COVID unit nurse speaks from the heart about the impact of the disease and the importance of masking
At the mayor's press conference Cody Hamilton told of the toll COVID takes on those who have the disease, and those who care for themAugust 5, 2020
photo by Susan Urmy
Cody Hamilton, BSN, RN, was serious when he looked into the television camera at Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s news conference on COVID-19 in July. Hamilton knows firsthand how serious the disease is. For most of the last four months he has worked 12-hour overnight shifts as an intensive care nurse on the adult COVID unit on the eighth floor of Medical Center East.
In one minute and 50 seconds, Hamilton had distilled months of experience on the COVID unit.
His message: If only people could see what he sees, they would wear a mask in public.
“I really wish there could be an opportunity for the average person to kind of do a drive by or be a fly on the wall in the unit, because I think you would reconsider wearing a mask as something that’s difficult,” he told people tuned into the live broadcast. “Because these patients are, without a doubt, the sickest patients any of us who have worked there have ever seen. As an ICU nurse, it’s a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding job, but with COVID-19 patients, and the intensive care, it is really testing what is withstandable on the nursing end in these categories.”
Hamilton had no notes in front of him. He was speaking from his heart.
“These patients, they don’t recover quickly,” he continued. “They stay very, very sick for a long time. And even once they battle and win against the virus, the residual effects often require longer periods of time in intensive care units to recover and rehab them from the damage done.
“Also, we have learned through research of how vital family is in intensive care units and having these patients recover. And these COVID-19 patients, they don’t get to have family there with them. We’re the only interactions they get with people and oftentimes we are protecting ourselves, so the lack of touch, the lack of a familiar face or a familiar voice are all absent.
“I just encourage people to stay safe. If you could really just be a fly on the wall in that unit, I think it would change people’s minds.”
“Also, this virus has zero bias. Young people, old people, middle aged, it’s affected them all and it’s continuing to do so. So ultimately, I just encourage people to stay safe because, like I said, if you could really just be a fly on the wall in that unit, I think it would change people’s minds.”
In one minute and 50 seconds, Hamilton had distilled months of experience on the COVID unit. He was on the unit when Vanderbilt had its first COVID patient in March and is now a clinical staff leader.
Hamilton, a native of Columbia, Tennessee, started at Vanderbilt as a care partner while studying for his Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at Tennessee State University and became a nurse resident in 2017 after graduating. He became a member of a communicable disease response team, originally trained to deal with the Ebola outbreak. He would have no idea how important those skills would be.
When COVID patients began appearing at VUMC, little data existed on the severity or duration of their illness, or how to treat them, beyond standard intensive care protocols. “In a few weeks’ time, we learned these are actually the sickest medicine patients in the hospital,” he said in an interview. “Some of them are on four or five different forms of life support.”
But the most of the general public don’t see what he sees. Hamilton and his team of nurses and doctors call patient families to update patient conditions. Families are often optimistic, because when their loved one arrives at the hospital, they may be awake and walking and talking. But those families don’t see how quickly many COVID patients deteriorate.
“You provide care. You know that patients are scared and you try to explain to them that they’re safe and we’re doing what we can and you’re at the right place.”
“We had a patient who was on a lot of oxygen but was able to communicate, able to eat, was completely alert, oriented, understood the situation, was very fearful and scared, which is expected, and then I come back to work three days later and he had passed away an hour before I got to work,” Hamilton said.
“That kind of wears on you,” he said. “You provide care. You know that patients are scared and you try to explain to them that they’re safe and we’re doing what we can and you’re at the right place.”
It’s an ongoing challenge to leave work at work, Hamilton said. His normal, pre-pandemic ways of unwinding such as playing sports or hanging out with friends are discouraged due to social distancing.
“Now what I do for my mental health is I run,” he said. “I have always done that for mental health, not physical health. I’m big on listening to music and … I’ve gotten back into playing golf, because you’re pretty socially distanced on the golf course. And I just try to find ways to be outside.”
He credits Vanderbilt’s Work/Life Connections – Employee Assistance Program for holding a weekly, judgment-free Zoom meeting where caregivers can unload their emotional burdens.
“When you are able to hear other people share these same struggles, it’s kind of good to know that you’re not alone and struggling,” he said.
And he said the extraordinary team members on the COVID unit support each other.
“I don’t think I can say enough good things about the team that I’m able to be a part of, honestly,” he said. “It’s the best team from top to bottom from physicians to nurse practitioners to nurses. Everybody is so hard-working. They’re committed to each other. They’re always trying to help each other out, keep each other’s spirits high.”