Nurses stood in line waiting for popcorn on a sunny Wednesday afternoon atop a parking garage at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage. It was one of roughly a dozen colorful booths at the carnival — part of the consortium’s weeklong celebration of it nursing staff for National Nurses Week. It also had organized hikes and pizza parties.
Mary Martin is president of ANTHC’s nursing staff and is the event’s main organizer. After two years of having to wear masks and other protective gear around each other, she said, seeing the smiles of her fellow nurses is a joy.
“Oh man, it’s amazing,” Martin said. “It’s just outstanding. People are laughing, having fun. Just… the energy is high. And it’s a beautiful day. The sunshine is just making everybody happy, with all the sweets.”
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Near the popcorn, another booth buzzed with the whirring of a cotton candy maker that filled the rooftop with an air of faint sweetness.
The light-hearted carnival is a far cry from the intense days that Anchorage nursing staff had to endure over the past two years — wading through spikes in COVID-19 cases, severe illness and death. Sometimes, they were the only source of comfort for their patients.
Jacque Quantrille is director of nursing for the Intensive Care Unit at ANTHC. She said when the CDC issued guidelines barring people from visiting patients, it left some without their family in their final moments.
“Where you would have someone in end-of-life needing, wanting their family by them, we weren’t able to facilitate that always, and so that put nurses at the bedside during end-of-life,” Quantrille said.
One way ANTHC has tried to keep their nursing staff in high spirits was to throw several “Crafternoon” sessions where nurses could leave their hectic workplaces, and focus their minds on meditative arts and crafts. At a booth at the carnival, Caitlin Loewen walked nurses through how to make decorative tiles by painting and then adding rubbing alcohol to make distinct patterns.
“It’s really meant to be a reflective moment for our staff to take away from their bedside, or away from their units, to use their creative minds and be with other people in a different setting,” Loewen said. “And to get to make something beautiful to take away from this environment for themselves.”
In addition to the heavy workload, ER nurses like Marcie Gest said it was also disheartening to hear from people who weren’t taking the pandemic as seriously as health officials. She received apathy at best and insults at worst. It also didn’t help that staff were stretched thin, she said.
“It’s been very trying,” she said. “There’s been shortages everywhere, like for nursing and doctors and CNAs and respiratory and housekeeping and everybody that it takes to run a hospital.”
You wouldn’t know how trying the last two years had been from watching Gest smile and encourage people to try to hit her in the face with a pie. Her booth produced laughs and cheers as contestants walked up, took aim and sent a plate of whipped cream her way.
While the pandemic is ongoing, and COVID-19 cases continue to pop up in Alaska, it’s gotten to a point where for one sunny day, nurses could relax, meet with colleagues, enjoy some treats and, if their aim was good, hit their boss with a whipped cream pie.