WARREN — To comfort one of her COVID-19 patients, nurse Kim Norton would sing to him.
As she sang, the patient, a slight, elderly man, reached out and held her hand, tucking it under his chin.
As she talked about him, she started to cry.
“I think he knew at that time he was going to pass, and he just wanted me close to him,” Norton said. “His family couldn’t be there, so I was his family.”
Overcome for a moment by emotion, her voice caught as she told the story to Mahoning Matters over the phone.
“And, that day, as I was holding his hands, he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”
As one of the more than 30 travel nurses at Trumbull Regional Medical Center, Norton has a handful of stories like this one.
After a contract in North Carolina, Norton started working in Warren on Nov. 23. She was planning to stay until January but extended her travel nursing contract until March due to the hospital's needs.
At the onset of the pandemic, hospitals scrambled to acquire PPE. Now, the limited resource is actual people. As medical professionals come down with the coronavirus, hospitals are struggling to staff COVID-19 units at the same rate that patients are coming in.
As a result, hospitals all over the country are hiring travel nurses like Norton to help fill these gaps.
Travel nurses in Ohio
Often, travel nursing — professionals who take short-term jobs at little notice in various locations for increased pay — is an opportunity for young people to see new places or make some extra cash. Now, travel nurses are headed to COVID-19 hot spots to fortify the front line.
Travel nursing positions in Ohio have increased more than fourfold since this summer, according to Aya Healthcare, a travel nursing agency.
"It seems like that spike primarily happened just in the last four weeks," said Sophia Morris, vice president of account management at Aya.
Unsurprisingly, the spike in need for nurses coincides with the spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Ohio. In his state briefings, Gov. Mike DeWIne now regularly features desperate healthcare workers pleading with Ohioans to please stay home whenever possible.
The Ohio Department of Health Tuesday reported 614 new hospitalizations, the second-highest one-day increase the state has seen.
A day in the life
Norton started at Trumbull Regional Medical Center the week before Thanksgiving.
She lives about an hour and a half from the hospital, so, on the days she works, she stays in a nearby hotel and goes home when she has a few days off.
During a shift, Norton is wearing a mask, a face shield, goggles, gloves and a gown. There is a badge affixed to her scrubs with a picture of her unencumbered face.
"Sometimes, the patient will take the badge off my uniform and hug it, thanking me for being there," Norton said.
In many cases, COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe suffer from hypoxemia; they don't get enough oxygen to their brains and become confused.
But the biggest obstacle, she said, is hearing.
"It's hard for them to hear us, and it's hard for us to hear them, especially with their soft little voices when they're on so much oxygen,"
To her knowledge, Norton has not had COVID-19. She has been hyper-vigilant about safety at work by distancing from staff members and wearing the appropriate equipment.
When it comes to her patients, however, that's different.
"They need to be touched. They need to feel loved, and so, therefore, I put myself at risk every day," Norton said. "And I would do it all over again. I wouldn't change anything that I'm doing, because I feel that this is where God put me."
When Norton finally leaves Warren after several days of work, she decompresses during her hour and a half commute back home.
It gives her the chance to think about her shifts and "put it back in the filing cabinet," she said.
She unwinds by FaceTiming with her children. She also credits her Christian faith for helping her remain calm during challenging days and even try to lift the spirits of those around her.
"Even at the hospital, I'm the type of nurse that when things get stressful, I try to make the staff laugh," she said. "Because if we don't, we're going to explode. It's like giving them a little bit of joy at the same time as all of our sadness and sorrow and exhaustion."
But not every day at the hospital is a bad day. Sometimes, people get to go home.
"When we get to discharge patients, it's a great celebration," she said.
Before she puts a homeward bound patient in the elevator, "They grab you by the hand, look at you with tears in their eyes, and they say, 'I love you.'"
The joyful moments fortify Norton for the devastating moments.
She has a little motto she shares with her coworkers: "Even when it's bad, it's still good."
Norton understands the reality of the nursing profession. "We're all doing what we signed up to do," she said.
Home for the holidays
Norton, a mother of five and grandmother to three, canceled her family's Christmas celebrations this year. They're opting for a Zoom call instead.
When she sees friends on Facebook ignoring pleas from state and local officials to reconsider holiday celebrations, "I just put on their post, 'Please stay home,'" Norton said.
Even with an effective vaccine being introduced this week, returning to normal will take months — longer if people ignore public health measures, she said.
"It may not be different next year, if people continue to do what they do," Norton said. "We may be in this for two more years. We don't know."
For nurses like Norton — at Ground Zero of the country's pandemic fight — the only way out is through.
"If we get another big surge such as this," Norton said, and paused, considering.
"We're going to just have to continue doing what we're doing."