HUDSON -- The COVID-19 ward at United Hospital was loud.
Separated from the rest of the St. Paul building and most of its staff, the unit had a negative airflow that created a roar. The noise served as the soundtrack for a year of nurse Amanda Peterson’s life.
Peterson, of Hudson, was one of the first to volunteer for the COVID-19 unit when the pandemic hit the region last March. By then, health care workers knew this was going to have a big impact, and Peterson knew she needed to be a part of it. As an ICU nurse since 2008, she had the training and knew that patients were going to need her.
“I wanted to be able to look back on what I was assuming was going to be a really pivotal point in nursing, and I wanted to know that I stepped up,” she said.
In that one year timeframe, all but four of her patients were critically ill with COVID and every single death she saw was from COVID.
“COVID is horrifying in the ways that it tries to kill people,” she said.
Most patients spent weeks or months in the unit as they battled the disease’s worst effects.
“They all stick,” she said. “It was just a string of faces.”
Families and visitors weren’t allowed in, making it more difficult for patients, and also harder for health care workers to explain the situation to families.
“These poor patients, you don’t realize how much family impacts their psyche and their wellbeing until you are contained in this place for two weeks and it feels endless,” she said. ”At the end of the day, you don’t want me holding your hand, you want your person.”
The hardest cases were when a patient was on the upside, seemingly getting better, before getting much worse.
“You’d think you’re on the tail end of it, and they stroke, and then it was just devastating,” she said.
At its peak in December, the unit had about 90 COVID patients, making up one-third of the hospital’s occupancy. One floor was double-roomed, and a storage room was made into a patient room.
Over and over again
On one of the worst days, Peterson remembers that no one was able to eat. With the unit separated, patient food trays would be delivered, with staff coming at certain times of the day. Three times, Peterson had to try to explain to a confused staff member that they didn’t need anything.
“No one can eat or drink today, everyone can’t breathe,” she said. “I remember just having to say it over and over again.”
Though the region never hit the full frenzy seen in hot spots such as New York, Peterson said dealing with the pandemic locally was like a slow-motion car crash.
“We saw it coming and we couldn’t fix it,” she said.
The ICU nurse prides herself on being able to handle bad days. In most of her career, those days served to humble and ground her.
“You go home and can kind of shed that and hug your family,” she said.
But with COVID, the bad days were constant, and discussions of the pandemic were everywhere.
After a shift in the COVID unit, Peterson found it more difficult to leave it all behind when she went home.
She had a station set up in her garage, where each time she came home from the hospital she would strip her work clothes and disinfect, trying to leave behind any physical remnant of her day.
“I was very scared to bring it home and having that choice to volunteer kind of impact my family,” she said.
The emotional toll wasn’t any easier to scrub away.
“When you only see the really awful cases, I couldn’t let it go either,” she said.
When she wasn’t at work, Peterson also spent time at board meetings, voicing concerns and trying to advocate for mask usage.
“All you want to do is prevent anybody else from hitting those beds,” she said. “After watching it over and over, it kind of makes you a little insane and you just want to protect everybody.”
Opportunities to hash out what she was going through were rare. The best chances came at work, with the others who were experiencing the same difficulties.
“I actually felt better at work because at work, everyone understood it,” she said. “We could vent to each other.”
Chronicling the experience
Peterson took to social media, explaining what health care workers were going through. The writing was cathartic for her, and she had others responding telling her they felt the same.
She’d also write down her thoughts throughout the day -- on the back of her checkbook or whatever spare piece of paper she had.
“I needed to just barf it all out to be able to take another round,” she said.
As she compiled all of those writings and social media posts, she found she had about 75 pages of notes and comments. She reached out to publishers to share them, and was invited to publish a book on her experience.
“Everybody Just Breathe” will walk readers through Peterson’s year with COVID, both as a nurse and mother. It will be published in October.
“If you love a health care worker or you are a healthcare worker and have gone through this, it kind of helps understand what we went through,” she said.
Peterson knows that her story is not unique.
“It was literally worldwide,” she said. “So I hope that this kind of encourages people to tell those because I think it helps them.”
Writing it has helped Peterson work through the difficulties and lasting impact of the last year.
Amid all those hardships, there were also bright spots.
Not many patients were able to walk around in the unit, but Peterson remembers a day when one elderly patient could. His family gathered with signs on the street several stories below the unit.
“He went and just pressed himself against the window,” she said.
The whole experience has shown Peterson that at the end of the day, love and people are what really matters.
“I just think that the way the world is right now, we could use a little more of that,” she said.