At the start of the pandemic, the normal cadence of working in health care was thrown into complete disarray.
Patients stopped showing up for appointments, and many important visits were relegated to video calls. Protective equipment was in short supply, and health care workers — anxious and unfamiliar with COVID-19 and all of its peculiar traits — were frightened to show up to work. Tens of thousands were infected last year in California alone, and many died.
One year into the pandemic, the frustrations of public health restrictions and the fear of contracting the potentially deadly illness are still very real. Yet some health care workers are finding reasons to be hopeful and believe the worst of the virus is behind them.
Kerry Boynton, who has worked as a medical assistant at a Mountain View clinic since the start of the pandemic, doesn't sugarcoat her experience: It's been a year filled with sadness, depression, grief, stress and anger. But with declining case numbers and more and more residents receiving the vaccine, misery has given way to optimism.
"We're at the stage of the pandemic where we can have hope that it can be alleviated, or at least contained," she said.
One of those bright spots is that people are starting to go to the doctor again. When the virus started to spread in March 2020, Boynton remembers her office turning into a complete ghost town. Company policy and public health orders contributed to the situation, she said, but many patients were simply unwilling to come in and risk exposure to the coronavirus.
Many appointments had to instead be conducted over video calls, which she said is anything but ideal. Technical problems, long setup times and remote diagnoses are common, and everyone involved — from the doctors and nurses to the patients themselves — agree that nothing can replace face-to-face appointments.
But now, patients are coming in for non-urgent appointments, Boynton said.
"They say 'We are so happy to see you' and 'I'm so happy to be out of the house,'" she said. "They say they're lonely, sad and depressed and felt like they didn't have hope. Now they do."
Keeping up with the safety protocols and wearing extra protective equipment at all times remains a slog, however, and it can be brutal over a long shift, she said. The double masks, the sweaty plastic gowns, the face shields that constantly fog up and obscure vision — all of it adds up and makes work a chore. Some of the more industrial-strength face shields look and feel like welding masks and are heavy enough to induce pounding headaches.
"For nine hours a day it is absolutely exhausting," Boynton said. "Our skin is breaking out; our bodies are feeling heavy. It's been really rough with all the precautions to keep ourselves, our families, our coworkers and our patients safe."
One major change since the start of the pandemic has been a decreasing fear level among health care workers. Boynton, like most health care workers in the county, has received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, giving her an extra level of safety in working with patients. She said it has helped her dial back the constant fear, which was taking a toll on her health for months.
It was all anxiety all the time before the vaccine. Boynton said she and her colleagues felt like they were at constant risk of contracting the virus within the next five minutes. Some patients would show up without knowing the results of their COVID-19 test, and a quick phone call would reveal they had tested positive — putting everyone in the building at heightened risk.
Others simply lied.
"We would have people who would flat out lie and say they were coming for an annual physical, and once they got in the room they revealed to us that they had COVID symptoms," she said.
The holiday season was the worst, Boynton said, because of the huge spike in patients who had COVID-19 or had family members who had contracted or even died from the virus. Yet for whatever reason, people remained cavalier about the problem and refused to cancel their plans to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Meanwhile, she was receiving messages almost every day from her union that another employee had died from COVID-19 while just doing their job.
"It's just been heartbreaking," she said. "That goes anywhere from housekeeping and registration duties to nurses and doctors. It's every level of health care that has been affected by this."
Though the pandemic has taken its mental and emotional toll, Boynton said she's been able to keep a level head. At work, she and her colleagues have bonded more than ever before, sharing stories and keeping one another in high spirits. At home, she's learned to hit the brakes and take life slower, appreciating family life while taking care of her elderly mother. The hubbub of social outings has been replaced with quiet contemplation, and that could very well continue once the pandemic subsides.
"Even if I just sit in my backyard and appreciate the squirrels running around the tree, just slowing things down in life rather than being social and having to go out to eat at restaurants or meet up with people," she said, "I've been appreciating a slower pace in life, and it's been okay."