Nurse returns to health care system to fight novel coronavirus

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sayuri Uehara discusses measures against the novel coronavirus at the Tokyo Nursing Association in December.

“Please come soon. Tomorrow or even today,” Sayuri Uehara was told when she called a Tokyo hospital that was recruiting nurses. She didn’t need to submit a resume or have an interview.

Even over the phone, Uehara could clearly sense the pressure the hospital staff was experiencing amid a coronavirus infection cluster.

That was the spring of 2020. Six months earlier, Uehara, 43, had left her job at a hospital in her hometown of Nagano to prepare for studying abroad while learning foreign languages in Tokyo. She wanted to fulfill her dream of performing medical work in developing countries.

As the novel coronavirus spread rapidly, Uehara knew that health care workers were struggling to treat infected patients. Uehara decided to join their efforts rather than sit on the sideline, so she contacted the hospital and plunged into the fray.

In a changing room at the hospital, she put on a medical gown, gloves, hat, goggles and mask. “What if I get infected?” She thought to herself. To dispel the anxiety, she breathed deeply. “OK, let’s go.”

It was lunchtime and Uehara was tasked with feeding a bedridden patient.

It was hot wearing all the protective gear. She was sweating, and the goggles were fogging up. Uehara watched intently through a narrow unobstructed space to ensure that the patient swallowed the food.

Uehara was busy changing sheets, washing patients’ hair, helping them go to the bathroom and doing other work. She had almost no time even to go to the bathroom. Uehara was always tense amid the danger of infection. At the end of the day, she was exhausted.

She saw patients laughing one day and suddenly becoming ill a few days later. She used a machine to suck phlegm from their throats, administered antibiotics and cooled their heads with ice pillows. No matter how hard she tried, Uehara was unable to save all of them. Many died without being able to see their families.

The virus prevented Uehara from fulfilling the human side of her job. Masks covered any smiles, and she could not hold a patient’s hand and encourage them.

After the cluster outbreak, some people called the hospital and denigrated it. Some day care facilities refused to take the children of hospital staff. Nevertheless, driven by a strong sense of duty, many nurses continued to work and care for patients.

After about a month, Uehara finished her work at the hospital.

“Thanks so much. You were very helpful,” one nurse said. “We’ll keep working hard,” said another with a smile. Uehara was deeply moved, knowing that they were in a much harder situation than she was.

Uehara later helped out at another hospital in Tokyo. Someone in connection with the hospital recommended her for a job at the Tokyo Nursing Association in the summer of 2020. Since then, Uehara has been involved in the creation of manuals with guidelines for handling the coronavirus as well as nurse training programs.

When the COVID-19 vaccination campaign started in February last year, medical personnel were needed to administer shots. Attention was paid to so-called dormant nurses, who had once worked as nurses but had left their jobs.

After being away from a job for some time, skills naturally decline. Returning to work takes a lot of courage, Uehara felt, as she had the same experience.

To help such nurses re-learn how to administer shots properly and confidently join the inoculation drive, Uehara organized a seminar on giving injections.

The response was better than Uehara expected, and the seminar was held 19 times with about 530 people attending. Some of the participants had not worked for decades. Others were over 70 years old.

Such participants had the same level of desire to help others as she had on the day she dove into her job at the hospital where the cluster occurred.

The damage caused by COVID-19 is immeasurable. Infections with the omicron variant are spreading. Nurses are caring for patients at this very moment.

People should wear a mask, disinfect their hands and practice social distancing, as each person’s efforts protect those around them and the health care system, Uehara said.

We don’t know how much further we have to go before the coronavirus is contained, but Uehara believes that if people work together and continue to fight it, we will be able to shorten the road.