Critical care nurse Danielle Poulin plays with her Nigerian Dwarf goat, Huckleberry, at her home in Monmouth on Friday. Poulin is a nurse in Maine Medical Center’s COVID ICU department. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Danielle Poulin was elated to be among the first front-line health care workers in Maine to be vaccinated against COVID-19 last week. But she can’t forget all of the people who have died from the virus, and she doesn’t want you to forget, either.

A registered nurse who recently became a nurse practitioner, Poulin works in the intensive care unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland. She has seen the terrifying worst that the virus can do, randomly picking victims who die alone without the comfort of loved ones at their bedsides. She believes each person who died with COVID-19 contributed to what is known about treating the virus, and their sacrifice should be honored.

Recalling the isolation of their final hours takes her breath away and grips her voice when she speaks.

“Not being able to be with their families is just wrong and so sad,” said Poulin, 31. “You grow extra close to the patients because they’re in the ICU for a couple weeks to a few months. You’re talking with their family members every day. So if they lose their battle with COVID, it’s especially emotional.”

And while vaccination has begun, she said, many are still suffering from COVID-19.

Poulin has coped with the extraordinary stress of the pandemic by retreating to her home in Monmouth, on a wooded lot near a lake, where she and her partner, Nathan Armstrong, a UPS supervisor, live with a growing menagerie that includes three dogs, six chickens and two goats.

“We’ve made this our own retreat because we spend all of our time off here,” Poulin said.

Poulin was vaccinated Tuesday morning with a handful of co-workers who were the first to be inoculated in Maine, launching MaineHealth’s vaccine rollout at Maine Med, Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford and Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

By Friday, MaineHealth had vaccinated 1,700 ICU and emergency department employees who are at highest risk of exposure to COVID-19, and at least 560 additional people had been vaccinated at other hospitals across the state. MaineHealth had received no reports of severe adverse reactions to the vaccine as of Friday, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer.

Maine Med staff members featured here said they experienced only mild symptoms of inoculation, such as soreness near the injection site and muscle aches that disappeared within 24 hours. Other possible symptoms include fatigue, headache, fever and chills. The vaccine isn’t a live virus, so it cannot cause COVID-19; it just triggers symptoms of an immune response, health experts say.

The first Mainers to be inoculated are a selfless bunch overall, working 12-hour shifts in close proximity to patients who have or could have a virus that is surging across the globe, killing at least 292 people in Maine, more than 315,000 in the United States and 1.68 million worldwide.

They have adapted to working during a pandemic, in life-threatening conditions they trained for but hoped never to experience. They wear constricting personal protective gear that helps keep them safe but can make it difficult to do their jobs. And they have come to rely on their co-workers the way soldiers count on each other in a foxhole.

Like many Mainers, they have been facing hard questions about their own mortality, some a lot sooner than they planned, and finding solace from the fear and stress that pervades everything these days by baking bread, gardening, enjoying their pets, getting outdoors, appreciating friends and loved ones a lot more and generally staying close to home.

And they want you to know that while they are happy to have received the first of two required doses of the Pfizer vaccine, they plan to keep wearing masks at the grocery store and following other public health protocols until COVID-19 is no longer a threat in our midst, possibly well into 2022.

Kayla Mitchell, an ICU nurse at Maine Med, said she won’t be letting her guard down anytime soon. She hopes others remain vigilant, too, and get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“This is only the beginning of what could be the end,” Mitchell said. “Just because I’m protected, other people aren’t.”

Kayla Mitchell outside of her home on Friday. Mitchell, 31, an RN who cares for COVID patients in Maine Medical Center’s ICU. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

COMRADES IN BATTLE

Mitchell, 31, was the first Mainer to be inoculated against COVID-19. It was a moving moment that left her feeling grateful and humbled once again. She’s been feeling that way a lot since March.

“It’s humbling, the whole thing,” Mitchell said. “I have learned a lot about myself. It’s opened my eyes and made me realize I’m part of something so much greater than myself.”

She also has come to appreciate her co-workers more than ever before, counting on them for emotional, physical and psychological support when things get tough. When she needs a drink of water. When she has to sit down for a minute. When she needs to vent a little.

Health care workers with military experience compare the camaraderie that has developed during the pandemic to life during wartime.

“Teamwork really is the center of our success.” Mitchell said. “It feels like we’re fighting an uphill battle. I’ve had days where I just couldn’t have done it without the people I work with.”

And when the virus takes over, and comfort and compassion are all that’s left to give, Mitchell has seen her colleagues step in when family members cannot be there.

“We went into this field to be healers, but we’ve watched this virus separate families from their loved ones when they need them the most,” Mitchell said. “Some of my proudest moments have been seeing nurses sit with patients as they take their last breaths.”

