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Take a Hike. It Saved My Career and It Just Might Save Yours

Amber Mashuta, MS, CPNP

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May 03, 2022

I was precisely six shifts into my new position when the pandemic swept the streets of New York City. I had recently moved back to New York from Seattle, where I had left behind my previous position and a hospital with which I was very familiar. To say the timing was not ideal is an understatement. As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I had no idea that I would soon be taking care of adult COVID-19 patients in a children's hospital because the state of emergency was about to expand my scope of practice.

That day in mid-March began like any other — but it didn't end that way. I'd received sign-out about the patients from the overnight nurse practitioner. Around mid-morning, we heard that our unit was taking one of the hospital's first COVID-19 patients, a young girl around the age of 8 with a long list of comorbidities. I entered her room with my colleagues; the only protection we wore were standard surgical masks. Later, we would wear N95 masks with surgical masks over the top, gowns, eye protection, face shields, and hairnets before entering a room with a patient diagnosed with COVID-19.

The room was chaotic and filled with tension. Five medical providers wearing masks surrounded the patient. We decided to place her on a CPAP machine to aid her breathing. The respiratory therapist, a tall man with steady hands, worked diligently to connect the machine's tubes and wires. The patient cried when he brought the prongs to her nose. Another nurse practitioner pulled down her mask to comfort the frightened child. I do not know this patient's outcome because the following day, my colleagues and I were deployed to areas in the hospital with the greatest need.

This strategy lasted a few weeks, but soon the adult beds were completely full. The hospital had no choice but to bring the adults into the pediatric facility because, for a little while, children seemed to be somewhat spared from the virus unless they had previous comorbidities.

Living in a state of constant uncertainty has a way of draining a person. Each day at work, I would do my best to be as meticulous as possible when donning and doffing protective equipment. I would change out of my scrubs before heading home for the day. The fear of giving COVID-19 to my partner was overwhelming; I was his greatest exposure risk.

After a year of working through the pandemic in an ICU-stepdown, I decided to leave my position. I certainly had never pictured leaving my job after only 1 year, but I realized I had to do it for my health. I resolved to give my notice at around 4 AM during a night shift when I realized I had not taken a break while at work in just under a year. I walked into the bathroom and stared at my reflection in the mirror for what felt like the first time in a long time. I looked exhausted. I was averaging only a few hours of sleep, I had gained weight, and my entire body ached. I knew it was time to take a step back.

After leaving my previous role, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from New York to Maine. The 700-mile trek spanned six states. Becoming reacquainted with nature was healing and allowed me to come to terms with everything I had experienced.

I am now in a new city and ready to start over. I am starting a new job in a few weeks, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't apprehensive about working in the hospital again. I know that COVID surges are better, but the experiences remain with me. However, I now approach life with a new outlook.

I say "I love you" to my friends and family all the time now. The pandemic truly taught me that life is never guaranteed. I used to think I understood this concept because I work in the medical field, but now I have a different perspective. I'm not sure what they did in other cities, but in New York, refrigerated trucks full of the deceased sat right outside the hospital. Seeing these trucks and witnessing the virus tear patients and families apart taught me to appreciate the people in my life in a way that is difficult to put into words.

I have learned to be more appreciative of the little things that I used to overlook, like when I used to walk out of the hospital late at night in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest's dewy air flitted across my eyelashes, and everything was still. Upon taking a deep, pleasurable breath, the scent of pine trees would greet my nose. In the smallest moments, we can find great joy.

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About Amber Mashuta, MS, CPNP
Amber Mashuta is a board-certified pediatric nurse practitioner with a vast array of experience in acute care inpatient settings. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was a frontline provider in New York City, where she treated both pediatric and adult patients. After moving out of New York City, she completed a 700-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail from New York to Maine. She is also an avid writer and chess player.

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