TAMPA, Fla. — None of us were ready for it. Not for a virus we knew so little about and killed so quickly.
Now imagine being a young, new graduate whose first job in health care is on the frontlines of a pandemic. Your role is to keep infected patients alive.
"It still doesn't seem real," said Nia Gand, a young nurse at Tampa General Hospital.
Gand works in a general medical unit that had been recently flipped to serve only COVID-19 patients.
With just about two years on the job, Gand has spent more than half her career working in the middle of the pandemic.
"Never in my nursing career would I have expected to go through these changes and have to go through a pandemic," the University of South Florida nursing graduate said.
Sierra, who asked us not to share her last name, is 28 years old and also has just over two years of professional nursing under her belt.
Eighteen months of it has been defined by added protocols and extra layers of personal protective equipment.
Her intensive care unit has been deluged with so many COVID-infected patients, the hospital recently flipped it to serve COVID patients only.
"I pray before I walk into any room to take care of these sick patients," she said.
For these young nurses and others like them, the last six weeks have taken the heaviest toll since the pandemic began.
"Because we didn't have to be here. This could have been prevented," Gand said referring to the vast majority of seriously ill patients they see who are unvaccinated. "It's rough when you put your all into it, and you don't have that support from the outside making it better."
Most of their patients are unvaccinated, and some are younger than them.
"They're scared. That's where we come in and hold their hand and say everything is going to be OK, even though we can see where they’re heading towards," Sierra explained.
She had two patients struggling to make it through the day when we spoke with her in the intensive care unit. One of them was just 19 years old with underlying conditions.
Death for young nurses doesn't typically happen so early, so fast and so often. The pandemic has made death normal for the new class of health care workers.
"Literally, you're just seeing this patient go downhill in a matter of 12 hours. It’s crazy how fast it happens," Gand said.
For Sierra, seeing so many cases of death has left a mark.
"It's made me more grateful for life, for sure, grateful for every breath I take because someone can lose it, and I've seen it," she said.
"It's definitely a calling to do this profession, you have to think back to why you started. That helps you come back the next day," Gand said when asked if she ever regrets getting into the profession.
She said she will remember these days for years to come.
"It was rough and crazy times, and we did unimaginable things, and as a nurse we had to stretch pretty far to save patients. It was a crazy time for everyone," Gand said.