Catching My Breath

A healthcare worker walks to the bus stop after a long shift. She can’t quite make it…

Tom Seufert, MD
6 min readApr 25, 2020
Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

I was supposed to be off today. Kim sounded desperate on the phone, though; four CNAs called out sick. It’s been impossible for her to keep the schedule covered: The word is out about the virus in nursing homes. People are scared, and I am, too. But an extra 30 bucks a shift puts me up to almost $15 an hour — real money. Even without the bonus, I can’t afford to turn down hours; Angelo’s last check from the garage was half what it is most weeks. The next one will be even lower, if it comes at all.

There’s more to do now with so few of us working; it was a long 12 hours. I felt like a zombie towards the end, but it’s finally quitting time. I head for the bus stop, up top of the hill. Halfway there, I’m getting dizzy and have to slow down.

My sugar’s been running high. I’m dehydrated; that’s probably all it is. I couldn’t pick up my insulin Tuesday; they upped my co-pay and my cards were too close to the limit. I wanted to go yesterday, but it’s about impossible getting out of the house with the twins home from preschool now. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

I’m really starting to pant, but there’s a picnic table where I can sit down and rest for a bit. I take my lunches out here when the weather is good sometimes, but that’s been a while now. It’s been a cold Spring.

The bus rumbles up to its stop. Well, I’m too beat to run catch it and it’s the last one running; I watch it pull away. I’m annoyed, now, because I’ve got nothing with me. My water bottle’s in my locker with my badge; my phone and purse are at home. I would have them, normally, of course, but I don’t take anything around that might have the virus on it. I’m careful so I won’t get sick.

A lot of the residents are sick with the virus, even dying. I’ve heard them coughing in their rooms when I’m in the hall. Felt their skin burning up when I turn them — through two pairs of gloves. And Mrs. Phillips has been breathing so fast, lately, she’s gulping at the air like a fish. A girlfriend who’s an RN told me we had fifteen die just last week, but the admins are keeping it quiet. It’s bad publicity — and they need people like me to come work.

I don’t know any of the real numbers, but I found Mr. Chisholm just this morning. A big, angry man who had a lot of strokes and constant diarrhea; he always punched at whoever was cleaning him up. He got me right in the belly once last year, when I was pregnant. I went home shaking and crying that night. But I only bled a little, and Jaime turned out fine. I thought something was wrong yesterday; he barely fidgeted when I was wiping him down. And then today…just sad. I can’t say I’ll miss him, but I didn’t wish him harm, either.

It’s raining now; I didn’t see the clouds come in. My scrubs are getting soaked through. I should really get up, find a phone to use at least, but I’m still pretty lightheaded. The rain is cold, but I don’t mind it that much; I can rest another minute or two. I shower when I get home anyway to wash the virus off; no harm getting a head start.


“She’s just been sittin’ there. She won’t say nothing.”

Footsteps. Voices, coming closer. I don’t know what’s changed, or why, but there’s a lot of commotion.

“Hey! Ma’am!” Light in my face. “What happened today? Are you hurt?”

More voices. I get jostled about some.

“Hey! Ma’am!” Tap-tap-tap. “Can you tell us your name?”

I try to answer, but my tongue feels numb, out of my control, like it’s just a big piece of steak in my mouth.

“Ma’am!” Pinch. “Do you work at the Savannah House?”

But I’m still working my tongue against my teeth, trying to figure out its problem. Besides, everyone’s being so loud and rude. We can talk later when I’ve had a chance to rest.

Movement. Lights flash. Sirens, very loud — is there a fire somewhere?

“She’s not really answering questions for us. She’s ice cold, and her sugar read ‘high’ on the meter. We found her up the block from Savannah House.”

“She can’t be a patient there? She looks too young.”

“No, we think she works there; she’s got their scrubs on.”

I don’t for long. They pull all my clothes off. I’m rolled and prodded; wires and stickers go all over me. Needles prick at my arms. Something pokes in my nose and out again; something pokes in my butt and stays. I don’t really care. A mask goes on my face, hissing air.

“Her temp won’t register rectally; she’s too cold. She’s 86 temporal, though.”

Am I really that cold? Surprising. I wasn’t out long; I was just catching my breath. But hot packs and blankets get piled all around me, with what looks like a big inflatable raft on top.

“Wow, her labs look like DKA, too. I put the drip order in.”

Quiet. Just a loud fan and beeps from the monitor. I hope Angelo made the meat I put out to thaw and fed the children. Or put it back in the freezer at least.

“Can you hear me, Ma’am? Do you speak English?”

English! Only since I was four years old, I want to say but don’t. I feel horribly thirsty.

“Ma’am, are you in any pain?”

I can tell by the voice it’s a young man. I feel stronger now, I realize, enough to try opening my eyes…I wish I hadn’t. The way this man is dressed! Does he think he’s going into space? If I’m dreaming, it’s a wild one. What could I have eaten?

I shut my eyes again. He keeps on trying, but my mind is on the beach, collecting sand dollars, pulling seaweed from my hair years ago. I’m not talking to any space men.

There’s a knock at the door. Someone yells through the glass: “Dude, hey! Lab just called…she’s a positive!”

“Pfffff, of course,” the astronaut mutters. I think he swears, too. The F word, under his breath. “We’ll have to board her then,” he yells back. “There’s no COVID beds.”

The virus’s name catches me up short. What are they talking about? I just missed a few shots of insulin, I don’t have COVID. There’s ten questions I want to ask now, but the space man is already leaving. As the door slams shut, I wonder where Angelo and the kids are. Why am I here alone, are they okay? I’m scared now, for the first time tonight. For them and me both.

I wait, but no one tells or asks me anything else. No one comes into the room at all. Eventually, I figure I misunderstood them. They meant someone else about the COVID test — this is the hospital, I realize, and I’ve heard there’s lots of infected people there. Or I could have been dreaming; just imagined the whole thing. Yes.

Later. A space helmet appears, looking in through a crack in the door. The girl in it looks too young for prom. She says, “I’m Jeanette. I’m with the day shift; I’ll be your nurse.”

I can’t understand what this girl means about a day shift. I’m on day shift; I just got out. Didn’t I? There aren’t any windows, here, and the hands on the clock are frozen, but it can’t have been more than an hour or two since I punched out.

Still, my eyes follow the tubing taped to my arm, follow it up to the pumps and medication bags on poles to either side. I remember before my dad passed, when he kept getting sick, in and out of the ICU. He looked a lot like this…

Beneath the mask, my jaw clenches. I try to get up but can barely shift myself.

These space people are wrong; they must be. I don’t have COVID, not like Mrs. Phillips or that surly Mr. Chisholm, Lord let him rest. I can’t get sick. Not with prescriptions and diapers and the credit card bills. I can’t be here now! I have to get to work…

— -

This narrative is based on an actual patient and how I imagine she experienced her trip to the Emergency Department amid varying levels of delirium from a combination of hypothermia, diabetic ketoacidosis, and COVID-19. I’ve changed details to protect her identity.



Tom Seufert, MD

Emergency physician, clinical informaticist, software engineer, author, dad.