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A special series by WUWM's Maayan Silver. Maayan's stories air each Tuesday, beginning September 21, during Morning Edition 6:45 a.m. and 8:45 a.m.

'A lot of people never got to say goodbye:' Milwaukee ICU nurse on how she persists, despite the tragedies of the pandemic

Christin Lissmann (right) and her former patient Derek Mosley (left) who she cared for when he was at Froedtert Hospital fighting for his life in 2020 as a kidney recipient and COVID-19 patient. Here they are after Mosley recovered.
Froedtert Hospital
Christin Lissmann (right) and her former patient Derek Mosley (left). She cared for him in 2020 when he was at Froedtert Hospital fighting for his life, as a kidney transplant recipient and COVID-19 patient. Here they are after Mosley recovered.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a roller coaster, especially for health care workers.

Through the inception of the pandemic, then through surges due to variants, health care providers have exposed themselves to risk and mental and physical exhaustion.

For our series Pandemic Reflections, WUWM's Maayan Silver talked to Froedtert ICU nurse Christin Lissmann about how she’s been getting through it all. When the pandemic began, Lissmann said caring for COVID-19 patients was a big task, but it came naturally.

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“It was definitely instinctual. It was ‘we've got to go, we've got to go,’” Lissmann recalled. “Now, this is what we do, and this is what we're about to do, and we'll debrief later on what those feelings were.”

Lissmann's team converted their unit into the COVID-19 ICU the second week of March 2020. "It was as if we had just the right spark plugs, the right oil, the right training. And it was it was muscle memory, but for something we'd never done," Lissmann said.

Driving home that first day, Lissmann wrestled with the idea that she could not even take a break. "You can't wait to get back. You know that there's more work to be done. It was just this adrenaline rush on a loop," she said.

Two years into the pandemic, how is she faring amid the Omicron variant? "The tank is empty. There's no more adrenaline. There has been a metamorphosis. We've moved past the adrenaline, and now we're running on pure coffee," Lissmann said.

Lissmann said she's had to take in the reality that this struggle is for the long haul. "[I] quit thinking that there's going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I think we know that this is the world that we live in right now and we have to adjust," Lissmann said.

Lissmann said doing research has helped her maintain her sanity through the waves and surges of COVID-19. “I enjoy reading research I really do, from the experts in the field, not Dr. Google," Lissmann said.

Lissmann has a message for people who are turning to the internet for medical advice. “If you're having car problems, you go to the mechanic. If you're having a chimney problem, you call the a chimney company. I don't know anyone who would try to get on their roof and make a major repair from 'Google Roofer,'" Lissmann said. "I wish that people would start embracing their health care in the same way and say, ‘you know, let me talk to my provider.’”

Lissmann said she's comforted by digging into robust scientific research and studies. "I think in retrospect, we will really appreciate that we are living in a time where research is fervent. We're moving leaps and bounds in terms that give me hope because I do believe in science."

Lissmann said dealing with people who do not share her beliefs on COVID-19 science has pushed her to lead with kindness. “They still deserve compassionate care,” Lissmann said. “They still deserve the highest quality of care. I think that helps you to grow as a nurse or as a health care provider. You can either look at it... [and] become fatigued...or you can look at it and rise to the occasion and say, ‘you know, I still have to put on my best today, and I have to perform at my best.’”

Lissmann said she’s had to ask herself: “What kind of person do I want to be?”

“I think every person in society has that choice, as we look at each other and how we treat each other,” she said. “Am I going to be highly reactive or am I going to be highly proactive? So, I want to be happy I'm choosing the latter of the two," Lissmann said.

Lissmann knows her interactions with people might be the last they have with someone, and that’s affected her, too.

"A lot of people never got to say goodbye," she explained. "They always thought that they were going to have one more hug. I didn't hear anyone in an end-of-life discussion or conversation when they couldn't hold their mother's hand one more time talking about a 'thing.' They talked about hugs. They talked about touch. They talked about mostly just embracing experiences, memories. It was always intangible, all those things that make us human and contribute to our shared human experience," Lissmann said.

Lissmann said she hopes she’s always treated her close relationships with care, but now she does so even more.

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Maayan Silver is a WUWM news reporter.
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