I Work In A Nursing Home. The Horrors I've Seen During COVID Continue To Haunt Me.

"I was a really strong woman, and I became like a rag doll. It has taken me a lot of work to get back to my former self, but the pain in my soul is still there."
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A health worker at ORPEA Madrid Buenavista nursing home looks through a window on March 25, 2020, in Madrid.
A health worker at ORPEA Madrid Buenavista nursing home looks through a window on March 25, 2020, in Madrid.
Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press News/Getty Images

This essay is part of “Survive. Thrive. Evolve: How Two Years of the Pandemic Impacted Us Around the World,” a global HuffPost project featuring individuals writing about how their lives were affected after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following piece originally appeared on HuffPost Spain. It has been translated into English and lightly edited for clarity.

I live in Madrid and work in a nursing home. I’ve been asked to talk about my experience and the experiences of others working in this sector during the coronavirus pandemic. I can’t sit down and write this without breaking down in tears. All I can say is that it was horrible. Total madness. A situation of complete helplessness.

Before the state of emergency was declared in Spain in March 2020, we already had COVID cases in the home where I work, both among the staff and the residents. At first, they told us not to wear masks because we might frighten the residents. When people started dying, it was already too late. There was not enough equipment or PPE for all the staff at that point. We considered ourselves lucky if we could use a surgical mask that lasted two or three days. We were scared to go to work and terrified of bringing the virus home with us to our families ― or of getting sick ourselves.

In the end, we all got COVID-19. We were in the first line of fire. But the ones who bore the brunt of the virus were the residents. On April 20, 2020, when I caught it, 63 of the 180 residents at the home had already died. It was total chaos. We were forbidden from referring residents to the hospitals. There were bodies in body bags. We took food on trays to the residents, who were locked in their rooms, and we had no idea if they ate it or not. It was a terrible attack on human dignity.

Their families knew nothing ― they received dribs and drabs of the bare minimum of information. We were forbidden from using our phones to allow the residents to speak to their families over video chat. It must have been so hard not knowing if they were OK.

I’ve lost my father and mother and sister ― not to COVID ― and I feel lucky to be able to have been there, clutching their hands, as they died. I didn’t have to leave their side. That was awful, of course, but I can’t imagine the suffering of the people whose family members were stuck in a room in a nursing home, or a hospital, without being able to hold their hand and say goodbye. I think that is the worst torture a human being can go through. It’s taken time for me to be able to say this, but I’m glad my sister died a year before the pandemic. I’m glad I was able to be with her.

A soldier disinfects a nursing home in the town of Villaviciosa de Odón on March 26, 2020.
A soldier disinfects a nursing home in the town of Villaviciosa de Odón on March 26, 2020.
Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press News/Getty Images

Maybe I’m just oversensitive? In the midst of the pandemic, a neighbor of mine, whose husband was in the nursing home I worked at, asked me to go and see him to let her know how he was. I couldn’t say no, even though I ran the risk of getting into trouble. The man was on the sixth floor and had a fever, and I was going to see him to comfort my neighbor.

The managers of the nursing home accused me of going up to the sixth floor to take photos of the dead bodies. It took me months to get up the courage to tell my therapist about it. I was even embarrassed about it.

Physically, when I caught COVID, I had a fever, lost my sense of smell and taste, got rashes on my skin, my hair fell out, and I had arrhythmia and tachycardia, which I still get. I got some sense of smell back and occasionally my sense of taste. Mentally, I had to start going to therapy. I have always been a very strong woman. I’ve always refused to acknowledge my vulnerability. I’ve been through so, so much in my personal life. I took care of my sister, who was disabled, and my mother for years. I was ready to face anything but the pain of seeing the old people like that ― seeing them confined to their rooms 24/7. I can’t get over that.

I started having sleep disorders and nightmares. I felt like crying all the time and had a terrible feeling of helplessness. The nightmares about these people dragged me down ― they broke me. My whole body went downhill. I went from being a really strong woman who could take on anything to feeling like a rag doll. My doctor automatically referred me to the mental health department.

I’ve been in therapy for 14 months. I still have a scar on my soul, which I don’t think will ever go away, but I’ve learned to live with it. Therapy got me out of the hole I was in. I refused twice to take medication because it made me feel groggy, like I was in limbo.

It took me a long time to share my experiences, but as soon as I was able to talk about it and get everything off my chest that was pulling me down, I started to get better, although it’s been hard to get back to the person I was before. At least I have regained the strength and will to fight and live, which I had lost at one point. I am very lucky to have my therapist.

Going back to the nursing home after those initial months was also hard. Whenever I saw the state of the survivors, I felt sick to my stomach. I just kept repeating to myself, “Come on, Paloma, get on with it, you’ve been through worse.” In the end, you get used to it.

I’m just happy to think that my work can change people’s lives. For example, I managed to get my neighbor’s husband walking again after months of hospitalization due to COVID.

We do this work because we want to. When you see those faces, you forget everything else. But the managers of this sector shouldn’t take advantage of that. We work in terrible conditions. Caregivers earn 985.34 euros a month by trade union agreement. Since I have a part-time contract, I earn 645 euros. You have to have quality of life, but also quality of death, and during a pandemic, you have neither.

A nurse carrying a placard reading "decent ratios to take care of my patients" during International Nurses Day on May 12, 2021. Nurses were protesting against their mistreatment during the coronavirus pandemic and demanding more resources.
A nurse carrying a placard reading "decent ratios to take care of my patients" during International Nurses Day on May 12, 2021. Nurses were protesting against their mistreatment during the coronavirus pandemic and demanding more resources.
Marcos del Mazo/Getty Images

We are the residents’ first line of defense. We see the first signs of something not being right. We raise the alarm. We have a lot of responsibility, but the pay and respect we receive are low. We are thought of as the “ass wipers.”

Nursing homes need to stop being seen as a business. Now that they have fewer residents, nursing home owners are trying to raise their profitability in other ways. And how do they do that? By cutting back on resources and staff. We experience tremendous physical strain, more than the usual emotional strain, and terrible frustration. But, still, they don’t hire more staff to help us.

There may be fewer residents now, but they have greater needs, both physically and emotionally, and they need more love and support. Many have been left disoriented, and that’s difficult to recover from.

COVID has brought all these shortcomings to light, but this was already going on before the pandemic. The only consolation we have is that the residents are now all vaccinated and that if the virus gets in again, we’ll hopefully be more prepared and protected.

But we can’t ignore the fact that we have all been deeply affected by what we have seen. After such strict isolation, the residents’ faculties have really gone downhill. And most of the workers are in worse shape, too. I’m not the only one who has been in therapy ― not by a long stretch. Almost all health care workers have needed psychological help. And that has to change. The situation won’t be resolved by people going out on their balconies every evening at 8 p.m. to applaud. We don’t seem to have learned anything.

As told to Marina Velasco.

*Paloma Smith is a pseudonym being used by the author to protect her privacy and from potential reprimands by her employers.

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