Essential: Austin Gramps, An ER Nurse Who Still Loves The Job
Austin Gramps is a registered nurse who works in the emergency department at Norton Audubon. She said knowing how to lighten up helps her maintain a good attitude, even in years like this.
She lives in St. Matthews with her senior dog, Toby. Because of the pandemic, she’s given up a lot of what she usually turns to for relaxation: eating out, live music shows, traveling. Like so many, Gramps has adjusted to life under COVID — with the added pressure of treating patients who might have it.
“It's still emotionally taxing now, because, like, there's no social life anymore,” she said. “All I do is go to work. And I go home and either do school work, or watch TV, which is depressing.”
Along with work, Gramps is earning a master’s in public health from Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Classes are virtual, but she’s still waiting to find out if she can complete residency programs either online or in-person, hopefully soon.
She also does what she can to stay active, like working out virtually with her sister over Zoom.
"I think it's more anxiety, and how to calm myself, because I still love my job,” Gramps said of coping during the pandemic. “But it's more, I'm anxious at home. Like, I don't know what to do with the energy.”
But at work, Gramps said things are much improved compared to the early days of the pandemic. At first, she found the constantly-changing guidelines and protocols frustrating.
“I was working day shift. And so from one day to the next, it could change. Night shift would be doing one thing, and the day shift could be doing something else,” she said.
She said one of the biggest challenges was dealing with visitors. Patients struggled with being alone, yet later, when visitors were allowed, they weren’t always cautious enough.
“I remember there was this one visitor that had like the ‘Keep Everybody Safe’ mask, and he had it under his chin,” she said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Thanks, guy!’”
This month, the first COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out, with frontline workers like Gramps among the initial batch of recipients in Kentucky. Gramps expects details soon about her own vaccination, and she plans to take the opportunity.
But Gramps also said she feels hospital workers like her have the benefit of high-quality personal protective equipment and really understanding how to keep themselves safe.
“I think that the other frontline workers, EMS that have to go into the horrible situations and pick these people up, they can get it. Postal workers, the poor people at the grocery stores that have to deal with it all. And then just the people out there that need it,” she said.
To her, getting the vaccine out to the general public sooner could give a better sense of how effective it will be on a population level — since the coronavirus is spreading so fast between people going about their regular lives.
Gramps recalled this spring, when the uncertainty was even greater than now, and people were scared to go to the hospital. They’d put off going in for non-COVID issues and end up getting sicker.
“And everyone's sicker in Kentucky. their diabetes, hypertension, cardiac illnesses, their renal function,” she said. “So people come in sick already.”
It was around that time that she posted a large sign in her front window, identifying herself to the neighborhood as an emergency room nurse and thanking neighbors for their support. She said she felt really supported..
“I had a meal on my back porch (one day), and I didn't know who left it. And I was debating whether or not to eat it,” she said. “But I was like, I didn't have any food and it looked so good. It was like a Salisbury steak, potatoes.”
She ate it.
It turned out to be from her neighbor, Roger. He sent more meals. Plus, his son would bring in her garbage cans, and they’d move her package deliveries to her back porch if she wasn’t home.
“I work most Mondays, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and I don't know if they just don't like the fact my garbage cans are out all day or they're just being nice. Regardless, I appreciate it,” she said.
Gramps lives far from family. These little kindnesses mean a lot to her.
“They're just, like, the parents that I'm not living with,” she said. “They're looking out for me.”
Even though the vaccines give some hope of the pandemic’s end, she remains committed to looking out for Louisville patients — whether they’re suffering from injuries, chronic disease or COVID. She said it’s what she signed up for.
Gramps is looking forward, yet clearly aware that the fight isn’t over. Outside her front door, she illuminates green lights each night in honor of Kentuckians lost to the coronavirus.