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Two I.C.U. Nurses Discuss How Coronavirus Has Impacted Their Lives

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Martin and Emily Tikusis married two years ago. They met when they were working as nurses in Boulder, CO. They’re also both long-term climbers. Gym Climber interviewed Martin and Emily about how their lives have changed in the recent months. 

Emily, can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself?

I have been an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse for 6 years. I just started grad school for my Doctorate as a Nurse Practitioner in January, and I have been climbing for almost 11 years.

Martin and I live with our two dogs and Martin’s mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has battled Amyloidosis for the past eight years and lived in a skilled nursing facility.

What about you Martin? 

I’m trying to be a responsible son with a sick parent, however my heart is in the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been a climber for 18 years and like most of us, I’d say that’s my defining trait. I currently work at the University of Wisconsin Hospital. 

Martin, since the outbreak, how has your work-life changed?

MARTIN: Around here, we’ve been under stay-at-home orders going on a month now, so I’d say the current stress level is down from where it was a couple weeks ago. A month ago I remember witnessing several coworkers breaking down and crying at work in the halls. A few actually quit for fear of infecting their families. I know many of you have probably heard it described this way, but it really feels like a war zone in America’s hospitals right now. 

Initially, at home the nights before I had to go into work, I was having panic attacks that were worse than any runout or highball I’ve ever done. I’m not sure what’s changed other than it all seems to feel kinda normal now. The wearing of the masks, face shields, gowns, gloves, booties etc. It’s almost hard to remember it not being this way. We’ve seen a few nurses and doctors get sick, even put on ventilators, so as for now things are going to have to stay that way. 

Emily, you’ve been staying at home to help take care of Martin’s mother-in-law. How has that been?

EMILY: Like many people, I am unsure of a lot of things. During the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I was very nervous. This past month we made the decision to take Shari (Martin’s mom) out of the Nursing home despite the added risk of her getting coronavirus, since Martin is working in the ICU. Due to lockdowns at the nursing home, Shari was isolated in her room. She was losing track of days and nights and not eating. We chose to take her out because if we did not, she might die alone and without her family around.

We realized we needed to get hospice care on board just in case Shari kept declining. We needed to have medications and equipment ready in case we couldn’t get it later when she really needed it. Within a week, our lives changed drastically. What we thought we were doing to be prepared became a reality. With the pandemic, we felt like time stood still. We were finally living in the present, taking care of our loved one, and cherishing every second we had together. Shari passed away on Thursday, April 23rd, 2020. The last three days of her life, Martin, Rachel (Shari’s daughter), and I never left her alone. We were not able to save her life, but we were able to give her meaning and fill her life with love during her last month on Earth.

Martin, what’s been the scariest moment for you so far?

I’d say the scariest thing has been seeing people younger than me and seemingly healthy individuals clinging to life on full support. For those of you who don’t know what that looks like, these people are on ventilators, sedated and often chemically paralyzed, sometimes on continuous dialysis, as well as a few on ECMO which is too complicated to explain (google it).  

Emily, are you worried about Martin going to the hospital every day? What steps are you taking to prevent infection? 

I am always worried about Martin becoming exposed at work. When we made the decision with Martin’s sister to take their mother out of the nursing home, we realized that she might be at higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19. But because she was doing so poorly and not eating, and we would have been unable to see her if she died, the benefits outweighed the risks in this case. We are still being very cautious and have made plans in case Martin is exposed and needs to quarantine for two weeks.

We are strict about staying as protected from the virus as we can and decreasing the chances of bringing it home. I didn’t run errands or go to the store unless necessary when Shari was with us. My family sent us homemade masks, which have been helpful. When I go to the grocery store, I wear a mask and make sure not to touch my face after my hands are contaminated. I don’t wear gloves because I pay more attention to what I am touching when they aren’t on. Then I sanitize my hands before getting in the car. When at home, I wipe down all the groceries before they go into the house. The number one most important thing is washing hands. It’s the sexiest thing someone can do right now [laughing]. We are also trying to boost our immune system through healthy diet choices. 

Martin, what precautions have you taken to stay healthy?

When I’m not at work my wife and I have definitely been staying home as much as possible. We both wear masks at the grocery store and carry hand sanitizer in the car. It’s easy to make at home if you can’t find any to buy. Personally, I think if you’re diligent about cleaning your hands there’s no need to use gloves when out and about. 

Emily, your classes have been moved to online-only. Are you worried about going back to school/clinicals? Do you know when that will be?

I am a little worried about going back to school, but my school has made smart choices, so I trust that we won’t go back until it’s safe. My summer class has a lab that has been modified to meet as little as possible. I am hopeful that by fall we can go back to having clinical and in-person classes. I know when I do start back up with in-person classes, I will not take them for granted. 

I go back to work next Friday and am a little nervous about making sure I am up to date on the proper personal protective equipment guidelines, but overall, I am excited to get back to work.

How are you managing stress?

MARTIN: To stay sane we’ve both been psyched on running and it’s been pretty easy to steer clear of the busy spots. We also built a campus board and have jumped on the home wall bandwagon and currently have a moon board on its way from the UK. 

EMILY: We’ve been obeying our stay-home rules and not going climbing outside. Instead, we built a campus board and have TRX and a hang board. As Martin said, we have a moon board coming. Climbing took a back seat during this past month and that is okay. Bringing Shari to our home and caring for her was the most selfless and meaningful thing I have ever done for someone. This experience has changed my life. I was able to become closer to my mother-in-law and show her how much we loved her.

Any advice for people at home trying to avoid getting sick?

MARTIN: As far as advice on not getting sick: eat well, get plenty of sleep, stay home as much as possible, and give up caring about your calluses and just wash those things. 

I want to thank all of you who are trying to do your part to keep the hospital’s numbers as low as possible.  

EMILY: Basically, we are all experiencing significant transitions in our lives right now. I can’t imagine what other people are going through, especially ones without support, loss of work, vulnerable populations. The best thing to do is be kind to yourself and give yourself some slack because you aren’t being lazy if you didn’t get your work done at home or haven’t exercised. You are trying to survive this pandemic! Wash your hands and try not to make unnecessary outings.

Being in the moment and loving each other is what we can do right now.

Feature image by Catherine Winkelman Photography


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