March 11, 2020 is a day many Americans will recall as the day the nation was rocked by the news of the coronavirus outbreak hitting all too close to home.
March 12 was the day many businesses began shutting down, the words “pandemic” and “social distancing” became everyday vocabulary terms, and unemployment was a ticking time bomb for thousands of people.
For 23-year-old Registered Nurse Lauren Zalewski, this was the point in her career that would change her life forever and unveil her to sights, sounds and circumstances unlike anything she’d seen before.
“I have a cousin in Beijing [China], so I’ve been following this for a while,” Zalewski said. “When it hit Oklahoma, I remember thinking how surreal it was that it was here, and I knew we had to get ready.”
Sports, whether they are on the college level or professional level, bring people together through alliances, emotions, and even rivalries. Sports also play a crucial role in the development of those participating in the action, and for people like Zalewski, the softball field is a place she began her passions that would later extend to the hospital.
“I’ve always wanted to help people, but I didn’t know how,” Zalewski said. “I decided to be a nurse because of the emotional connection you have with people through that.”
Originally from Rush Springs, Oklahoma, Zalewski brought her love of softball to Rose State College in Midwest City, Oklahoma, where she was a catcher and an outfielder for the Raiders.
Her final two years of college were spent at the University of Oklahoma in the Nursing Program where she made the transition to the ICU Unit at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City following graduation.
Community transmission of COVID-19 was initially reported in the United States in February 2020, although some medical professionals claim this virus could have been around even longer living unidentified. By mid-March, all 50 states, New York City, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories had reported cases of the virus.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 called those working in the medical field to attention and presented the task of a lifetime as doctor’s offices and hospitals everywhere began filling up.
For Zalewski, she remembers her call to action quite vividly and recalls how the atmosphere at work changed dramatically with anxiousness, but also feelings of determination to help those in need.
“The whole work environment changed,” Zalewski said. “You had to stay on top of things and be hooked in at all times. We’ll get two or three emails a day on COVID-19 updates. Everything changed.”
From new arrangements at the hospital, to many other units being transformed into COVID-19 units, things moved quickly for Zalewski and her fellow staff members while work continued around the clock.
As new cases popped up every day, hospitals everywhere became flooded with new patients, and Zalewski had the responsibility of not only caring for those in need, but also remaining calm and collected to stay focused on the task at hand.
“We get a report every day,” Zalewski said. “I take time every morning to sit down at my computer and think of everything I could possibly need from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.”
Nurses like Zalewski typically spend up to two hours in a patient’s room with all the medication they could possibly need limiting time they would need to exit and re-enter a room. Sometimes runners are used to make the morning processes more efficient and safer for those who are sick.
“There’s no going in and out of rooms during this time,” Zalewski explained. “You have to stay very hooked in. I started writing everything down, and we would even write reminders on windows to make sure we had all the medications our patients could possibly need with us at all times.”
A nurse has the incredible responsibility of taking care of those who enter the hospital seeking help, and Zalewski notes that during this pandemic, one of the biggest takeaways for her has been the act of team building and creating trust among her colleagues.
“I’ve had to be in a patient’s room for more than four hours before,” Zalewski explained. “Building that trust in my team to go and grab medications, or to check on my other patients for me while I’m caring for someone who is so sick has been one thing we’ve focused on in the ICU.”
As one can expect, the hardships of caring for people during a pandemic come frequently for nurses like Zalewski. One of the toughest aspects of her job, though there are plenty, include the severity of the virus and how it limits family access to those who are suffering.
“It’s a very emotional process,” Zalewski said. “The hardest thing is seeing the families limited access. You are their person they look to. You are the one delivering information.”
Zalewski goes on to explain that ICU nurses are typically assigned two patients, but aside from caring for those who are ill and seeking treatment, it is also the nurse’s responsibility to call upon the family with updates and any kind of information they want to know.
“I think any nurse can testify to this,” Zalewski said. “We’ve never had such an emotional connection like we do with these COVID-19 patients. We feel like we’ve watched them as they get better. And even if they don’t, we’re their person. I couldn’t imagine being in that situation and not having my family next to me.”
With the days being long, the cases to continue on in Oklahoma, and our nurses and doctors continuing to work tirelessly, one thing remains constant for Zalewski; she wants to be a difference maker, and she wants to do her part in helping those who need her most.
“I didn’t get into nursing to take care of healthy patients,” Zalewski said. “I feel called to be there for these patients at this time. I told them to throw me in there and that I would be fine. I was ready.”
Oklahoma has faced some of its highest confirmed cases in a single day as of late, and the nation continues to advise Americans to live with caution and remain cognizant to those around you, as well as your personal health. Lauren Zalewski, as well as the thousands of other nurses on the front line of this virus continue to work around the clock to bring life back into society and cure those in need of help.
Zalewski ends with an important message for everyone as we continue to live in the pandemic that has forever changed our lives.
“We need to follow what everyone is saying and to remain knowledgeable to what is going on,” Zalewski explained. “I think I can speak for most people when I say we are very scared about things opening back up. The virus has not gone away. People can be fine one day, and the next day can be a different story. It’s that quick.”
As an ending personal message from myself, Zalewski is among the multiple thousands that are fighting to change the world for the better. It is up to us to do our part, to wear our mask and keep up with our hygiene, and to take care of those around us. My respects to Lauren and what she is doing to make the world a safer place for us all.