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An ICU Nurse On Treating Coronavirus Patients: 'Some Of Them Are Dying And They're Dying Alone'

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The following article was originally published May 6, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Marina Peña

Three years ago, Lindsey Burrell, 38, had open heart surgery for a faulty valve, putting her at a higher risk of developing debilitating symptoms from COVID-19. But now she's on the frontline of the pandemic, working as an intensive care nurse.

For the past nine years, Burrell has worked in the ICU at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance. She's used to treating patients during their most critical moments, for things like heart attacks, strokes and seizures. But providing care for COVID-19 patients is different.

"[Before the pandemic] nurses would be walking in and out of patients' rooms just trying to brighten someone's day. But now you have patients isolated in a room by themselves completely away from the normal world," she says. "Some of them are dying and they're dying alone."

Burrell added that she is often FaceTiming with a patient's relatives, as they take their last breath.

When she comes home, Burrell has a 4-year-old and a 20-month old to take care of, which triggers a whole other set of worries.

"I feared every shift that I went to work ... what if I brought COVID home with me and didn't know it, and I exposed my kids and my husband to this," she says. "We kind of feel like we're working on a battlefield and you just hope that you come out unscathed."

Lindsey Burrell, 38, is an ICU nurse in Torrance. | Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center
1/2 Lindsey Burrell, 38, is an ICU nurse in Torrance. | Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center
Lindsey Burrell at work in the ICU. | Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center
2/2 Lindsey Burrell at work in the ICU. | Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center, by tedgar

To help cope with the stress, Burrell has started to see a psychiatrist and a therapist.

"The levels of anxiety really took a toll on a lot of us, and with myself, I will be the first to say that the anxiety and the nerves were really wreaking havoc on my body. I wasn't sleeping, I wasn't eating, I couldn't think straight," she says. "I felt like I was only a shell of myself, walking through the intensive care [unit]...And I reached out to a psychiatrist and a therapist because I knew that there was no way that I could treat a patient if I myself wasn't healthy inside."

In April, Burrell says she was able to nurse an MRI tech on her own staff who had contracted COVID-19 back to health, after he was on a breathing tube for 10 days. She attributes part of the success to the fact that her hospital never denied her any personal protective equipment.

And as we enter the next phase of reopening in California, Burrell says the state's response to the pandemic has also been key to handling this health crisis.

"California's numbers are what they are right now because we reacted quickly, because we had a plan just like my hospital did a week ahead of time. So that when this hit in California, we could beat it," she says. "Our numbers prove that. Our social distancing and staying at home has been instrumental in decreasing our numbers from what we once thought they were going to be."

Burrell says listening to the stay-at-home order makes her job and the job of her fellow medical workers possible: "I urge everyone to wait for it to be safe for us to go out slowly," she says.

This story comes from an audio diary that Lindsey Burrell created for our news and culture show, Take Two. Listen to the full story below:

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