Working at ground zero

VCU Medical center’s Jade Jones knows the joy and pain wrapped into caring for COVID-19 patients as a respiratory ICU nurse

Nichole M. Christian | 11/25/2020, 6 p.m.
Jade Jones is living her life’s dream — in the midst of a deadly national nightmare.

Jade Jones is living her life’s dream — in the midst of a deadly national nightmare.

She is a nurse in the respiratory intensive care unit at VCU Medical Center. Her days are long and scary — 12-hour shifts that for much of the last year have placed her face to face with the consequences and casualties of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Ms. Jones has held hands with the dying, shed tears with the relatives of patients and some days found herself battling both tears and anger over the seemingly callous disregard of those who refuse to treat the crisis for what it is: A pandemic with no end or proven cure yet in sight.

“I wish people could really get a picture of our days and the patients stuck in the hospital for God knows how long,” Ms. Jones said.

Since March, the hospital has had on average two dozen or more patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at any given time, said Laura Rossacher, director of public affairs for VCU Health.

Each time a COVID-19 patient comes onto the unit, Ms. Jones wishes the same wish.

“I wish people could truly see the difference they could make just doing the basics — the social distancing, the masks, the hand sanitizer, the sacrifice of not seeing family this Thanksgiving. I really wish people would think of all the Thanksgivings and Christmases to come if we could just sacrifice now.”

For those who ask what it’s like to be on the front lines helping patients battle the virus, Ms. Jones offers one word — cruel.

“The deterioration is sometimes so rapid. One minute, it’s just a cough, a headache, maybe a slight fever. And the next thing you know, the patient is on the highest amount of available oxygen. It’s terrifying because you just don’t know who it’s going to happen to next.”

Despite all that she has witnessed on VCU’s North 9 Progressive Care Unit — the fear on the faces of COVID-19 positive patients; the anxiety and frustration in the voices of loved ones forced to say final goodbyes by phone or Zoom — Ms. Jones remains driven by the dream.

“Nursing school doesn’t prepare you for this,” Ms. Jones said. Her unit is effectively VCU Medical Center’s ground zero, the first and sometimes the last stop for patients trying to fend off the virus, usually alone in rooms designed for two patients and equipped to combat airborne disease.

Nothing about the work or patients’ suffering is easy. Yet Ms. Jones insists, “I love what I do.”

“This is the whole reason I went into this field — to help,” Ms. Jones said. “Right now, it’s really hard because it’s one of the toughest times we’ve ever known as a society. But it’s also an honor to be able to be with patients on their journeys. I’m grateful that I get to help them feel less alone. I wouldn’t trade it.”

Yet the data from the Virginia Department of Health suggests there are plenty of reasons to fear coronavirus. State officials reported Tuesday there have been approximately 223,582 cases, with 2,544 new cases in the preceding 24 hours. Those figures, tracked and updated daily, included 14,212 hospitalizations and 3,979 total deaths.

Cumulative numbers for Richmond: 6,446 cases; 501 hospitalizations; 81 deaths. In Henrico County: 7,977 cases were reported, with 576 hospitalizations and 244 deaths. The numbers in Chesterfield County, where Ms. Jones grew up, were last reported at 8,827 cases, 479 hospitalizations and 127 deaths.

Ms. Jones, who turns 27 the day before Thanksgiving, will celebrate her second year in the nursing profession in December. It’s a career she stumbled upon during her senior year as an Old Dominion University biology major. At the time, she thought medical school would be her next stop after graduation. But a stint shadowing doctors changed her plans.

“I just had an epiphany that I never saw myself as being the person who goes in the room for only a couple of minutes,” Ms. Jones said.

She took a year off after college to reflect, then jumped straight into an accelerated nursing program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She graduated from the nursing program in 2018.

“I saw myself being at the bedside with the patient and being nurturing and caring. That’s the part I love even now, having my three or four patients, being part of every part of their care, getting to hear about their families and their hopes once they’re able to go home.”

One of the enduring joys of her job, she says, is listening to patients, who despite sometimes struggling to breathe, share stories about their lives even as she stands at a safe distance and works to limit her time in their presence unless medically necessary.

Ironically, it’s the days when Ms. Jones is away from the sick that she is most afraid of the virus’ reach.

“At the hospital, I know we’re doing our part. We know PPE works, and we sanitize our hands all day. I can’t even count how much or how often in a day,” said Ms. Jones, who works each shift in a face shield, nitro gloves and a constantly changing supply of masks, from the highly protective level 3 mask to the more typical airborne resistant mask.

“I’m scared when I go to the grocery store,” she continues. “That’s truly the place where I feel the most fear because you see people not doing their part.”

To balance some of the stress, Ms. Jones relies on a love of music, exploring nature in places like Deep Run Park in Henrico County with her dog, Rigby, and occasional FaceTime wine dates with girlfriends. Her time in the hospital has taught her to keep her gratitude simple and focused. “I’m super thankful just to have my health, to be able to walk around freely outside, breathing.”

If she could, Ms. Jones would blast the same message around the city and the entire country. “Just because you don’t think COVID can send you to the hospital, you can end up sending your mother, your grandmother, everyone you love into the hospital. Patients come into the hospital with multiple family members who’ve just passed away from the virus. The carelessness has a cost for all of us.”

So far, the coronavirus has not touched Ms. Jones or the lives of her family members, including her husband, Gavin, a Henrico County police officer. She has, however, endured the loss of some aspects of her job, little things that she took for granted yet loved the most.

“I miss touching patients with my bare hand,” she says. “I don’t ever get to touch my patients without gloves on. That’s a loss because there’s something really therapeutic about human touch, especially if the patient is having a hard moment or hard day.”

Ms. Jones dreams also of the day when she can unmask.

“There are times when you’re trying to explain to (patients) how to properly breathe, and you wish they could see your mouth and your nose. There’s just so much of the human part of the job that they don’t get to experience anymore. I try to put my personality out there, but I’m sure I look just like the nurse they had the night before in the same garb. I wish they could see my smile.”

For the holidays, Ms. Jones is looking to old traditions to help comfort patients in crisis. She and a few co-workers on the unit have been purchasing decorations and offering to put them up in the rooms of patients who are interested in a little holiday cheer.

“We want to make it as festive as possible for our patients while they’re stuck in isolation rooms.”

Ms. Jones sighs, then adds, “I would hope somebody would do the same for me.”