It’s March 25, 2020. Exhausted nurse Kathy Pickerl (BSN’01) strips off her soiled scrubs in her garage after a tough shift in the intensive care unit (ICU). She darts directly to her shower to wash off the day, ignoring the outstretched arms of her family along the way, in order to keep them safe. Her scrubs lie in a heap on the floor and need to be thoroughly washed and sanitized before she heads back to the ICU tomorrow, to do it all over again.
It’s a challenging routine, but she will do whatever is necessary to save herself and her family from the relatively unknown COVID-19 virus that was just starting to sweep the nation.
“We were all very concerned and very stressed,” Pickerl recalled. “We’re all still quite scared, but initially, it was terrifying.”
It’s been nearly one year since Pickerl and her team at Saskatoon’s St. Paul’s Hospital was gearing up for the unknown. She recalls those early days with almost a tremor in her voice. The uncertainty of the virus was a lot to take in for someone who has committed her life to caring for sick people.
The USask nursing grad has spent the last 17 years of her career in a critical care setting. Most of her patients in the ICU are intubated, ventilated and on life support and it’s up to her and her team to provide care and some bedside medical procedures to ensure quality of life.
“I never really looked back after I went into critical care. It was sort of my niche. I really like giving individualized care to patients and having the time to give the care that I feel everybody deserves,” said Pickerl.
“It’s been a whirlwind”
Since last March, Pickerl’s ICU unit has expanded the number of nurses on their ward. They installed negative-pressure rooms to ensure COVID-19 positive patients are isolated properly. Sweeping renovations were done to maintain safety measures and protocols. An infectious disease doctor was available to provide daily updates and guidance.
No matter how prepared they were, when it comes to the day-to-day operation of an ICU during a pandemic, Pickerl said there’s no sugar-coating the fact that it’s exhausting.
“It was terrifying when we got our first COVID-19 patient,” said Pickerl.
The physical demands of caring for COVID-19 patients, coupled with communicating with family members who are limited in their ability to visit the hospital, has taken its toll on her team. She describes her COVID-19 patients as “some of the sweetest people you will ever meet.” Pickerl notes the high mortality rate of COVID-19 patients in the ICU has been the toughest part of the pandemic.
“It’s heartbreaking. We’ve had some success where patients have survived, but unfortunately a lot of people succumb to the illness. It’s shattering,” she said.
Despite the unprecedented challenges, Pickerl still talks about moments of joy and hope throughout her day, which speaks to her encouraging ability to keep fighting. Her team and her manager have dubbed themselves “battle buddies” preparing themselves every day to go into battle and motivating each other to keep going.
“There (have) been a lot of tears and a lot of exhaustion. It hasn’t affected how we’re caring for our patients… it’s even more important that the work family is there for one another,” said Pickerl.
An unexpected Christmas present
It was only by chance that Pickerl received some of the most exciting news she’s ever had in her life. Due to her schedule, and since she had the next day off, her boss approached her in December to see if she’d like to be vaccinated for COVID-19. An exhausted Pickerl gave an enthusiastic ‘YES’ and took one of her precious days off to receive her dose.
With a rolled-up sleeve and a smile brimming brightly behind her mask, Pickerl was the first nurse in Saskatoon to be vaccinated against the disease.
She said the vaccine gives the province a bit of hope to getting back to normal one day. She encourages everyone to educate themselves about vaccinations.
“We shouldn’t be shaming people, but educating people and asking them to think of everyone else,” she said. “It’s a privilege to be healthy and to be afforded a vaccination.”
Like many people grappling with this pandemic, Pickerl has experienced her fair share of burnout and COVID fatigue, probably more so because she literally cannot escape it. Yet, she still encourages everyone to remain vigilant to the end.
“I haven’t properly seen my parents other than with a mask on, shovelling their walk or dropping something off and leaving quickly,” she noted. “We’re just constantly hit by so much information you become almost desensitized, almost complacent, but it’s still a very deadly virus and it’s so important to maintain your physical distance, to wear your masks, to wash your hands, to be vigilant. All the time. Everyone’s tired but we just have to keep at it.”
“Everyone can be a hero. Just take care of the people you love.”