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An ICU nurse on wavering between confidence and fear

After a particularly brutal week caring for COVID-19 patients in New York City, ICU nurse KP Mendoza considered one final task: writing a will. He's only 24, but working in the heart of a global pandemic, it felt as if death was stalking him. William Brangham talks with Mendoza about the psychological impact of seeing so much death as health care workers struggle to help patients survive.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since this pandemic began, we have been trying to capture the experiences of people working on the front lines of the battle against it.

    William Brangham spoke today with a young nurse who's been at the very center of this outbreak, and struggling with his own role in it.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    We have been hearing a lot of stories from doctors and nurses and administrators who are caring for the sickest patients in this epidemic. But, honestly, one of the most striking things I have read so far has been what KP Mendoza wrote recently on Facebook. He's a 24-year-old ICU nurse in New York City.

    This is just a sample of what he wrote.

    "I thought I was prepared to see death. I had seen enough of it within my first year in the ICU. Yet, in the last two weeks, I have seen more people die than most people see in their entire lives. Now I am not so sure if death is something I am prepared to see anymore. Death is different now. Death could pick me."

    The writer of those words, KP Mendoza, is with me now.

    Thank you very much for talking with us.

  • KP Mendoza:

    Thank you for having me, William. I appreciate it.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you just — as I said, this dispatch that you wrote felt like just a sudden outpouring of what had been pent up for a long time.

    What was it that prompted you to write this in the first place?

  • KP Mendoza:

    Yes, it was the end of a particularly difficult week.

    So, it's been about a month-and-a-half since I have only been seeing COVID patients in the ICU where I work. And that week had been difficult, because I had had three patients, again, at that point. And I was just kind of really tired of not feeling competent enough to take care of three patients, because the typical ICU ratio is two patients to one nurse.

    And so having three patients who are really sick just makes you feel like you're never giving enough, and giving enough adequate care.

    And I was like, 'Now let me just write down how I feel, and I don't want to forget how I feel in this moment.' And that's kind of what prompted me to write all that.

  • William Brangham:

    We have heard a lot, obviously, about the shortages of protective gear for people like yourself.

    And you — you have said it's gotten so bad at times for you that you even considered writing a will, which is not something most 24-year-olds do. I mean, is it still like that?

  • KP Mendoza:

    It's funny. I was actually talking about that idea with my co-workers the other day, because — after what I'd written got out.

    I think of a part — like, a part of me also is kind of resigning myself to the fact that either I currently have it, have had it, or will have it. And then there's this innate fear that, if I do get tested for it, for the antibodies, say, that, if I test negative, will that fear resume, or will that panic come back?

    And I think that's what bugs me. So, it wavers. It wavers, because some days I go in fearless, and some days I come out like a coward. And it just — it's a — it's a strange wavering between confidence and a fear for my life.

    That was one reason that I felt the need to write it. And it was mostly for that. I didn't have the heart to tell my parents how I felt. You know, I didn't want to tell them that I think about dying. The last thing I would want to do is put them through that.

    So, ultimately, I knew that they were going to see it, but to have to say that to them over the phone or over FaceTime would — I don't think I could do it.

  • William Brangham:

    You also wrote about your parents, about how you said, when you were in college, you felt like you didn't have enough time to call them and check in with them.

    But now that you — in the ICU, you start to see their faces, metaphorically, in some of the people you're caring for.

  • KP Mendoza:

    I think, if it can be called a silver lining, I think one of the few silver linings in this pandemic is that, for me and hopefully — and I really hope for a lot of people, that we realize how important it is to reach out to the people we love.

    And I think that's the one, like I said, beautiful part of this, is that it's going to make people feel connected. And that's what I hope for. And it's one that I think we should never forget.

    And I hope, more than anything, that it changes things, whether it be for health care, or for racial equality, or for better access to health — to primary care providers, or just — I hope it makes the world better because of how much we suffered.

  • William Brangham:

    On this issue of health care workers like yourself being celebrated as heroes, you said many times in your piece that you don't feel like a hero.

    And you also said: Don't mistake my career choice for me wanting to be a martyr. I have a future, you wrote, that I want to live out. I want to grow to be an old man, basically.

  • KP Mendoza:

    Yes, I'm not going to lie. You know, we should want to grow old. We should want to live full, long lives and hopefully ones that are full of opportunity and happiness.

    And I have seen so many people — people have said, 'Oh, like, A, you're a nurse, you should be used to death, or, B, like, you should be — you should be accustomed to putting your life on the line.'

    And I'm like, this isn't — that's not health care. And I can only say I speak for myself, but, ultimately, I hope other health care workers agree with this, in that I signed up to do good work and to come to work and to help people, and I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to see a future ahead of myself, and I want to go back to work the next day motivated to do good work.

  • William Brangham:

    As I'm sure you're aware, there's this ongoing debate in the country about, are the stay-at-home restrictions too much? Should we start to loosen them up? Should we get the economy going again?

    You have a perspective on this pandemic that's unique to almost anyone else in the country. From your perspective, what do you think of that debate?

  • KP Mendoza:

    I think — I think the main thing that bothers me is, I just — I'm scared for the people who are going to die who didn't have to die.

    And I speak on this because, as a nurse, I'm still getting — I'm very lucky to have a job. Like, I don't want people to think that I'm not aware of this. I'm very fortunate because I get to have a job. And I will never say I understand, because I don't. I don't understand what's it's like for struggling families who are living paycheck to paycheck, whose stimulus checks are barely enough to cover three, four days' worth of food and other things that they might need to provide for.

    But I'm for us opening the economy in a way that's safe. If we could bring cameras in, and we could show people what's happening. I don't think people would be as — you know, they wouldn't diminish it as a hoax. They wouldn't be so blatantly sweeping it over as nothing more than a flu.

    And I just wish that I had an answer, but I can — all I can say is that from my perspective, as a nurse, I just don't want to see any more people die.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, KP Mendoza, ICU nurse working in New York City, thank you very, very much for your time.

    And thank you for what you're doing.

  • KP Mendoza:

    Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can read an open letter KP Mendoza wrote about his experience and what he hopes we keep in mind when this is all over on our website, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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