What It’s like to Work in a Hospital Supply Room During the Pandemic
An Employee’s Personal Experience of Being in Charge of Supplies in a Hospital Full of COVID Patients
I was finally able to sit down with my husband and listen to him. He’s a hospital worker. He’s not a doctor or nurse, but an employee who is in charge of the hospital’s supplies, from toothbrushes to pacemakers. On March 11th, when his hospital ramped up preparations for its COVID surge, his manager said that everyone in his department was expected to work overtime and not take time off for the foreseeable future. Since then, he’s worked many, many hours throughout this crisis without any hazard pay or a raise.
I’ve only talked with my husband for brief stints each day. When he comes home after his shifts, he leaves his shoes on the porch and puts his work clothes in a plastic bag that I keep outside our front door. I make sure our 4-year-old doesn’t run up to him so that he can walk straight upstairs to take a shower. He’s been sleeping in our spare bedroom that we’ve dubbed the“quarantine room.” With all the changes my family faced in March, like my teaching virtually, caring for my kids, and managing their schooling, I‘ve only had time to listen to headlines of my husband’s workdays. I would hear highlights of the day describing how burdened the hospital was, but we never discussed his personal experience until now.
The crisis in his hospital has currently lifted. Beds are opening up for elective surgeries and more and more COVID patients are being discharged every day. That’s great news. We all feel relieved. My husband’s proud of his work, but he didn’t come out of it unscathed. He developed anxiety and panic disorder three weeks ago. His hands and feet tingle at random times and his heart races almost every day. Some nights I hear him doing deep breathing exercises in the spare bedroom. He has a doctor’s appointment in August to get checked out. I worry that the stress from the pandemic might affect his health in more ways than it already has. He’s a rather big, middle-aged guy- about 6’2, and he lifts boxes and walks the hospital floors all day. His job’s strenuous enough without the added stress of the pandemic.
His supply team consists of 10 workers who are in charge of the storage room that holds all hospital supplies. They store, stock, and distribute every medical supply needed in a hospital. Also, they respond to any urgent supply needs throughout the hospital. If a department needs something, his team will run it to them immediately. Here’s his account of the crisis in his hospital between March and June.
By mid-March the hospital was full, but the only patients in the hospital were victims of COVID, those recovering from thoracic surgery, and new mothers and babies. When I delivered supplies to COVID floors, I always tried to walk as far away from the patient rooms as I could. I would get off the elevator and hug the wall that was opposite those rooms. The doors to their rooms were always closed, but I still worried about contagion. It really didn’t matter where I walked because there were usually COVID patients on gurneys in the hallways who were waiting to be taken somewhere. Sadly, on most days, there were gurneys that held patients who had succumbed to the virus. Their bodies were being taken out to the huge body cooler that stood behind the hospital, among the dumpsters. I stayed away from those gurneys too.
Every hospital employee worked as hard as the news said. Even though our hospital was at capacity and not overloaded, we still felt like COVID ravaged us. There was no downtime for any medical worker, mentally or physically. For all of us in the supply room, it meant lifting, opening, and stocking about 50 more boxes a day and taking inventory on all the extra supplies. Supplies came in unpredictable waves, so one day we’d be down to only one box of gloves, hoping we didn’t have to tell departments that we totally ran out. The next day twenty boxes of gloves would come. Speaking of gloves, my manager said that we only needed to wear gloves because we were touching so much cardboard. He assured us that masks weren’t necessary for us because we weren’t at risk for exposure.
The supply and demand crisis added to the tension that the pandemic brought to the hospital. I saw a lot of hospital norms go out the window. A few times, nurses barged in the storeroom, which is off-limits to everyone but supply workers, and demanded masks. “Our Department needs masks now!” They’d say exasperated. My boss had to deal with the angry nurses, saying that we’re doing the best we can. My boss was constantly on the phone trying to place orders from any vendor she could. We had to utilize every connection we had to fulfill the doctors’ and nurses’ needs.
By late March, the surge was hitting our area, and it was then that our bosses told us that we had better wear masks too. We were given surgical masks, not N 95 masks.
On weekends, I was assigned to the Intensive Care floor that was full of COVID patients on ventilators. I called this floor the “Wild West,” and I tried to drop off supplies as quickly as I could. Many nurses on this floor didn’t wear masks outside of patient rooms. They would talk to each other, eat donuts from open boxes placed on the counter, and did their work without seeming too concerned about catching the virus. One day, an Intensive Care nurse came into the storage room and stood a foot away from me with no mask. I almost jumped out of my skin. She must have noticed my reaction because she left the room and returned a minute later with a mask. She said, “Sorry, I don’t want to get you sick.”
“Are you sick? I asked her.
“She answered with a cryptic, “Who knows, but we can’t be too careful.”
That’s one moment when I felt truly anxious. I guess doctors and nurses have the confidence to block out any fears and forge ahead.
One day when I was working alone because my co-worker’s back went out, a doctor came into the storeroom wearing his full PPE gear. He had just treated a COVID patient and said he was looking for a stethoscope. I didn’t want him coming any closer to me or contaminating the supplies, so I put my hand out and told him sternly, “You’ve got to stop there.” He did. I got the stethoscope for him and tossed it lightly so he could catch it. After that, all I wanted to do was go home and shower. When my shift ended, I walked to the staff parking lot where I always parked my car. A new sign was put up saying, “Parking for funeral directors only. Hospital staff must park in visitor lots.”
We were definitely overworked, overtired, and felt just as vulnerable as the nurses and doctors, but we got through it. I really pray there’s not a second time, not like it was.
When I asked my husband what his coworkers thought about the situation, he told me that there was something they always said to each other:
“At least we’re not a New York hospital.“