The COVID-19 pandemic has been a dark and challenging time for many families in the area, including the healthcare workers on the front lines of the crisis. But for one area ICU nurse, 2021 is starting on a much brighter note.
She and another Minnesota nurse have been invited by the NFL to join about 7,500 other vaccinated health care workers at Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida.
Heidi Briski-Gainor became a nurse 22 years ago, and has spent most of her career at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood while caring for her family in Pine City.
“When my kids were small I was too busy to get into football,” Heidi said. “But as they got older, I became a big Vikings fan – I try to watch all those games. And every year we have a Super Bowl party. I’m a fan of the Super Bowl no matter who’s in it.”
She loved being a nurse, and after a few years of experience in St. John’s intensive care unit she thought she had seen everything. But then COVID-19 hit Minnesota, and she and the other frontline health care workers had to face the pandemic.
“My first COVID patient was March 28, and he was the sickest person that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “But by the grace of God he lived. Once we all saw that in the ICU, we knew we were in for ... what everybody had been talking about. It had officially arrived.”
She had come to expect medically challenging patients working in the ICU, but she wasn’t prepared for the grueling, day-to-day intensity of nursing the sickest COVID victims.
“We work eight to 12 hours shifts,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t get breaks, because you can’t walk away from your patients for 30 minutes. When you’re in a COVID room, you have to be wearing gloves, a gown, a cap to cover your hair, an N95 mask and a surgical mask over that – because you have to try to keep your N95 clean, because you re-use it for five shifts before getting a new one – and a face shield. So not only is it a lot mentally going on, but physically you’re sweating the entire time you’re in that room. And then you don’t want to come out, unless you’re complete with everything, because you’re reusing that protective gear – and the more you take it off and put it on, the more chance of contaminating yourself.”
Many of the COVID patients Heidi had to deal with were in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator. One of the most effective techniques for keeping these patients alive is called “proning” – turning them over onto their stomachs, which allows the back parts of the lung to expand more easily and better distribute oxygen. But though it’s simple, it’s not easy to do with a patient who is attached to multiple IV drips and has a breathing tube down their throat – and who is completely limp.
“It takes six nurses and two respiratory therapists to turn someone into the prone position,” Heidi explained. “Three nurses on each side, for safety and strength, plus two respiratory therapists to guide their head and make sure that the [breathing] tube doesn’t get dislodged. We have to make sure all the lines don’t pull out.”
The worst times were during the surges in COVID cases. She and other healthcare workers watched with dread as area hospitals filled up to capacity.
“Other hospitals were airlifting people to our hospital from Alexandria and Wisconsin because there were no beds,” Heidi said. “And no beds means no beds for COVID patients, stroke patients, car accident victims.”
She kept it together in front of her patients and coworkers, but more than once she found herself on the long drive to and from work in tears.
“It’s emotionally draining, and physically draining as well,” she said. “It’s like, you could never get a break.”
The virus took a personal toll as well. She watched a number of her nurse friends get sick with COVID. And she lost a family member and good friends to the coronavirus.
But then, finally, there was hope.
When she heard that her hospital was going to be receiving doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Heidi didn’t hesitate. She signed up right away, and received her first dose on Dec. 21.
And then there were tears again. But this time, they were tears of relief.
“It made me cry going to work going to get vaccinated,” she said. “It was the feeling of knowing that there was eventually going to be an end to the COVID, and knowing that I wasn’t going to get someone else sick.”
She experienced a mild headache after the first dose, and a day or so of flu-like symptoms after the second dose, but is happy to be protected – and is now looking forward to better days and life after COVID.
Nfl honoring health care workers
Heidi said she was watching the Vikings when she heard the announcement that the NFL was planning on honoring health care workers by sending a number of them tickets to the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 7.
There was no announcement of how they would choose who would go, so she and her friend Kelly Culver, an ER nurse, decided to write a letter and mail it to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
They received an email response acknowledging the receipt of the letter. They thought that might be the end of it. But then, they received a second email.
“On behalf of the National Football League, we wish to extend our gratitude for all that our health care workers have done to care for those impacted by COVID-19,” it read. “As next steps, please verify your party’s completion of the following requirements ... to receive a ticket to attend Super Bowl LV.”
When she realized what the email meant, she screamed.
“It really happened,” she said. “It’s like a miracle.”
‘It has been a hard year for everyone’
Now that the first wave of elation has passed, Heidi said she feels a great deal of humility and gratitude along with excitement about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to the big game.
“There are so many people who have suffered and have done so much,” Heidi said. “It has been a hard year for everyone, and there are a ton of people who went above and beyond during 2020. I have been grateful for my friends and my family. And my coworkers – nobody wants to be called a ‘hero’ or anything like that, but everybody has done their best in unforeseen circumstances and predicaments that we never, ever assumed we would be in when we became nurses.
“And now I couldn’t be more grateful to the NFL for honoring health care workers,” she said. “And I can’t believe it’s me.”
Editor’s note: Heidi Briski-Gainor is married to Pine City Pioneer Editor Mike Gainor.