Voices From the COVID Unit: ‘I Came Into Something That I Didn’t Expect’

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hese stories are difficult to hear. They come from UVA Health staff who cared for our community’s sickest COVID-19 patients – our parents, relatives, friends, neighbors. They did all they could to save lives, and for some, were there during their last hours.

Weary and emotionally scarred, these nurses and nurse assistants are forever changed, but hopeful. And like heroes on the battlefield, they come away with a profound sense of camaraderie.

As part of their healing, these UVA Health caregivers want to share their stories. Here is the third of a five-part series of firsthand accounts.

Shanice Artis, Nurse, Medical Intensive Care Unit

I have a bachelor’s in biology, but I knew I wanted to do something medical. I worked as an emergency medical technician for a couple of years and ultimately decided I wanted to do nursing. I graduated in May from the accelerated clinical nurse leader program at UVA with my master’s in nursing.

I interviewed to work in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the beginning of February 2020, so COVID wasn’t a thing then. I heard the culture in the MICU was incredible. I wanted to start my nursing career there because I knew I would learn a lot with this patient population. And in an academic health care facility, you get to see things that you don’t see in most places.

I accepted the offer to work on MICU West and MICU North when COVID started to become a reality. Over the next couple of months, we knew the MICU was going to staff the COVID ICU. I started in August, so all of the changes were happening before I arrived. I came into something that I didn’t expect, but it was something the world didn’t expect.

Starting Her Nursing Career in a Pandemic

It was definitely an interesting start. For new nurses, we have a 20-week orientation. But for us, we did our first eight weeks only in the regular MICU to take care of stable patients. Then we worked two weeks in the COVID ICU. After we got a little comfortable, we started phase two with sicker patients. I was learning two different jobs in the same orientation period.

“I came into something that I didn’t expect, but it was something the world didn’t expect.”

- Shanice Artis
nurse, Medical Intensive Care Unit

The first few times I was working on the COVID unit, my preceptor would go into the patient room at the same time as me. But as we progressed through orientation, it depended on what you and your preceptor felt comfortable with. We were concerned about conserving PPE, so I went in alone if it was something I could do on my own.

It definitely took some getting used to, but in the same vein, everyone was learning about this patient population together.

Glimpses of Hope

During orientation, we were working three days a week and taking nurse residency classes. When I came off orientation last January/February, we were at our peak with 24 COVID ICU patients, and mandatory overtime was there. So now I had to pick up extra shifts. When I wasn’t at work, I would watch TV and do things not nursing-related to kind of decompress.

I remember it was daunting realizing that many of the patients I’d been taking care of are dead now. But there were glimpses of hope. There is a wall on the COVID unit with pictures of survivors. It will say they spent two months on ECMO (heart and lung machine) or two months on a ventilator and now they’re smiling and able to walk.

Forging a Stronger Resolve

For me, this experience made me have a stronger resolve. It did feel purposeful, but it was definitely hard, especially for all of the preceptors. Like a lot of people, they were burnt out from all the changes happening and, at the same time, having to be able to teach us.

It was, for a lot of people, the toughest year ever. If this is how we’re starting our nursing careers, hopefully it only gets better from here. The MICU environment stayed supportive through all of it. I think our team is incredible and everyone supports each other.

For more stories from the front lines, click here.

Media Contact

Kelly Casey

UVA Health System