Michelle Burke is a registered nurse who lives in Portland and works in Maine Medical Center’s emergency department, often with people who fear they have COVID-19. She was among the first front-line health care workers to be vaccinated in Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS

As an ER nurse at Maine Med, Michelle Burke is at the front end of the COVID journey for many patients. The emergency department was divided into two units in the early days of the pandemic, allowing patients with COVID-like symptoms to be isolated from people with twisted ankles, dog bites, strokes and other noninfectious health emergencies.

So Burke spends one-third of each 12-hour shift in the isolation unit of the ER, wearing a spacesuit-like powered air purifying respirator that helps her feel safer but makes it more difficult to do her job.

“You feel really secure, but it’s not easy,” said Burke, 30. “You can’t hear as well, and it’s a barrier to your sixth sense as a health care worker.”

Early in the pandemic, almost all ER patients had to be isolated because so many had symptoms similar to COVID, including fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Now, about half of all ER patients require isolation, Burke said, but the impact on emergency staff hasn’t waned.

“The stress is overwhelming at times,” Burke said. “All of the other emergencies still happen, plus people who are presenting with COVID symptoms.”

Burke has an advantage in coping with that stress because her husband, Sam, 31, is a nurse practitioner in Maine Med’s emergency department.

“It’s such a blessing to have someone who knows what I’m going through, so we can lean on each other,” she said.

The pandemic prompted some difficult conversations for the Burkes early on, as the couple saw news reports of health care workers dying in other parts of the country. They drew up advanced directives in case either of them fell ill, something that neither of them thought they would do when they were so young.

“We really had some big life conversations,” Burke said. “You don’t think you’ll be talking about end-of-life stuff in your 30s, but it was pretty grim in the beginning. We saw news coming out of New York about healthy, young health care workers getting sick and passing away, and we didn’t want to wait. We knew the risk was there.”

With daily COVID cases now reaching record levels, including here in Maine, Burke said she’s grateful to have been vaccinated, but she plans to keep wearing a mask in public for months to come.

“It’s the simplest way to show respect for others,” Burke said. “I’m so glad our staff will be protected, so we can continue to take care of patients, but it will take awhile before the whole community is protected. I want to be an example so people keep wearing masks.”

Dr. Nathan Mick works in Maine Medical Center’s emergency department, often with people who fear they have COVID-19. He was among the first front-line health care workers to be vaccinated in Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

D-DAY IN THE ER

Dr. Nate Mick will never forget March 13, 2020, and not just because it was Friday the 13th.

“That’s the day COVID came home for us,” said Mick, 47, who is vice chairman of Maine Med’s emergency department.

“That’s when we started to worry about community spread,” Mick said. “That was our D-Day. The news reports out of New York were terrifying. We didn’t know what to expect. Early on we prepared for the worst of the worst.”

On the job, Mick has tackled some tough medical and logistical challenges in preventing the spread of COVID-19. At home, he has come to miss one of the simplest pleasures of fatherhood: being greeted with hugs from his two daughters, ages 12 and 14, when he arrives home from work.

They know to ask first whether he spent the day in staff meetings or worked directly with patients. The latter means he heads right upstairs to remove clothing that might carry COVID-19 and take a shower before being in close contact with his family, including his wife, Kellie, who is a nurse at another hospital.

“We’ve all lost something during this pandemic,” said Mick, who lives in Falmouth. “My hope is this vaccine is the start of a change that allows us to resume some aspects of normal daily life.”

Like Danielle Poulin, who brought home a couple of goats; and Kayla Mitchell, who found peace boating on Casco Bay with her fiancé, Nate Frisbie, a merchant mariner; and Michelle Burke, who has enjoyed gardening and grilling in her backyard; Mick has destressed by enjoying time with his family, working out and ordering takeout.

But just as Mick and other front-line health care workers were being vaccinated last week, Maine’s daily COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations were surging, with a record-setting 590 new cases reported on Thursday.

“The last six weeks or so, we’ve seen more COVID than in any other period of the pandemic,” Mick said. “We knew that this shoe was going to drop. We hope to get it under control as soon as possible.”

Which is why Maine Med and other medical facilities will continue to require universal masking and other COVID-19 protocols for many months to come as vaccinations continue, and why Mick will continue wearing a mask whenever he goes out.

He also hopes other people will get vaccinated as soon as possible, knowing what he does about the devastating effects of getting COVID-19. If people have doubts, questions or concerns about being inoculated, he asks that they educate themselves about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine before making a decision.

“I had a sore upper arm near the injection site for about 24 hours, like when you get a flu shot,” Mick said. “It was the sweetest soreness I’ve ever had.”


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