Pacifica nurse Stephanie Hamilton, who works on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, said she was never so happy about a Band-Aid after she got her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 19.
Hamilton works in the “step-down unit,” where patients are closely monitored after being in intensive care at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame. Even under normal conditions, her patients need a lot of care.
“There are multiple things wrong we are trying to balance,” Hamilton said. “They could either go to ICU or to a regular medical floor. It’s not predictable.
“I like this level of nursing because of the turnover of the patients,” she said. “They are only there a few days when they are critical.”
Nursing was a midlife career choice that Hamilton made a few years ago after working in risk management and insurance, then supporting herself as a jewelry artist for seven years. When she got her first vaccine dose in mid-December, Hamilton was wearing a pair of earrings she created.
Hamilton said it made sense to her to take a nursing program that lasted only one year, available to those already holding a bachelor’s degree. With her degree in economics, she needed more science courses, which she took at the community colleges. Hamilton found she really loved learning more about science and helping people. The career choice was a good match.
“I would have laughed at you in my 20s if you said that was who I would become,” she said. “You never stop learning as a nurse.”
Hamilton loves getting to know her patients and their families and helping explain complex medical procedures and the reasons for them. Her first job was at a veterans hospital.
“Every day is different,” Hamilton said. “Every person has their own needs. It’s challenging. There is so much going on with your patients, but it’s rewarding. I always felt like I had helped people.”
Time management and keeping adequate staffing are barriers facing nursing as a profession.
“We, as nurses, are often running eight hours a day,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic added a level of professional and personal complexity to already stressful schedules. Hamilton is the mother of two children, ages 16 and 20.
“In the beginning we didn’t have enough (personal protective equipment),” Hamilton said. “I sent my kids to live with my ex-husband because I was dealing with COVID patients. I did not get to see my son for his birthday. Now that we know more, we know it’s more complex. It can attack in all kinds of ways and it does. That’s tough.”
During the pandemic, the simplest of tasks became lengthy and complicated. She described how difficult it was to give a patient a simple dose of Tylenol for a headache when she approached dressed in all the necessary protective gear, including a respirator, mask, gloves and gown.
“I had to take everything off, disinfect everything and put everything back on. It takes time to do that. I spent most of my day doing that. If they had more health difficulties, it’s even harder. We are trying to provide the best care we can as quickly as possible,” Hamilton said.
“Right now their families cannot see them unless it’s a life or death case. We are trying to set up a way for family to talk to the patient on an iPad,” she said. “I’ve had patients in their 20s. That means they were really sick. We gave a lot of oxygen. We would lie people on their stomachs for 16 hours a day to make them as comfortable as possible, but then they would use oxygen more quickly.”
Last month, when Hamilton and her co-workers received the first of their two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, some had already tested positive for the virus.
“They didn’t cover this in nursing school. We are tired. Right now, there are no hospital beds empty in the Bay Area. I feel like every day I do good for the world. That’s big,” she said.
She urges all to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“You do not want to be one of our patients with COVID,” Hamilton said. “Follow the guidelines. It sucks, but you do not want to be a patient here. San Mateo County was doing better than average until recently and now all hospitals are full. There is no magic to what we hear from (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Get vaccinated. That is how, long-term, we are going to get rid of the virus.”