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Every Day Is ‘Panic’ After COVID Took Nurse’s Newborn

Wearing her son’s ashes around her neck, she is committed to Singing River, even though she could be making triple her salary as a travel nurse. But she’s worried omicron’s spread will leave local hospitals “inoperable.”

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(TNS) - COVID took her newborn. Now, every day is ‘panic’ for Coast nurse battling worker shortage.

Wearing her son’s ashes around her neck, she is committed to Singing River, even though she could be making triple her salary as a travel nurse. But she’s worried omicron’s spread will leave local hospitals “inoperable.”

Bobbie Ann Sison, a registered nurse and nurse manager at Singing River Health System’s Pascagoula hospital, wore a silver necklace with an off-white stone as she moved swiftly through her medical-surgical floor on a recent December afternoon.

The necklace peeked beyond her scrubs as she checked in with staff, preparing for the next day when the hospital would temporarily open a wing of their floor to accommodate an influx of surgeries. The wing closed in early November when the health system lost 70 Mississippi Emergency Management Agency contract nurses and couldn’t staff at normal levels.

It swung as she leaned over to care for the seemingly endless number of COVID patients through the previous waves of the virus, when she had to facilitate last goodbyes between community members and their loved ones over FaceTime and place rosaries in the hands of elderly patients as they passed.

The stone isn’t unnecessarily lavish. It’s an urn, large enough to hold the ashes of Sison’s son who died of COVID complications shortly after she delivered him at 33 weeks, at the beginning of the pandemic.

“He goes everywhere I go,” Sison said.

It’s been nearly two years since he passed on March 3, 2020, the same day Singing River saw its first COVID case.

“I gave birth to my son the same day we admitted our first COVID patient. That’s how I always remember.”

In the aftermath of her loss, Sison, who took over medical surge staffing in September, is attempting to hold onto her work “family,” the community of Pascagoula nurses quickly vanishing amid the onset of the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

“To be quite frank, I hope this new variant doesn’t come through like the last few have. I’m not sure how, you know, the nursing field would be able to survive. We’d be inoperable,” she said.

‘I became a nurse to save lives.’

Sison said she had been sick for “months” while she was pregnant with her son, who would have been her third child and only boy.

Health professionals couldn’t determine her illness and didn’t test for COVID as the virus was brand new, and supplies and knowledge were limited.

An autopsy would show that her son passed due to the coronavirus.

“I had been sick. We thought it was just the regular sick. He passed from heart failure due to viral infection that was the same kind of bacteria that COVID was.”

She took off for three weeks before coming back to work during the thick of COVID’s first wave in South Mississippi.

The early return came amid an outpouring of support from her work family. During her time off, fellow nurses made the urn necklace for her, planted a magnolia tree outside the vast pond in front of the Pascagoula hospital and leaders and doctors called constantly to check in.

Sison said she begged the hospital to come back to work, she couldn’t sit by while her community suffered during the virus’ initial wave.

“I became a nurse to save lives. I told everyone, you have got to let me go back,” she said.

“The loyalty is real. The family is real. And you know, we most, most of our staff, we are from our community ... So when we come in here, we’re not only taking care of, you know, the community, but we’re taking care of our friends. We’re taking care of our neighbors, we’re, you know, everybody knows everybody.”

Her vigor to return didn’t slow the shock of how many community members were hospitalized and died, however.

“It was rough. I mean, I would be lying to tell you that it wasn’t but I wanted to save people and to try to prevent them from doing things that I had dealt with. To keep people from dying.”

“And it’s that’s part of why I got the vaccine after having that and then being in it. You know, and being a mom of two girls and seeing people die the way that we have.”

Staff is starting to travel more

Like all South Mississippi nurses, Sison has had the opportunity to leave and take travel nursing contracts, making over triple what her salary is in the non-profit Jackson County community hospital.

She’s stayed, partly because of the loyalty displayed to her by the health system through the death of her son, and is currently the only nursing manager left in the Pascagoula hospital. Before COVID, there were three.

During the pandemic, Sison said about 40 people left the Pascagoula hospital, a low number compared to other locations in the Singing River health system. She had to close down two of the medical surge floors because of the lack of nurses.

Now her already bare-boned staff is leaving at higher rates than during the worst of the previous waves.

“During the thick of it said that they felt badly (leaving) when their team was in need and now that’s kind of eased up, people are starting to do vaccines. And so now they want to go.”

Blakeney Obrien is a registered nurse who started her nursing career at the beginning of the fourth wave. She’s stayed at the hospital because of the environment Bobby Ann described — family-oriented and supportive.

Obrien, from Lucedale, graduated from nursing school at the University of Southern Mississippi in May. As a new nurse, she said she’s leaned on Sison during the really difficult, deadly days of Delta’s surge.

“You know that when your patient is crashing, you’re not going to be by yourself. You know that you can call them or someone else. You know that when you’ve had a bad day, and you’re at your breaking point, you can pick up your phone at nine o’clock at night and she’s gonna answer and talk me through it,” Obrien said.

But Obrien, who began working in May, thinks she’s one of a few nurses who have been on the med-surge floor the longest.

The arrival of the Omicron variant will exasperate the shortage, Sison said. Travel nursing contracts will continue to be more competitive as Singing River’s resources are wearing thin.

“I think the staffing situation is going to get worse before it gets better. I think, before we’re going to be OK again, it’s gonna take several classes of new nurses,” she said.

Singing River leadership, along with a number of the state’s mostly non-profit health systems, have pleaded with Mississippi leadership to boost their worker retainment efforts. A Singing River spokesperson said nothing has moved forward legislatively, however.

“We’re gonna have to have some type of government assistance or federal aid ... some incentive that’s going to bring us nurses,” Sison said. “We’re still living in a pattern where every day is kind of a panic. Most days, I have exactly what I need or I’m one nurse short. So every day I still have a panic attack.”

Omicron is on the horizon

State epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said on Friday during a Mississippi State Medical Association discussion that there are two confirmed cases of the omicron variant in the state, with some others under investigation.

But across the country and the world, increased numbers of the omicron variant is spreading rapidly with unknown implications.

“We’ve had a couple of cases now of Omicron but we haven’t seen as big of an explosion yet,” he said. If the state’s Omicron trends follow that of other parts of the country, spread could really strain Mississippi health care systems.

“If we do have a sudden increase in the overall number of cases, we will have vulnerable people who are hospitalized. And if we have a whole, whole lot of cases, that’s going to lead to more pressure on the health care system and certainly might lead to more deaths.”

The best defense against the omicron variant is being fully vaccinated with a booster shot, according to Ochsner health officials. Byers said Mississippi residents should really consider their first shots if they haven’t yet.

“We don’t want to wait until we’re in a really bad position again,” he said.

And because the loss of just one nurse would be detrimental for the hospital’s staffing, Jonathan Smith, a registered nurse and patient care coordinator, said he’s also anticipating the closure of floors due to short term-nurse absences because of omicron infection.

“I don't know what we’d do if we do get another wave, because how we would be able to sustain with the staff we have presently ... we would not be able to have two or three floors,” he said.

“You increase the numbers, you increase exposure to the nurses. So once you experience it, you don’t have a nurse, so it’s gonna happen. So a nurse would come down and contract COVID as well makes us and we’re short.”

This article and live event is supported by the Journalism and Public Information Fund, a fund of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

This story was originally published December 22, 2021 5:50 AM.


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