patients arriving early for procedures, teams heading into handover and porters keeping the hospital in motion. This morning I hear only my own feet and the acceleration of my breath as I reach the unit door and swipe my ID card to gain access. I walk past the next set of doors, behind which the beeps of cardiac monitors and infusion pumps form the soundtrack I know so well. I head to the staff room and change into my uniform, rubbing a herbal anti-viral balm into my skin and drawing a protective sigil across my heart before I zip up my blue dress. The air is heavy, though now, several weeks into the pandemic, we pretend that it isn’t.
I head towards the unit, pausing at the doors to pull on the mask that I have become so used to wearing. Next, the eye protection. I open the doors into the high dependency unit I have spent years working in. On first inspection it looks like it always has, occupied beds and the organised chaos that is this kind of nursing. The siderooms are closed, with isolation signs up. Outside the doors are the trolleys I have come to expect. Upon them lie extra personal protective equipment (PPE). The patients are suspected COVID-19 patients.
We sit in handover, masked, chairs 2 metres apart—ironic seeing as when we are all working together for a critically sick patient, there is no option to distance. It is then time to allocate patients. I am allocated one of the siderooms, a man in his seventies, admitted for a number of symptoms, some of which match the disease pattern we read about each day in the news. He has been tested, but the results have not come back yet, and therefore he is to be treated as a suspected case. Being a nurse is a part of me, I’ve nursed so many types of patients, seen so many different cases, and many times in my life I have been afraid, but I’m not used to being this afraid at work.
I prepare to meet and assess my patient. Outside his room, I dress into the next level of PPE. It isn’t like armour. Unlike the language used outside of the hospital, this doesn’t feel like a war. It feels like a very treacherous path to walk. The mask sits tight and hot on my face as the visor comes down in front of it. The tighter it feels the safer it feels—this kit is my protection as I work in a closed room with a probably contagious patient. I cannot wash him from 2 metres away, I cannot set up his intravenous medication from 2 metres away, or dress a wound, or hold his hand, or comfort him whilst he is unable to see any of his loved ones in his time of need. The PPE however is not my only protection. The sigil I drew earlier is one of protection and solidarity with fellow practitioners of the craft and I am wearing it on my heart underneath these layers. It goes by the name of Hearty, and within that circle of practitioners, and with Hearty I am held. With my hand on the door, I pause to give thanks to all those practitioners, many I have never met and I call the sigil into my mind, take a deep breath and push open the door.
He is so very sick, yet like so often, his spirit is so fiery that he’s sitting up talking to me through strained breaths and watching me through red, tired eyes. We talk about how he is feeling and he asks if his test results are back yet. He is desperate to know if he has it. The results are not back yet, but I feel sure that I know. None of us know COVID-19 well enough to know its presentation from experience, the disease is still new to us. But I know its energy and I know spirit and I know my job. I know that what is in that room with us is new. It doesn’t feel like any of the patients I am used to nursing, but it is there, heavy, brazen and full of sorrow. I spend a lot of time listening to the landscape, learning to navigate it or hear it. It is a crucial part of the spiritual path I walk. In many ways, clinically, the patient was not a textbook case but as I took a break I explained to my colleague that I felt sure he had it. I nursed him for my 12-hour shift. The next morning my colleagues informed me that he had tested positive.
As the pandemic began to take hold in the UK I had worked hard with divination to try to understand what I would be meeting, how it would manifest. I had worked with other practitioners who shared this divination work and we talked at length about this new addition to our world. Now, in its presence, so much of our work felt precious and full of depth.
At first as we prepared to nurse our first COVID-19 patients, I thought this virus was malevolent, arrogant—a bully. As the months went on, I met more patients with the virus and started to learn the nature of this new presence. It still felt like a powerful bully, but a wounded one, as all bullies are. A week later I was working a shift in intensive care. I was in a sealed bay of four COVID-19 positive ventilated patients. In a quiet moment as I sat next to my patient to write his notes, I stopped, closed my eyes, and from behind that tight mask I began some breath work. I focused on breath—the thing these patients were fighting for, as the lungs take the brunt of the disease—and on my own longing for a breath of fresh clean air from under the kit. I remember thinking of the recent forest fires, as the lungs of our planet burned in Australia and Brazil. I thought of the sounds of the ventilators all working to breathe for the patients. Breath is a part of my practice, but in that moment I truly felt how sacred it is to breathe, how connected we are in that exchange between the internal and the external, the delicate balance of the atmosphere, the biosphere, the everything. I wrote and shared a Hearty practice centred around breath and I hope this story serves it well.
Being a nurse means sitting with suffering. Sitting with the dark times, the things that many avoid. It means listening and understanding that which is unseen but that is very much there, forming the stories of people’s lives, loves and losses. For me, the craft is similar—it comes from a great love and connection to those I share my existence with, in all their forms, on all their levels. It is about holding that sacred space with compassion, being prepared to ask the bully why it is sad, what does it want to say? It is the love, the hope, the joy and the sadness of that space. It is playing it out on the drum, sending on that which must leave and holding safe that which must be protected. For me it has included the comfort of kind herbs on the days my heart is heavy from the last few months, the soft light of the moon and my bare feet on the belly of the earth. It has been the comfort and love of other practitioners, across the globe working with Hearty or their own practices, to hold the space for better times.
There is much yet for our craft to give and I have so much gratitude to all my brothers and sisters on this path. Merry Meet, albeit from afar.
The Heretic Nurse