'You can see the regret': ICU nurse on patients who failed to take COVID precautions

Medical staff treat a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on Nov. 10.
Medical staff treat a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on Nov. 10.
Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Across the country, coronavirus cases are surging and pushing the health care system to its limits.

Every day since Election Day, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus.

In many places, there aren't enough nurses and doctors to handle the rising caseloads, and staffing agencies are slammed with requests for more.

One person helping meet those requests is Lydia Mobley, an ICU nurse with Fastaff Travel Nursing. After a year of active duty with the U.S. Navy, she returned to nursing and is now on a 10-week contract, working in an ICU unit at a hospital in central Michigan.

Protests roiled Mobley's home state earlier in the pandemic after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, issued shutdown orders.

Even now, Mobley says, she sees many people who still don't wear masks. That's particularly hard for her, as a nurse who treats critical COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

She says she encounters "multiple patients" on "every shift" who acknowledge they didn't take the warnings seriously.

"A lot of times before they're intubated — which means put on a ventilator because they can't breathe on their own — when they're still struggling to breathe, and they're saying, 'Well, I didn't know COVID was real and I wish I'd worn a mask.' And then it's already too late," she tells All Things Considered. "You can see the regret, as they're struggling to breathe, and it's finally hitting them that this is real. It makes me very sad."

In her experience, it's been mostly patients in their 40s and 50s who come to realize they should have done more or taken the coronavirus more seriously.

But she treats a lot of elderly patients, too, who she says were probably infected by relatives. When she talks to them on the phone, they're "very remorseful about not doing more to keep their family members safe," she says.

As for advice she's gotten from colleagues who have been treating COVID-19 since the spring, she says they tell her "just survive."

"Unfortunately, we can't give the level of care that we could give when the staffing ratios were better," she says. "A lot of them said, we've just been trying to survive, keep the patients alive and keep ourselves alive."

"A lot of them [say] ... don't ever run into a room without your PPE, even if that patient is coding, which is hard because that's your first instinct as a nurse," she says. "But at the end of the day, we still have to protect ourselves."

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