GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Sojourna Walker started feeling COVID-19 symptoms at the end of March, so she quarantined at her home in West Orange to avoid spreading the virus. But eventually she had to go to the emergency room.
“I was quarantining and was fine,” Walker said in a phone interview with The Glen Ridge Paper/West Orange Chronicle on April 24. “Then I started wheezing. I was admitted because my oxygen level was low.”
She spent seven days at Mountainside Hospital in Glen Ridge, while her partner, Izhah Smith, was isolated in her own room right down the hall on the fifth floor. Both of them are home and feeling better now, but for a week they communicated through screens, even though they weren’t far apart.
“She left the day before I did,” Walker said. “We did a lot of video calls while there.”
A hospital stay isn’t the ideal situation to be in, especially a stay for COVID-19, but Walker said her experience at Mountainside was as good as it possibly could have been. The credit mostly goes to the nurses.
“Those nurses were amazing,” Walker said. “I could not have been surrounded by better humans. There were some overwhelming times, and they were able to talk us down. No one made us feel bad at all.”
Pre-pandemic, the floor that Walker and Smith stayed on was the surgical unit. Charlene Wilson is a nurse there, and was part of the staff when everything changed last March and it became a COVID-19 floor. It took some adjusting, but as she and her coworkers figured out what patients needed, taking care of them got easier.
“We were dealing with something that was new,” Wilson, who has been a nurse for 15 years, said in a phone interview on April 30. “Everyone there had to be isolated. The toughest thing is that you can’t hug them, but we’re still with them all the time. That’s a drive for me; that hasn’t changed.”
The pandemic isn’t over yet, but Wilson said the COVID unit is a bit calmer than it was a year ago. Fewer people are on oxygen now; many patients admitted are diagnosed from the emergency room, and by the time Wilson sees them on her floor they’re more stable.
“This hasn’t affected just one group of people,” she said. “You can have no preexisting conditions and get sick. I’ve met 90-year-olds who did have preexisting conditions who were OK. You just don’t know. But I’m hopeful. People are getting out of the hospital faster and recovering faster now, which is good.”
According to Wilson, many of her COVID-19 patients this past year had never had an extended hospital stay before. Aside from monitoring medical care, she would comfort them in other ways.
“Sometimes their anxiety about not being able to breathe was high,” Wilson said. “A lot of them are used to being with a family member all the time. We check in on them, we call their families to let them know they’re OK. I don’t want them to feel like it’s the end of the world because they’re in the hospital.”
Wilson has been a nurse for a while, but she and her colleagues had never experienced something like the COVID-19 pandemic before. When the regular units had to switch their day-to-day operations to coronavirus care and travel nurses were in high demand, they all leaned on one another for support.
“It was just encouraging your co-workers,” Wilson said. “It was tiring at first, and the younger nurses took on a lot. We encouraged each other and helped each other. Now I’m comfortable taking care of COVID patients. I know the signs to look for and when to intervene. Hopefully down the line, I can tell other nurses what we did during COVID.”
The patients are already telling people.
“It was a very warm experience,” Walker said. “I think they deserve so much acknowledgment.”