Intensive care nurse: “I failed in my attempt not to cry”

This is not something any healthcare practitioner imagines. COVID-19 is their worst-case scenario; it’s their nightmare. Yet they tirelessly give day in and day out – even when they have lives outside the hospital. Here’s how one nurse is coping.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

First it’s important to remember that she is human. She’s not SUPER human; she’s human. Second it’s important to remember that she is a nurse – caring for the most critical patients.

Fortunately for Brandie Kopsas-Kingsley she’s not going it alone. She is surrounded by other IU Health professionals who frequently ask: “How are you doing?”

Kopsas-Kingsley is one of the caregivers on the front lines of COVID-19. As a shift coordinator of IU Health University Hospital’s medical intensive care unit and a member of the hospital’s rapid response team she is often one of the last caregivers to look into a patient’s eyes.

It’s a role she doesn’t take lightly. It’s a role that comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. She once helped organize an honor walk for a patient who chose to become an organ donor and more than once she has been at the bedside of a dying patient consoling family members.

Kopsas-Kingsley began her career at IU Health in 2009 as a unit secretary when she was in nursing school. Her role took her up through the healthcare system – as a certified nursing assistant, a licensed practical nurse, and then a registered nurse. She completed her capstone in the medical intensive care unit and has remained there ever since. Her caregiving role has earned her Daisy Award Nominations and Distinguished Nurse recognition.

“When you join the healthcare field, you commit to being a lifelong learner. We are constantly searching for ways to improve our practice, provide better care, and raise up the nursing profession,” said Kopsas-Kingsley. “That said, the amount of information and evidence that we’re processing daily is profound. We’ve spent a lot of time learning and asking new questions.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer to her role as a nurse. For the health and safety of patients and staff, IU Health has temporarily restricted visitors. That took on new meaning for Kopsas-Kingsley recently when she made the phone call to a family en route to visit a young patient.

“It was something I’ll never forget. Our unit provided lifesaving care to this patient who succumbed to the disease process. The team worked extremely hard to provide the best care possible in a difficult situation,” said Kopsas-Kingsley. She is close to her coworkers and said they rely on each other for support. In a group picture taken during “Nursing Week” last year, they are all smiling. “Our unit is accustomed to medical alerts and end-of-life scenarios, but the current environment imposes new obstacles.”

With no family by the patient’s side, Kopsas-Kingsley made the call. The family put her on speaker in their car and discussed the next steps.

“It’s always difficult to have these conversations. Never in a million years does someone wake up and hope they get to have these discussions. As I heard the family members weep, I provided comfort and support. I failed in my attempt not to cry but I was able to say, ‘we are profoundly sorry for your loss.’”

And at the end of her shift, Kopsas-Kingsley goes home to her grandmother, her husband, Tommie and their two children Amelia, 6 and Aristotle, 3.

Their home is busy. Amelia is in Kindergarten and participates in Greek School and Girl Scouts. They are in the midst of potty training Aristotle who is in preschool. Her husband is a stay-at-home dad so the children have been accustomed to some social distancing, keeping busy with various educational activities. As a wife and mother, Kopsas-Kingsley finds peace in simple things – making blanket forts and walking in the woods with her family, caring for her plants and eating pancakes on a Sunday morning.

She knows that the next day she will return to work and will again face the fear of the pandemic.

The medical intensive care and medical progressive care units at IU Health have hosted COVID-19 simulations and debriefs so that all staff members can practice proper isolation techniques and have time to ask questions, voice concerns and provide recommendations. Kopsas-Kingsley has worked with groups to help identify specific patient needs and work through emergency response plans.

Whens she sees social media posts by hospital workers that read: “We stay here for you; stay home for us,” it hits its mark with her.

“I think about how best to respond when someone says, ‘everyone is overreacting.’ My main concern is how can I can respond without getting angry or insulting because then people won’t listen,” said Kopsas-Kingsley. Here’s her message:

  • COVID spreads very easily and a lot of children and young adults don’t show symptoms, therefore this is not a time to have sleepovers and parties.
  • When you don’t quarantine or take this seriously, you are putting others at risk – especially frontline responders.
  • This is not a drill. They are seriously shutting down the world. Once it’s out we can’t reel it back in.
  • If you know someone with health problems such as asthma, COPD, cancer or diabetes, think about how much they matter to you.

“We’ve had a lot of candid conversations at the hospital about how we feel and what we fear. We see things happening around the world and even in our country,” said Kopsas-Kingsley. “If we do not support each other and provide an environment where we can be honest and vulnerable, then we aren’t going to make it. Adaptability and resiliency are essential.”