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Outbreak Diaries: Calif. ICU Nurse Battles COVID-19 In Connecticut


There are experiences that teach you how to handle the hard stuff, the tough stuff. But some things are more difficult than you expect them to be. Cynthia Lam served two tours in Afghanistan working with the Shock Trauma platoon. San Diego is now home. She works there as an ICU nurse, But when she learned that hospitals in Connecticut were becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, she traveled there to help. We asked her to send us voice memos of her experience for our Outbreak Diaries Project.

CYNTHIA LAM: Every single day is go time. Every single day is busy. And in those ways, it does relate to being deployed in a war zone. I have to go in. I have to put my battle rattle on, essentially. What used to be my flak and Kevlar is now my full PPE. I would almost say there was more death that I witness here than in war. And there are patients coding there, patients dying. And it's happening much more frequently than any other time in my life. I hope that this does resolve soon because I think that a lot of ICU nurses will experience some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder from this.

It is April 21. I just got home from work. I'm pretty exhausted. Today was a little chaotic. Had a patient that was transferred down from the medical surgical unit. We decided to intubate, so I asked him, you know, if he wanted to call his family, if there's anybody he needed to let know what was going on in his condition. He said, no, I live alone. We ended up intubating him. And I asked if he was scared. And if he was, he could just squeeze my hand. And as we gave him the medicine and intubated him, he squeezed my hand. And I told him that he was safe.

It's just so sad, and I just don't know what's going to happen. And this weighs pretty heavily on my heart. I had another patient that before we intubated her, she said, I don't want to die. I don't want to die. And I don't know what that feels like to be that scared in that moment. And they have no - they don't know us. They've met us five seconds ago, yet their life is in our hands.

It is April 22. So today just kind of became a very long day. And the one highlight that I did have was a lot of the local businesses are donating food. And today, they brought a cheeseburger and milkshake. And although I don't have much time to actually sit down and eat it, I grab it. And I bring it by to my nurse's station because I have to be able to monitor my patients. So I grab the food, go back to sitting down. And honestly, that boosted my morale and my mood from otherwise pretty crappy day. So I don't even know where it was from, but it was delicious.

As my time starts to wrap up here, they have asked me to extend through the end of July. I'm just not 100% certain it's what I want to do moving forward. I have a daughter, and she's not with me right now. She's staying with my parents while I'm doing this assignment here. And I just want more than anything to spend the summer with her. As much as I'd like to continue helping, I think that I've been here through the worst of it. And I know that they'll be able to find support, hopefully, through another nurse who wants the opportunity to help out, as well. I'm grateful that I did this. It's an experience that I will never forget. And I think it's definitely going to change history, for sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's ICU nurse Cynthia Lam sharing her experiences caring for COVID-19 patients for our Outbreak Diaries Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.