Marcy Fraser: On the Frontlines

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Marcy Fraser was an AIDS nurse at the height of that scourge. Today, she reaches out to her sister and brother nurses on the front lines of the COVID pandemic.

I see your faces on TV. I feel you. My first full-time job as a nurse was on a new AIDS ward at SF General in 1983. I had been a nurse for just two years.

We were overwhelmed with people dying from a disease we didn’t understand, had no treatment for and most of the world was terrified of. The deaths we witnessed were painful, distressing, labored. I know full well that is your reality.

I know you cry in your cars on the way home. Overwhelmed by grief and physical fatigue. I know your shifts are long and include intense encounters with colleagues, patients and family members. Most of your own family and friends have difficulty imagining your work day.

A few people ask you for details, but my guess is most don’t. It’s hard to explain the experience you’re having while you’re still having it. And there are your own feelings and fears.

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A respiratory acquired illness is terrifying in a way that a blood borne illness isn’t. I got a couple of needle-sticks working the nightshift. Late, tired and not wanting to turn on the overhead fluorescent lights. You live with a great vulnerability despite hoods, masks, gowns and all the gear that protects you but also removes you from the gift and experience of touch.

Sometimes the only thing I had to offer a dying, feverish patient was a set of clean, dry sheets, maybe something for pain or more oxygen.

Many of the good memories I have, and there are many, come from recalling the community who came to help. They volunteered, brought meals. They baked, sent flowers, wrote us poems, even entertained us. You don’t have the benefit of community there with you. There are even some in the community who don’t believe COVID is real, complain that masks are unreasonable.

I am older now, and benefit from a little perspective.

I offer you my deep gratitude for your character and skill. I offer my admiration for your bravery. As I understand it, bravery is doing your job even when you’re scared to death.

With a Perspective, I’m Marcy Fraser.