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A Clinician’s Story: Vincent Phi

We have all been caught in this wave of history. We have experienced a deluge of personal and national. emergencies. It should surprise no one then that, amidst this crisis, some important stories were missed. But as the history of this crisis is recorded, it is our job to ensure that those stories are recorded. This process has a simple first step. We start by listening to the people who lived through this moment. The COVID-19 pandemic, after all, was not just headlines and press conferences. It was something far more personal. It was the real, lived stories of billions of people. One such story is that of Vincent Phi, a nurse from New Orleans. Vincent is a New Orleans native who entered college with the initial goal of becoming a pharmacist, but soon, with the encouragement of his mother, shifted his focus to nursing. Vincent’s mother was a nurse herself and made the compelling argument that nursing would provide him with stability and the opportunity to do impactful work. When he made the decision the pursue a career in nursing, however, Vincent never imagined the true impact his work would end up having. After graduating, Vincent quickly landed a job working a nurse at University Medical Center in New Orleans.     This was the facility where Vincent became a seasoned veteran. For nearly four years, he honed his skills and learned the ropes of the nursing profession. No amount of experience could’ve prepare him though, for being on the front lines when the pandemic. As Covid-19 hospitalizations rose, the medical center quickly turned to Vincent to take on more responsibility. He was asked to become a charge nurse, taking over as the lead on a unit that specialized in COVID-19. In his typical understated manner, Vincent described this experience as “a little nerve-wracking.”     Though there was certainly stress and uncertainty, Vincent also found silver linings during his time as a charge nurse at the height of the COVID crisis. He found confidence in a new leadership role and a sense of community with his fellow clinicians as they struggled against incredible odds. He fondly remembered when a local business provided all the nurses with free packed lunches. Teamwork community, and a sense of purpose fueled Vincent past the exhaustion and stress of that at times threatened to overwhelm him and so many healthcare workers. During this period, Vincent also increasingly found himself working with more travel nurses, brought in by the hospital to deal with the surging cases. The relationships he formed with these clinicians and their perspectives prompted Vincent to start considering the possibility of going on the road.  “I got some input from their side of things, and they talked about how this country has so much to offer,” Vincent said. “They talked about the benefits of getting out there.”  What our record of this event should also reflect is that the heroic efforts of these clinicians were not solely acts of public service. Vincent went into healthcare not only out of passion and dedication but also to make a living, to provide for himself and to build foundations for his family’s future. This was an important consideration for Vincent when he finally decided to leave his full-time position to pursue travel assignments. Vincent also considered the difference in responsibility between his full-time role and a travel position. “I had a friend who’s back at home and he said that the wheel was already created and we’re just going to keep it spinning,” Vincent said.  After leaving his full-time position to pursue travel work, Vincent found that the focus daily care responsibilities and keeping the wheel spinning helped him recover from the stress that had come with leading a unit. In addition, the challenge and variety inherent in working at different facilities for shorter deployments help him avoid burnout. “Things were sometimes tough, but I would move on to a new facility and learn their stuff for a little while and then I’d move on again,” he said. “It was just one type of stress for a short amount of time. The burnout was never too bad.” Despite the important role clinicians like Vincent played in saving facilities from collapsing during peak surges, the role travel nurses played in the pandemic has remained controversial.        But Vincent was not thinking about charts, headlines, or letters to Congress. He was not thinking about the battles that were playing out above his head between CEOs and politicians. He was thinking about his fiancé, his future plans, and the course that he wanted to set for his life.         “I’m really trying to save as much as I can currently to put aside for other adventures. I want to be in a place where I don’t have to work every day for the rest of my life,” Vincent said. Since he made the decision, Vincent has traveled across the country, providing critical care to patients that he says has forever changed him as a person. Particularly, he was moved by his experience caring for patients who were dying, at a time when visitors were not permitted to the hospital. “It made me realize that I didn’t want to die alone,” he said. “And seeing people talk to their loved ones before they passed made me wonder whether they had said those things often enough before the end.” Vincent’s story is not uncommon. So many of our clinicians across the country became not only caregivers, but surrogate family members. They provided support and comfort in during their patients’ final moments, and for the rest of their lives, they will bear those memories.  Much has been made about the high cost of paying travel nurses, but the conversation about the cost that these clinicians have paid is even more important.  Clinicians like Vincent put their physical and mental health on the line. They will be permanently altered by the work they did during this crisis. In that light, it becomes hard to think of a number that would truly represent fair compensation for their work. Today, Vincent is deployed to California, newly married but away from his wife in order to continue his professional journey. He and healthcare professionals like him continue to sacrifice and make personal decisions based on preserving their mental health and securing their financial futures. For many, this pandemic may have been experienced as a series of headlines, conversations, and controversies. But those were headlines, not history. The real history resides in the stories of Vincent Phi and others like him.

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