Socialist Alternative

Workers Speak Out – Detroit Area ICU Nurse

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This testimonial was given April 11 on the “We Won’t Die For Wall St” virtual town hall. Lamees is a member of Socialist Alternative in the Detroit area.

I work in a surgical trauma ICU. Our unit typically takes patients who have been in car accidents, gunshot victims, post-suicide attempts, etc. I say this to convey that we are used to taking care of extremely sick and unstable patients. That being said, a few weeks ago we got our first corona patient. They were placed in a negative pressure room and all proper precautions were taken. Nurses and techs had the equipment they needed to perform safe patient care. Fast forward to now. Our entire 20-bed unit is now a corona intensive care unit with some of the sickest patients in the hospital.

On a typical day two months ago maybe 2 out of 20 patients would be considered extremely unstable to the point where you felt like you could barely leave the room. Now, on every shift every patient seems to be this sick and [nurses] are taking care of two of them at once. We reuse the same gown and respirator all shift then turn in our respirator to be “disinfected” and re-used again. This practice risks self-contamination and has forced the vast majority of my coworkers to move out of their homes to prevent getting their families ill. We have all accepted that we will get corona virus. The only question is will we show symptoms and if so, how bad?

As many of you know, we are short on protective equipment and ventilators. Perhaps what you don’t know is that we are starved of virtually all supplies. Continuous renal replacement machines which are arguably one of the most important machines aside from ventilators to save these patients are in short supply. We have 19 in the hospital and last week ten were on my unit alone. We are short on fentanyl and propofol which are pain and sedation medications. We are even short on central line kits which we need to provide IV medication. Yesterday, I was notified that we are running short on tube feeding and we should administer tube feeds for 12 hours before switching the machine over to another patient, depriving them of necessary nutrients to fight off the virus. This is all happening at a hospital that DOUBLED its profits in 2019.

Our hospital is near capacity. Non-ICU nurses have been transferred to our unit to help meet demand but find themselves unable to treat patients they have not been trained for. And yet, we are still short staffed. Nearly every hour someone on the unit gets so close to dying that a team of nurses have to rush into the room to give medications or perform CPR. When CPR has been performed, nurses are often out sick for one to two weeks with corona symptoms due to the aerosolization of the virus that happens during CPR.

This past week, two of my patients were crashing at the same time. I yelled into the hallway for help. No one came. Everyone was in their own isolation rooms tending to their own very sick patients. At the start of another shift, I was greeted with five white body bags with COVID written on them. That means five deaths in one shift, perhaps a first for our unit. Our morgue is at capacity. If there is a death, you turn over the room as fast as you can, and accept another critically ill corona patient. Families call you begging for updates on their loved ones and you hardly know how to explain their state. All you can do is hold the phone to their loved one’s ear as they beg them to live. I will never forget holding the phone to a child’s ear as his mother and father begged him to survive. In the midst of this chaos nurses across the country are facing pay cuts of up to 20% as a thank you. Welcome to the new normal for health care workers.

Wayne County has the seventh highest rate of corona in the nation. The severity of the illness in Metro Detroit is directly related to high levels of asthma, high blood pressure, and diabetes found in low-income communities due to inadequate food, health care, and poor air quality. It is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of my corona patients are black and that our system is failing them.

It didn’t have to happen this way. We knew for months that corona was coming. Rather than buying necessary supplies, hospital administrators chose to pay for this with our lives instead of their profits. Even barren manufacturing plants were not put to use until recently to produce the supplies we so desperately need. Imagine what would have happened if we had public ownership of manufacturing plants and repurposed them months ahead of time in order to produce these supplies. Meanwhile there are some hospitals that have protective equipment but are short on ventilators. Others have ventilators but are short on something else. When profits come first, every hospital is bound to hoard their resources unnecessarily. A centralized socialist response would include immediate resource sharing across all hospitals to save lives.

When hospitals realized the extent of the crisis, they canceled elective surgeries. These are the major sources of revenue for any hospital. Now some administrators are saying that they are struggling to avoid bankruptcy. These are the limitations of a for profit healthcare system. Even hospitals like mine which are “non-profit” still operate to cut costs and make money. It is clear that we need universal health care but it is even clearer that we NEED public ownership of all hospital systems in the U.S. as well as the pharmaceutical industry to prevent putting profits over lives.

No one can possibly think that capitalism is doing a good job of managing this crisis. New York alone has more cases than any country. We still pay more per capita than any country in the world with worse outcomes. A week ago, nurses at Detroit’s Sinai Grace hospital walked off the job after complaining about unsafe conditions. Nurses reported they had 25 patients each. They gained national coverage in highlighting the horrendous conditions they are facing.

The working conditions are terrible in many industries. The truth is they always have been. “Essential” workers have always been essential. The only difference is that with this crisis, we have been pushed to new levels of anger and with that, new levels of action. The crisis is teaching all of us, me included, just how much power workers hold and how group action can win us concessions.

Crises like these expose the flaws of our system. Public health experts have been screaming for years about how ill prepared our health care system would be during a pandemic. The bosses of health care ignored it and prioritized profits over preparing for the inevitable. We are living with that now. We will never escape a repeat of a crisis like this one while for profit healthcare is the standard. This is why a socialist response is the only response. This situation is frightening but it is also one of the best opportunities available to us to demand a better future. There has never been a better time to highlight the failures of capitalism and to point to a clear way forward.


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