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Volunteer Voices: What COVID’s Trauma Taught Me

Spending six weeks in a critical COVID ward taught Lisa Bartleson one thing: respect for the health care workers and patients who found the will to keep fighting.

By Lisa Bartleson

Navajo Nation is facing “uncontrolled spread” of COVID-19, with the virus spreading rapidly among the already hard-hit indigenous community.

There is nothing glamorous about COVID-19, either as a patient or as a nurse. COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation hard and fast, something I saw first-hand while volunteering for six weeks this winter at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, New Mexico.

I was there as part of the oxygen saturation team in the 30-bed critical COVID ward. We were in charge of monitoring the oxygen levels of everyone on the floor, which included assessing breathing patterns and rate, adjusting the oxygen flow as indicated, and working closely with doctors to form oxygen care plans. I was also a general nurse resource for the floor: assisting with beeping IVs, brushing bed-snarled hair, taking vitals, and changing bedding. At times this also meant encouraging those with life still in them to keep breathing, and, sadly, telling those who had lost the fight that I was so very sorry this was happening to them.

Project HOPE volunteer Lisa Bartleson in Navajo Natio
More than 28,000 people have contracted COVID-19 in Navajo Nation, and over 1,000 have died. Photo courtesy Lisa Bartleson.

There were glorious moments during my tenure. Like the cold December day when I wheeled a discharged patient out to his son’s car, the son nervously wearing a mask and gloves. The patient grabbed my hands, saying he never thought he’d get to go home. He cried, I cried. You could see the smile in his son’s eyes. It was a wonderful day. Or the day members of the Apache tribe came and danced outside in the hospital courtyard for staff as a way of showing gratitude and bringing luck.

But too often they were days marked by bouts of sadness and tears. Listening to a patient tell his son he wasn’t coming home, or having another patient tell me how proud he was of his daughter’s educational achievements. He wanted to make sure I told her after he was gone. I promised him I would.

When you take care of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, too often you are witness to last interactions: of a wife kissing her husband’s cheek goodbye; of a patient talking about his son’s upcoming college graduation, both of us knowing he wouldn’t be alive to see it; of a family saying their final goodbye over Zoom because distance and the virus prohibited anything more; and of hearing the devastating cry down the hallway as a patient learns that another loved one has lost the battle with COVID-19.

Lisa Bartleson and Project HOPE volunteers in Navajo Nation
Project HOPE volunteer Lisa Bartleson, left, along with fellow volunteers Rachel and Berryl, right, in Navajo Nation. Photos courtesy Lisa Bartleson.

I watched that virus take a lot: from individuals, from families, from a community, and I am forever grateful that I never became sick. But this experience also gave me something precious: respect. Respect not only for the virus and the havoc it can wreak, but also respect for the patients and their loved ones, and respect for all the dedicated workers at that hospital.

I had so much respect for patients who were so extremely sick and so immeasurably alone, and who still found the will to fight and to smile. It really is an incredible thing to be part of. It’s what made me eager to get on the floor every morning and be there not only for the patients but for the staff as well, who have endured this for much longer than I have. That fight, and those smiles, are what made the unbearable moments bearable.

Lisa Bartleson lives in Ketchum, Idaho, where she is known as a die-hard Seattle Mariners fan and someone who always has a smile on her face. With a background as a wound care nurse, she now volunteers around the world in areas of crisis. Her passion for this line of work is increased by the new experiences and knowledge she gains from both patients and coworkers, as well as her cultural surroundings. She is currently working on B.S. in Psychology from Idaho State University with plans to graduate in Spring 2022. 

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