Nursing in the time of COVID: ‘Being a new grad and already burnt out is not what I envisioned for my dream career’

Nurses have been incredibly important -- throughout history and during the COVID-19 pandemic especially. We asked nurses what they're seeing lately on the job. (Stock photo/the subject of this story has asked to remain anonymous). (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

Author’s note: This series involves stories told by our readers, week by week. Today’s is shared by Christine*, who asked that we not use her real name, for privacy reasons.

You might have heard that working in the medical profession over the past two or so years has been grueling, in this ongoing age of COVID-19. But how? In what ways? We’re going to tell you. To contribute your own experience, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this article.

Christine always envisioned a career in nursing. It’s all she ever wanted, professionally.

“Oh yeah, I never wanted to be anything else,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Even when I was in college, I was asked about my backup plan, but I never had one. I didn’t know what else I would do.”

Christine followed through on her dream. She graduated as a licensed practical nurse, or an LPN, in 2020, right in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she’s also currently in the process of going back to school to become a registered nurse -- that is, if she decides to stick things out.

“Nursing was always my dream career,” the 24-year-old said. “But now that I’m in it, it’s not at all what I wanted. I’m going to continue on for now, but in the future, I’m not sure. If it stays the way it is, I just don’t know.”

It’s disheartening, and not at all what she pictured, to see nurses around her jumping ship.

“I’ve seen seasoned nurses leave completely, or take huge pay cuts – going places like retail, because they can’t deal with the overtime,” she said.

‘We were just getting started’

It’s hard to watch, but Christine understands it. She’s currently working at a rehabilitation/nursing facility in Pulaski County, Virginia.

“I can imagine hospitals are even more stressed,” Christine said.

Still, it hasn’t been easy. Her facility has six full-time nurses who have to work overtime.

Christine used to be full time, but has recently cut back. She put in her notice to “go casual,” as she phrased it, when she was accepted into her RN program. She now works about 25 to 30 hours a week, and can’t be forced into overtime hours, which she said is a nice change of pace.

Christine’s path has been anything but normal, ever since graduation.

“We maybe had a month or two of clinical experience, and we were just getting started with hands-on stuff,” she said. “By the time I graduated, (everything was so different).”

Christine was hired right away, as a recent graduate, and she was OK with learning on the job, as she went. After all, when it came to COVID-19, that was the situation for a lot of medical professionals everywhere, regardless of experience. Being thrown in the deep end, so to speak, wasn’t necessarily the problem.

It was her facility.

“I really feel like the environment that I’m in, my facility specifically, they don’t follow the rules,” Christine said.

For example, when it comes to their visitor policy, Christine didn’t always like what she was seeing.

“COVID has been awful,” Christine said. “And they’ve been letting people in without the vaccine, and I work in a nursing facility. Chances are, some of my patients, if they get (COVID), they’re not surviving.”

‘It was broken before COVID’

Christine is double vaccinated, boosted and feels OK about her own health, but worries on behalf of others.

“I think it has a lot to do with my facility,” she said. “The administrator – she’s older and has her own way of doing things. She runs the place the way she wants to.”

Although numbers and cases are finally dropping in many places in the country, it wasn’t always like this. In seemingly the middle of the pandemic, when numbers were really high, Christine said there was a time when it felt like everyone around her was out sick.

“One week, we had no staff,” she said. “... They had me and another new grad running a whole unit by ourselves – 45 patients to a unit, 80 hours a week.”

When it came to nurse-to-patient ratio, things weren’t great -- and they still aren’t ideal.

“It was broken before COVID, but it got unbearable,” Christine said.

But COVID wasn’t the entire problem.

Pre-COVID, staffing was a problem at their facility as well, Christine said.

And then when the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., administrators refused to bring in an agency to help, hence, all the overtime.

“And there will be like, two nurses to a unit, with about 50 or so patients,” Christine said. “That’s insane.”

‘I’d rather protect them’

As for her friends and relatives, some see it from her perspective, and some struggle to put themselves in her shoes.

“My mom and I argue a lot about it,” Christine said. “She refuses to get the vaccine, and doesn’t wear a mask. I try to get her to see it from my point of view. There are so many people like her who don’t believe it, or who don’t believe the mask does anything, and same with the vaccine. They think the government is out to get them.”

Christine had some hesitations at first, right when the vaccine came out, but at the end of the day, decided to trust the science.

“I thought about my grandparents,” she said. “I’d rather protect them.”

Perhaps the most frustrating part about the pandemic is this attitude she sees from others toward health care workers. She gets a sense that people think that they know better, or they can just pick and choose what to believe from doctors and nurses.

“And a lot of the time, the nurses take the heat and get mistreated – over things they have no control over,” Christine said. “There will be no health care workers left, if someone doesn’t do something. And then who will be around to take care of people?”

She knows she’s just one person, but hopes that there’s a shift, and soon.

“(At the end of the day), I am not able to do my job, because I am only one person – and all of my 30 patients need me at the same time. Being a new grad and already being burnt out is not what I envisioned for my dream career.”

Read more:

What do nurses wish you knew about COVID-19? These answers should be required reading

What do nurses fear lately on the job? These responses are heavy, but worth the read

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