Pandemic Nurse Diary of Sister T with Timothy Sheard. New York: Hardball Press, 2020. 143 pages.
Reading the diary of a pandemic nurse, especially against the prevailing media accounts of the experiences of healthcare workers during this pandemic, reminded me of the introductory words in the sketch by radical US writer Jesús Colón “Something to Read” from his A Puerto collection Rican in New York, in which he describes “a piece of working-class literature, brochure, progressive book or brochure” as “precious things”.
A Pandemic Nurse’s Diary was written by a nurse who is just leaving Nurse T, along with Timothy Sheard, who is himself a former nurse and founder of Hardball Press, one of the largest publishers in the United States dedicated to publishing working class literature have prescribed the fact “something to read” not only because it provides a concise account of the health care workers’ experience of the pandemic at that moment, but also because of the deeper analysis it brings from a worker’s point of view into US class society Provides and How It Affects People’s Health and Health Provision of Health Services in the US Furthermore, what makes this work most “valuable” and what sets it apart as working class literature is that it deals with workers and the trauma of the most Workplace deals that they directly suffer, a topic that unites in literature This country is rarely treated. Sister T and Sheard even include a final section of exercises and meditations for nurses and health care workers to help them cope with the trauma of that work that has been compounded during this pandemic.
While the process of vaccinating the U.S. population against COVID-19 is underway, which promises visibility and hope for an end to the pandemic, Sister T’s diary emphasizes that while vaccinations can provide some protection from the virus, the pandemic itself however, it has also exacerbated and alleviated long-standing and deeply rooted social grievances, often of a structural nature, which no vaccine, however strong, can cure.
During the autopsy of a dead patient, Sister T once wrote: “In my silence, I wished the attending physician could enter the death certificate under the cause of death: Hospital poverty due to the government’s refusal to provide adequate resources and personnel for impoverished color patients. “
I found Sister T’s explanations and analysis of “hospital poverty” to be one of the most revealing aspects of the diary. She emphasizes, of course, that “poor patients – especially black and Hispanic patients – die far more often from Covid than their white counterparts” because “poverty has caused them several comorbidities such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and asthma. “Although I was aware of these health inequalities caused by our racist class system, I was less aware of how capitalist political economy and class system affected the functioning of hospitals. At some point one of Nurse T’s colleagues doesn’t express it bitterly, but just tiredly: “Tired of the bottlenecks and the outdated equipment. Tired of the protesting politicians who can’t afford to raise our refund rates. Tired of the government – city-state and state – channeling resources to the gold-plated medical centers in Manhattan. And Sister T explains that the Ritchie Rich private hospitals, which are often already profitable with wealthy patients and private donors, are getting Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements three times as their hospital for the same procedures. With access to the most advanced medicines and equipment, they are often sought after by Fortune 500 experimental drug study companies.
What Sister T reveals in her portrayal of the pandemic is the failure of our class system to meet the health needs of all. While the pandemic is challenging, it might have been manageable if we had had a humane economy designed to meet human needs rather than produce profit.
Sister T also represents failure as political. While she is movingly documenting many experiences with patients, one is the patient who listened to right-wing experts like Trump and drank a bottle of cleaning fluid, destroyed his esophagus and seriously and permanently damaged his body. Even the best health care, she complains, cannot counteract this political poison.
Most vividly and most importantly in the diary is simply how Sister T describes her work and the traumatic stress that she and her colleagues bring with it. Because they work in a contagious environment, the nurses stay in hotels and rarely see their families. Because they don’t have the right equipment, because the hospital doesn’t have modern filter and ventilation systems, the workplace is far more dangerous and deadly than necessary. Because politicians and the general public are not taking the pandemic seriously and promoting basic precautionary measures, they have to treat many more patients than they would otherwise need. Because the hospital is poorly equipped, they cannot treat patients optimally.
While there is an inherent traumatic dimension to this work, Sister T highlights the excess trauma that she and other health care workers experience, resulting from the day-to-day operations of our class system and political economy.
Much of the trauma and death of the nurses is less due to the pandemic than to the system we created and the policies we practice.
“Come on America, bring your story together,” Sister T.
She wants us to recognize that work solidarity is human solidarity. The inhumane working conditions not only hobble and hurt the nurses, they affect us all too. We all share the interests of the workers.
And we all share the interests of gender equality and women workers. It should be noted that Sister T speaks openly about race and class differences, that around 90 percent of nurses in the US are women. It’s no secret that women and their work have historically been devalued and less recognized.
In this historical context, a pandemic nurse’s diary must also be recognized for giving women workers a powerful voice in US society and the labor movement.
While we see health care workers represented on the nightly news these days, raising awareness of the incredible stress and danger they are facing, Sister T gives us a broader look beyond the pandemic to the minor diseases of our society that are desperately addressed must be the health and humanity of all of us. As the pandemic exacerbates these diseases, if we do not act to transform class society and its many inequalities, they will survive the pandemic and continue to undermine our lives.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A longtime progressive voice, he has published numerous academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, and the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.