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'Stupid or Brave?' N.H. Health Care Workers Face Moral Dilemmas During Pandemic


Health care workers in New Hampshire are at the center of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Patients rely on them, hospitals scramble to buy gear to protect them, and citizens laud them as heroes in this national crisis.

But what is it like be a health care worker right now? NHPR’s Jason Moon reports the experience of working on the front lines during this pandemic can be complicated.

Glen Kimball is a respiratory therapist at one of the state’s largest hospitals. NHPR is not disclosing which one, because Kimball wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the hospital.

Kimball has done this job for 38 years. But he wasn’t prepared for what happened last month when he came back to work after a few days off. When he arrived, he found his hospital completely transformed.

The ICU was cordoned off with plastic sheets. It was chaotic. Staff were running into rooms to give updates by word of mouth. Twenty minutes later, those updates would change.

“It was a horrible day,” said Kimball. “I literally was shaking and couldn’t stop shaking and couldn’t focus, initially, on what I needed to do and I finally realized: I have to get control of this because I can’t care for patients safely in this way.”

Kimball called his wife who helped calm him down. But the intensity at work only increased over the following week. The world was going into lockdown. The patients were getting really sick.

“The only week that was worse for me in my life was the week that I lost a granddaughter,” said Kimball.

For some health care workers in New Hampshire, the coronavirus pandemic is exacting an emotional as well as a physical toll. Long hours and dangerous working conditions are coupled with moral dilemmas and complicated questions about their duty to others.

Like this one from Lisa, a registered nurse at a large hospital in the southern tier:

“Are you willing to sacrifice your own heath because of a system that failed to prepare?”

NHPR is not disclosing which hospital Lisa works at or using her last name because she’s worried about being punished for speaking to a reporter.

Lisa used to wear a new mask each time she entered a patient’s room.

“I’ve been taking care of positive COVID patients and using the same N95 respirator for weeks now,” said Lisa. “I don’t how that could possibly still be clean. I’ve bleached it and I think I’ve inhaled some of that bleach - so, not a great idea.”

It’s in moments like these that Lisa gets frustrated, wondering why, after years of warnings about pandemics, America’s health care system can’t offer her this basic protection.

Lisa says the availability of masks at her hospital has improved recently, but it’s still not back to normal. And she knows health care workers are getting infected at high rates. Thirty percent of all COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire are health care workers. Lisa says that makes every day at work feel like Russian roulette.

“Is today the day that I’m going to think I’m fine and then I go to the grocery store and get the wonderful clerk I’ve seen every day for the last three or four years -- I’m going to give it to her?”

Lisa has been a nurse for about ten years. She knows her work saves lives. So she keeps showing up. But she re-evaluates that choice every day.

“What’s the smart thing to do?” asked Lisa. “Are you stupid for running into battle without any protection or are you brave? What is the answer to that? I have no idea.”

The pandemic is presenting another difficult question to Maria Lucia Petagna, a patient care coordinator at Concord Hospital:

“How can I serve both my family and public health at the same time and not feel completely torn apart doing it?”

Petagna says her work is filled with a sense of purpose right now. But working in hospital during a pandemic is making her personal life more complicated.

Petagna shares custody of her children with an ex-husband. The relationship can be difficult. A court-date about child support payments was scheduled for next month. Like so many other things, it’s been postponed because of the virus.

Now, the fact that Petagna is a health care worker has entered into the debate about whether it’s safe to keep moving the kids back and forth between houses.

“I work in the hospital and that, in and of itself, is a stigma,” said Petagna. “Everybody says ‘you’re heroes, you’re heroes, you’re heroes, thank you, but don’t come near me.’ Or ‘I don’t want my children anywhere near you.’”

Glen Kimball, the respiratory therapist, is also feeling the effects of the pandemic in his family.

A few weeks ago, before the state beaches were shut down, Kimball and his family went for walk by the ocean to get some air. Kimball drove in a separate car, wore gloves and a mask, and kept his distance on the beach.

“But at one point my grandson was trying to come to me and I had to run away from him and I felt awful because he didn’t know why I was doing that,” said Kimball. “He kept saying ‘Papa up? Papa up? Please Papa?’ And finally he just got down in the sand and he had a temper tantrum.”

The distance between Kimball and his family is now more formalized. Thanks to the generosity of strangers, Kimball now lives in an RV that’s parked on his front lawn.

He’s still searching for ways to cope with all the changes. He’s talking with his wife from the RV and turning up the volume on an album of hymns.

Kimball says he’ll keep going to work at the hospital as long as there’s protective gear for him. But if that were to change, Kimball said, he doesn’t even want to think about the choice he’d have to make.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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