A Pandemic Nurse’s Diary, by Nurse T with Timothy Sheard. New York: Hardball Press, 2020. 143 pp.
Reading A Pandemic Nurse’s Diary, particularly against prevalent media representations of healthcare workers’ experiences during this pandemic, brought to mind for me the opening words of the sketch by the U.S. radical writer Jesús Colón, “Something to Read,” from his collection A Puerto Rican in New York, in which he describes “a piece of working class literature, a pamphlet, a progressive book or pamphlet” as “precious things.”
Authored by a nurse who just goes by Nurse T, along with Timothy Sheard, himself a former nurse as well as founder of Hardball Press, one of the major publishers in the U.S. committed to publishing working-class literature, A Pandemic Nurse’s Diary is in fact “something to read” not just because it provides an incisive record of healthcare workers’ experiences of the pandemic at this moment but also because of the deeper analysis it offers from a worker’s perspective into U.S. class society and how it impacts people’s health and the delivery of health care in the U.S. Additionally, what makes this work most “precious,” distinguishing it as working-class literature, is that it addresses workers and the workplace traumas they endure directly, an issue rarely covered in our nation’s literature. Nurse T and Sheard even include a final section of exercises and meditations for nurses and healthcare workers to help them cope with the trauma of this work, intensified during this pandemic.
While the process of vaccinating the U.S. population against COVID-19 is underway, promising visibility and hope for an end to the pandemic, Nurse T’s diary stresses that while vaccinations may provide some protection from the virus, the pandemic has also exacerbated and draw into relief longstanding and deeply rooted social ills, often structural in nature, that cannot be cured by any vaccination, no matter how powerful.
At one point, while performing post mortem care on a dead patient, Nurse T writes, “In my silence I wish the Attending Physician could write in the death certificate under the cause of death: hospital poverty due to refusal to of the gov’t to provide adequate resources and staff for impoverished patients of color.”
I found Nurse T’s explanations and analyses of “hospital poverty” one of the most illuminating aspects of the diary. She, of course highlights that “poor patients—especially Black and Hispanic patients—are way more likely to die from Covid than their White counterparts” because “poverty has given them multiple co-morbidities, like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and asthma.” While I knew something of these health disparities conditioned by our racist class system, I was less aware of how the capitalist political economy and class system impacted the functioning of hospitals. At one point, one of Nurse T’s colleagues expresses not being bitter, but just tired: “Tired of the shortages and the outdated equipment. Tired of the politicians protesting they can’t afford to raise our reimbursement rates. Tired of the government—city-state, and federal—funneling resources to the gold-plated medical centers in Manhattan.” And Nurse T explains that the “Ritchie Rich” private hospitals, often already profitable with wealthy patients and private donors, receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements three times as her hospital does for the same procedures. They have access to the most advanced drugs and best equipment and are often sought by Fortune 500 companies for experimental drug trials.
What Nurse T reveals in her portrayal of the pandemic are the failings of our class system to serve the health needs of all. While the pandemic presents a challenge, it might very well have been manageable if we had a humane economy designed to meet human need rather than produce profit.
Nurse T represents the failure as political as well. While she movingly documents many experiences with patients, one that stands out is the patient who listened to right-wing pundits such as Trump and drank a bottle of cleaning fluid, destroying his esophagus and doing serious permanent damage to his body. Even the best health care, she laments, cannot counteract this political poison.
Most vivid and important in the diary is simply Nurse T’s representation of her work and the traumatic toll it takes on her and her colleagues. Because they work in an infectious environment, the nurses stay in hotels and rarely see their families. Because they don’t have proper equipment because the hospital does not have up-to-date filtration and ventilation systems, the workplace is far more dangerous and deadly than it needs to be. Because politicians and the population at large does not take the pandemic seriously and promote basic precautions, they are having to treat many more patients than they would need to otherwise. Because the hospital is ill-equipped, they can’t treat patients optimally.
While there is an inherent traumatic dimension to this work, Nurse T highlights the surplus trauma she and other healthcare workers endure that results from the everyday operations of our class system and political economy.
Much of the trauma and death the nurses experience are due less to the pandemic than to the system we created and the politics we practice.
“Come on, America, get your act together,” Nurse T urges.
She wants us to recognize that labor solidarity is human solidarity. The inhumane working conditions don’t just hobble and hurt nurses, they impact all of us. We all share in labor’s interests.
And we all share in the interests of gender equality and of women workers. It needs to be noted, while Nurse T overtly addresses racial and class inequalities, that roughly 90 percent of nurses in the U.S. are women. It’s no secret that women and their work have historically been devalued and less recognized.
Given this historical context, A Pandemic Nurse’s Diary must also be recognized for powerfully giving voice to women workers in U.S. society and in the labor movement.
While we see healthcare workers represented on the nightly news these days, drawing attention to the incredible strain and danger they are facing, Nurse T gives us a broader view, beyond the pandemic, to the underling ills of our society that desperately need addressing for the health and humanity of us all. While the pandemic magnifies these ills, they will survive the pandemic and continue to undermine our lives if we don’t act to transform class society and its many inequities.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.