By Steven Gu
Editors note: At this writing, Marin County, California has reported 223 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 12 confirmed deaths.
Before John Wildgust, a supervising nurse in Marin County, enters the hospital every evening, he’s required to have his temperature taken at the front door. If it’s normal, he gets a clearance sticker for the night. After that, he’s issued a mask for his shift. John works from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am with one break for “lunch” around midnight. This one mask has to last through his entire twelve-hour shift.
It hasn’t always been like this. The small hospital he works for, Sutter Novato Community Hospital, is usually a quiet facility with a focus on elective surgeries such as knee and shoulder replacement. That is why Wildgust, after working at three other hospitals over ten years, chooses to work at Sutter Novato. He is a dedicated nurse, loving father, and part-time farmer. He’s also my host dad, giving me a home while I study in the U.S.
In early March, Wildgust remembers walking down the hall and hearing an IV machine beeping. He went to check on it. As he was about to open the door, his supervisor shouted, “What are you doing!?” There was a potential COVID patient inside that room.
The patient had just returned from a cruise ship vacation. Two nurses on the shift before Wildgust’s, afraid for their own safety, had refused to take this patient under their watch, which is their right.
This was the first week March, early in the pandemic, and personal protection equipment (PPE) protocols for treating COVID patients hadn’t yet been established at Sutter Novato. In fact, COVID-19 was being treated as a plague in northern California, but no one had expected it to hit hospitals like lovely little Sutter Novato.
“Someone had to take care of that patient,” says Wildgust. So he put on two layers of masks and a face shield, entered the room and changed the IV bag. To avoid contaminating others, he stayed in the room for the duration of his shift.
Today, almost all elective surgeries at Sutter have been put on hold. The hospital’s physical therapists now man the front door, checking temperatures and handing out masks. With all non-essential visits curtailed, whole sections of the hospital are empty.
Outside the hospital, a giant yellow tent has been set up to handle the potential surge of COVID cases. PPE protocols now dictate every minute of Wildgust’s work: Masks at all times, a new uniform each day, and carefully observed distancing among nurses. Sutter Novato has reconfigured its inpatient ward to isolate COVID and non-COVID patients. Nurses working in the COVID section suit up and have their own dedicated stations and break rooms. If any of them start feeling sick, they’re required to quarantine for 14 days before returning to work.
Whenever I ask about the stresses at Sutter Novato, he always says the same thing: “It’s not too bad.”
And when I ask what he would do if quarantined, Wildgust gives a typically low-key answer: “I’ll just treat it like a vacation, I guess.”
Which brings me to the chickens. In his leisure time, Wildgust tends to his flock of a dozen birds, often opening the pen to let them roam freely in our fenced backyard.
Today, after our talk about the hospital, is no different. He heads to the backyard. I can hear him as he approaches the henhouse, mimicking the sound of the chickens: Cluck! Cluck! Cluck!
Hearing him brings me peace. Whatever happens next: It’s not too bad.