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COVID-19 LGBT nursing personnel discuss pandemic experiences
by Matt Simonette
2020-05-27

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Thousands of healthcare professionals in Chicago, many of them members of the city's LGBT community, have been thrown into the frontlines of America's struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Tony Amberg, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, healthcare providers have had to struggle with the same uncertainties that the public and community members have all had to struggle with: determining an effective response to a relatively unknown illness.

Service providers, public officials and community members had fallen into a "bubble," Amberg said, wherein medical advancements in the last several decades had enabled vaccinations, treatments and cures for many illnesses.

"We got swayed by the idea that this was a disease that attacks the vulnerable, and that young people were immune," Amberg admitted. "Now we see that this is so not true. It attacks people who are very, very fit and knocks them over, as well as those who are not in good shape."

Erik McIntosh, a nurse practitioner at Rush University Medical Center's department of internal medicine, also noted the randomness with which COVID-19's symptoms were visited upon patients.

"I had a 90-year-old woman who had the coronavirus who had no symptoms," McIntosh recalled. "I remember walking in her room, and she said, 'They say I have this coronavirus, but I feel fine'—and she was fine. I remember thinking: 'How can I have this 90-year-old woman be fine, when I just sent a 49-year-old man to the ICU?'"

McIntosh added, "It was just trying to understand this virus that made it so scary."

Both McIntosh and Amberg said that each of their hospital staffs underwent massive and rapid restructurings as the patient loads began to increase. Amberg said that his entire hospital essentially became an enormous COVID-19 ward.

"The degree to which they have moved around thousands of people, and the degree of change that they've managed, has been extraordinary," he added.

Katherine Orlin, an RN clinical manager with Rush Community Based Practices, said that it took just under two weeks between initial conversations about how to handle the pandemic to opening dedicated facilities for patients.

"The reason for even that delay was just getting an infrastructure in place," Orlin explained. "Then overnight, we got the word: 'We're going to get going' and people started showing up the next day.'"

Orlin's work largely focuses on patients who are experiencing homelessness. She was redeployed to a COVID facility at A Safe Haven, a housing organization, which was operated by Rush and Chicago Department of Public Health.

"The patients were coming from all over Chicago," she said. "…People experiencing homelessness are generally a very marginalized, very underserved population and have a multitude of unmet healthcare needs, way beyond the virus, that they're coming in with."

Media reports about health personnel focus in large partresidual trauma for nurses, physicians and other staff working with COVID patients. Orlin, McIntosh and Amberg all acknowledged the intensity of the work, but said that the nimbleness and endurance of healthcare workers are significant parts of the pandemic's legacy.

"I think this really is a story of resilience," said Amberg. He primarily provides mental-health support for patients in non-psychiatric hospital units. As the pandemic came to the fore, his full-time job became mental-health support for the staff itself. He leads them in breathing exercises before shifts, for example, to help them stay focused and grounded as they see patients.

McIntosh admitted feeling "emboldened" by the cooperation and dedication he saw amongst his colleagues.

"What I have confidence in was the resilience and resolve of the entire medical team—physicians, physical therapists and even our environmental services team," he said. "When a crisis hits, we really come together as a team."

Orlin said the experience allowed her "the unique opportunity to help create a system that helps people who really can use it."

Healthcare providers will remain vigilant for future waves of coronavirus transmissions, Amberg said.

"It looks to me that about 1.1 percent of Cook County and Chicago has already tested positive, which if you think about it, is an enormous number," he explained. "It seems that, at this moment, in every 100 people, there is more than one person already known to be positive. If we play that out, that means that there are a lot of people out there, and that the situation is very ripe for explosion."

McIntosh said, "It's not a matter of 'if,' but 'when.'"


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