The “New Normal"

Megan Hebdon, PhD, DNP, RN, NP-C; T-32 Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Utah College of Nursing

It is April 7th, and I am sitting on my dining room chair in my bedroom, because this is the spot of quiet I can find for this hour.  My three children are spread throughout the house working on their “homeschooling” work, and my husband is downstairs in the home office in a virtual meeting.  This is our “new normal,” one that we have adapted to with a home school schedule and a tag team strategy my husband and I use to get the kids through the day.  Being home every day is normal for me—I am a post-doctoral fellow working for a university that allows for a remote option.  I chose this, because relocating was not an option for my family.  Being home for the others is not normal.  One day, my daughter crawled under the table and started crying because she misses her friends.  Yesterday, my son and his buddy had a Facetime chat that was interrupted by my phone dying.  Right now, I am contemplating a Netflix membership, so my oldest son can have a virtual movie night with his friends.  He is a person that can be alone and not struggle against it, but I am not sure that is what I want for him.  My husband shuttered his lab and is making himself sick over the responsibility he has to his graduate students for their livelihood, to his sponsors and funders to deliver the promised outcomes, and to our family to make tenure.  I am coming to my own stark realization that with university hiring freezes across the country, I may not have the research position I have been working towards for the past five years.  Dual-doctorally prepared as a clinician and scientist, I might, out of necessity for our family’s financial security, land back in the clinical setting where I started. 

This new normal is relatively benign for us.  Sure, we wear masks when we go to the grocery store for our order pickup, we watch our retirement savings slowly dwindle, we count every piece of toilet paper, we read the news about the daily infection and death rates, and we call our family members across the country.  We worry about our daughter, not technically in a high-risk age demographic, but high risk because she has a serious seizure disorder related to a rare genetic disease.  Any infection can put her at risk—in the past, we have spent numerous hospitalizations with her over a cold.  I worry about my father across the country who has multiple risk factors: asthma, immune system compromise, age, and gender.  He has eight young grandchildren who live nearby that he cannot see, because a hug, kiss, or snotty nose could be his end.  I worry about my friends, two of which have had significant health issues over the past year and are at high risk.  I worry about my nursing colleagues and former students who are working on the front lines to deliver care.  I see the videos, blog posts, and news articles about these health care professionals going to work every day, separating themselves from their family and loved ones, and providing care when they do not have the resources they need.

I have been a nurse for fifteen years and a nurse practitioner for almost ten, but I have not worked clinically for the last year and half due to my daughter’s health and my academic work.  I have a skill set I can offer, and right now I cannot offer it. I have called my local health department, hospital, and friends who work in clinics in the area to volunteer to be part of the second wave that will surely be needed.  I am not sure people are thinking about that yet.  And so I am waiting and feeling somewhat helpless.  I have pulled out my sewing machine, dormant for eight years.  I am sewing masks for my neighbors, family, and potentially health care workers.  I collected masks for a clinic where I used to work.  I have organized snacks for the staff in local hospitals, but these snacks probably only lasted a day or two.  To support our community, we have ordered meals from locally owned restaurants and donated to local food banks.  We have ordered food for members of our church community who have had births or family illness.  My husband and I will be volunteering to pack food for our local school system, all in a very hygienic and socially distanced environment, of course.  I have liked, posted, and reposted affirming stories, funny anecdotes, and scientific information about COVID19 on social media.  And, I know it is not enough. 

Amidst of this do-gooder stuff, I have also indulged in Diet Coke, Swedish Fish, binge watching, and work avoidance.  I have pulled all-nighters to get grant applications in or to be prepared for work the following day.  My productivity has declined, while others have had an increase in productivity.  Yelling at my kids or trying to find a place to hide from them are daily occurrences.  I have not been gracious to my husband.  I have felt frustrated by friends, neighbors, family members, and leaders in the community and nation.  I have criticized, cried, and felt hopeless.  Currently reaping the benefits of telemedicine for counseling, I am also back on an anti-depressant.  I have felt like a mess, and I have felt guilty because what I am going through is a drop in the bucket. 

While I am in a rural area less scathed by the trauma of COVID-19, it looms large in the horizon.  We have not seen its full force yet, but I believe it is coming.  There are hard days ahead and an even harder recovery beyond that.  I wonder how our country and world will respond to this ongoing onslaught and the trauma to follow?  I have read about predictions from thought leaders regarding the impact this will have on our world culturally, technologically, economically, and socially.  I am reading and seeing dissonant responses to this situation at the local level and the highest levels of government.  For some, the responsibility to protect life and the well-being of our communities is tantamount, while for others, personal opinions and power seem to be the great motivators.  I live near a community where the university president welcomed all of the students back after Spring Break, putting the students and the whole community at risk.  And, what was there to gain from that?  Such decisions can have drastic and persistent consequences for which there will never be enough restitution. 

All of this has made me consider my personal choices and the collective consequences they may have.  I am small in my sphere of influence and will likely leave the world having only impacted a few people.  Yet, in this moment, each of us have these small choices that create a sum total of consequences for our communities, nations, and the world.  I know that I can never do enough alone to stem the tide of what is coming, but there is enough collective power for all of us to flatten the curve, to make this moment in history something that motivates us to seek the greater good.  This may be a cheesy and inflated point of view, but I do believe we have a responsibility in this moment to make choices that trend toward the good.  As a nurse scientist who is interested in family systems, health behaviors, and supporting caregiver well-being, I hope that I can learn to be a better partner and mother in my own family.  I hope that I can continue to choose the health and well-being of myself and those around me, despite momentary or prolonged discomforts that come from social distancing.  Finally, I hope that I can continue to provide the care and support my daughter needs to survive this pandemic.  And if, in the end, survival is not in the cards, I hope that there will be a way forward for all of us.