Inside the COVID-19 unit: a local nurse's perspective

Posted at 3:10 PM, May 08, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. - The term "on the front lines" has been used quite a bit over the past few months to describe the men and women risking their own health to keep the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

While it does not lack any truth, no one truly understands it like the nurses and doctors who walk through the hospital doors everyday.

Heike Nicks is a nurse professional development specialist at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, and has been in medicine for 23 years. She says the pandemic is unlike anything she has seen before.

"It feels like a whole new experience from all my past experience combined," Nicks said.

The coronavirus is so powerful it has touched every corner of the healthcare system, including all hospitals. From Norfolk to the Peninsula, nurses are all leaning on one another.

At Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton, you'll find Tammy Bohac alongside Tracey Odachowski in the Intensive Care Unit, treating COVID-19 patients.

Bohac says the days can be overwhelming. She tells News 3 she is constantly questioning, "Did I do this the right way? Am I being safe? [It's all of the] extra things that we didn't have to think about [before]. Did I touch that? Did I put on the right PPE? Do I have enough PPE? I am willing to be on the front line but I need you to back me up when it comes to protecting me."

Unlike other heathcare facilities across the country, Sentara's hospitals have not run out of PPE or any other gear to assist nurses and doctors in the coronavirus fight.

Like always, proper care goes deeper than medicine.

"That's another part you have to deal with - their emotional state [and if] they are aware of what's going on. You are it - that's who they get to see: you, nobody else that they know. We have to be their family," Bohac says.

While access to family may be limited, the ladies say that you can still feel a sense of family when you walk through their hospital's halls. There are signs of gratitude from community members offering subtle nods of support. Children have drawn signs, and complete strangers have dropped off food and honked their car horns from a distance.

It's fitting that Nurse Appreciation Week falls during a pandemic.

"Even on our most frustrating days [it's about] the ways to find little things, like - ugh, I feel better now," says Tracey Odachowski, the ICU Clinical Nurse Manager at Sentara CarePlex. "The outpouring of care and love and everything [is amazing,] not just from our team and our system but the community... Every day was a new surprise."

Throughout the entire event, these women have remained positive, using their humor as a crutch. Nicks says keeping a light heart in the midst of the madness is what's keeping them going.

As reports of a second wave circulate, the nurses say they're continuing to learn more and put that knowledge to work.

"I don't know that I've ever felt so prepared to go into something. I think we learned so many things from the first wave and kept adapting everything and changing and I know we've got everything in place to prepare for it and to be ready for it. We're praying we don't need to use it," says Odachowski.

Nicks echoes her sentiment saying, "Nurses step up and do what needs to be done, and it's been no different here."