Before COVID-19 arrived in South Carolina, Angie McDaniel enjoyed the balance she'd struck between her work as an acute care recovery room RN in a level 1 trauma center, and the serenity of her horse farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But life, and the nature and implications of her job, changed rapidly once the virus hit.
Positive cases are still on the rise in Greenville, where Angie works the night shift, frequently in direct contact with patients battling COVID-19. “Because all of my (COVID-19) patients come to me directly from the Operating Room and have just recently been intubated and extubated, they tend to cough more than normal. They are usually still too sedated after surgery to cover their mouths, so it really does create an environment that increases my risk of exposure,” she said.
"It really takes a tremendous toll on all of us, including health care workers.”
Long nights of supporting patients battling a virus which is still poorly understood, plus the added layers of stress and sanitation for her own safety, have begun to take a toll. Angie, like so many of her peers, is exhausted. It's a long procedure just to get in and out of the hospital.
“As soon as we walk in, we have our temperatures checked, are asked questions regarding having a fever and/or cough, and then handed a surgical mask that we are to wear for the entirety of our shift. I then go to our locker room, where I change from my street clothes into my hospital scrubs, including changing my shoes. I take extra precautions for my own health: what I wear at the bedside is removed before I leave the hospital, including my shoes. These scrubs stay at the hospital and are cleaned in the hospital laundry. Then I scrub any skin that was exposed during the care of my patients with soap and water. Once I get home, straight to the shower I go before even heading out to take care of the ponies.”
Angie at home with Squirrel.
The daughter of a small animal veterinarian, McDaniel grew up in South Africa and followed her parents to the Carolinas a couple of decades ago. While things heat up at the hospital, she finds respite on her farm in Landrum, where she can reset her stress levels with her competitive driving pony, Squirrel, whom she competes in combined driving events.
“Thank goodness for my pony!” she said. “He has been my savior during numerous stressful events, COVID-19 included. There is something about the routine they require that enables me to decompress from the stress of the hospital.”
She continued, “I need that routine of taking care of my ponies to have some sense of normalcy in this very high stress environment. There is nothing that brings me more pleasure than either hitching my pony up and going for a lovely drive in the country, or even just saddling him up, and going for a great hack in the woods or a fun gallop up the hills. One of the things I love the most is just hanging out in the barn in the evening listening to them munch on their hay. That is pure happiness and relaxation for me.”
Reflecting on the outpouring of support for health care workers from much of society these day, she said, “We appreciate being called ‘heroes on the frontline’ and all the other nice things that are being said, but let's be honest, just like the non-medical people, we are afraid of this virus. Afraid of what it can do, even to those who are young, fit and healthy. We worry about bringing it home to our loved ones - many I know have completely isolated themselves from their families to try to prevent them from bringing it home. Until you have to do this, one cannot even imagine the stress it brings with it.”
"Just like the non-medical people, we are afraid of this virus."
There's an emotional toll that comes from watching COVID-19 patients decline in health, especially without their families at their sides. That, Angie says, has been impossible for her to shake.
“Health care workers want, more than anything, to be able to make their patients feel better. We all know that we can't save all of our patients, but before this, we had the ability to try to make the end of life as ‘peaceful’ as possible, for the patient and their family. COVID-19 has taken that away. It is absolutely devastating to watch someone know they are dying and not to be able to physically touch their loved ones. There are no words that can actually describe what this is like.”
It's not just COVID-19 patients who are forced to be alone during ailing hours. “The hospitals aren't allowing any visitors in. I'm seeing elderly patients, who can become easily confused or anxious or terrified after, say, having had a hip repair due to a fall. They look around and they're in a strange place and don't recognize anyone. There are the trauma patients who can't have their loved ones with them after their traumatic event. There are the women who have lost a pregnancy in the early stages, who are waking up alone and desperate from the D&C. The list goes on. It really takes a tremendous toll on all of us, including health care workers.”
As many states begin to open for activity again, the spread of the virus continues. Greenville currently has one of the highest rates of infection in South Carolina, and Angie hopes that equestrians everywhere will take extra precautions to prevent injury, since hospitals in many regions are already overtaxed.
“The very nature of horses and horse sports, and the activities surrounding them, are known to be inherently dangerous. I cannot expect anyone to stop riding, driving or whatever it is you do with horses during this time. Just try not to add any additional risk that you don't have to: hack and flat school instead of working over fences. Leave the unbacked youngsters for a few more weeks, if months, before trying to back them. Don't ship if you don't really have to.
"I really hope that people just take the time to spend some quiet, quality time with their horses.”
Written by Amber Heintzberger
Freelance writer and photographer Amber Heintzberger lives outside New York City with her husband and children. She grew up riding and is a graduate "H-A" member of the Greenville Foothills Pony Club. As often as possible, she loves to spend time on her parents' horse farm in Upstate South Carolina.