The tears. The exhaustion. The glimmers of hope.
Like many health care professionals, Ashley Griffith is experiencing a broad range of emotions – at times all in a single workday. Griffith, head nurse in the critical care unit at Tidelands Georgetown Memorial Hospital, is among the front-line health care professionals taking care of the region’s sickest COVID-19 patients.
Some of Griffith’s lowest, and highest, moments – candidly captured in a real-time video diary – clearly demonstrate why nurses and other health care professionals are the heroes of 2020.
Long days, many emotions
The long days bring waves of emotion and exhaustion. There’s heartache after a patient takes a turn for the worse, followed by hope when a patient shows signs of improving. There are buoyed spirits when a child drops off handmade cards of appreciation, followed by the heavy emotional toll of battling a new virus where treatment protocols are still emerging.
“I’m sitting here in my car after working 16 hours,” an exhausted and emotionally spent Griffith, on the verge of tears, said in a diary entry captured in July – when COVID-19 hospitalizations were first surging. “I just don’t think anyone really understands how hard this is. There’s nothing you can do to help them and you do the best you can, but I just wish people would start taking this seriously because we are tired and we want to help but there’s just nothing we can do that’s going to help.”
Driven by desire to care for others
A Pawleys Island native, Griffith knew that she wanted a career in health care by the time she was a teen. She never imagined she’d face a pandemic like this.
Even more recently, during the Ebola outbreak in 2014-16 in Africa, she never thought the extensive personal protective equipment she watched health care providers put on in training videos would become her normal routine.
“I never thought I’d actually have to wear it,” she said.
Griffith, 35, was inspired to become a nurse when she was a teenager growing up in Pawleys Island. A neighbor was battling cancer, and Griffith often sat with her as she received chemotherapy treatments. Griffith’s innate sense of wanting to care for and comfort her – hallmarks of a successful nurse – kicked in. (The neighbor recovered and is doing well today.)
“I loved the interactions she had with the nursing staff,” Griffith recalled. “As a nurse, you develop this bond with family.”
A team effort
Griffith wasted no time jumping into a health care career, earning an associate’s degree from Horry-Georgetown Technical College then bachelor and master’s degrees from Western Governors University. She’s been with Tidelands Health for 15 years and in her current role as head nurse for about two years.
“I probably wouldn’t have survived this year without my team,” Griffith said. “They are amazing and so supportive. If one of us starts to feel down, the others pull you up.”
In addition to her team, she finds comfort in the little things such as cards and snacks dropped off by appreciative community members. She even finds motivation in simply picking out the day’s surgical cap – she has a collection of nearly a dozen featuring themes such as “Avengers” and one of her favorite movies, “Star Wars.”
As hospitalizations surged during the summer and then again in December, Griffith, like others, took on extra shifts. That often left her bouncing back and forth from day to night shifts. But she has had no hesitation about jumping in to help.
While she takes care of others’ health, she tries to take a proactive approach to keeping herself healthy, too. She runs to relieve stress – you might spot her logging miles around her Maryville neighborhood or on the beach – and tries to eat a healthy diet and manage her caffeine intake. She’s eager to again run a half marathon.
Griffith also is passionate about music – she sings and plays piano, guitar and saxophone – and serves as musical director at Georgetown Pentecostal Holiness Church.
But even when she’s not at work, she doesn’t get a complete break. Some people who don’t believe there’s a pandemic taunt nurses on social media – Griffith has limited her social media time this year because of it.
“I’ve gotten good at not letting it get to me,” she said.
Still, a quick a trip to pick up groceries can bring frustration when she sees people not following simple steps to limit the virus’ spread.
“It’s hard to go into a grocery store and see people without masks, knowing what I see and hear,” Griffith said.
Even as COVID-19 hospitalizations at Tidelands Health climb to record highs as 2020 comes to a close, there’s also a renewed hope that better days are ahead thanks to the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Griffith was the first person in Georgetown County to receive the vaccine through Tidelands Health, admitting that she literally cried tears of joy when she learned the vaccine would be available. She eagerly led the line of health care professionals to receive the vaccine, aiming to show others who might be hesitant that the vaccine is safe.
To date, Tidelands Health has vaccinated more than 800 team members, as well as more than 50 first responders. Per South Carolina guidelines, the vaccine is limited to health care professionals at this time.
The health system is working closely with the Department of Health and Environmental Control and will administer the vaccine to community members in the coming weeks and months at the state’s direction.
“Getting the vaccine is not so much about protecting me. It’s about protecting everybody I love — my older parents and others,” Griffith said after receiving the vaccine Dec. 16 at Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital. “I’m really ready for all of this to be over.”