When I was in high school, I took driver’s ed, of course. And my teacher talked about using bright lights. And since we lived in a city, he predicted that it would be about 3 years before we would ever need to use these. He was wrong. I found myself driving with my dad out in the country shortly thereafter, and I actually needed to use my bright lights.
I remember feeling slightly weirded out by the fact that I needed my high beams. I mean, I had a reasonably responsible adult who told me I wouldn’t need them because of where I would be driving the most. And it was odd that he was wrong.
I’m feeling the same sense of wow about using an N95 mask on a daily basis at work. This once rarely utilized piece of PPE has become a daily part of my uniform. As normal as my color coded scrubs to indicate with which team I belong. It’s definitely a strange yet important time to be a healthcare provider.
Before the pandemic, this was a piece of equipment you were fitted for once a year or so. It was something that you had to check off of your annual competencies and safety checklists, much like reviewing infection control measures and OSHA guidelines every year. A necessary afterthought. We all took our masks home with us and, if you’re like me, stuck it in some pile of stuff somewhere with things that you’d likely never need, but were too important to toss.
While being fitted, which consists of asking what size you were last time, putting that size on, putting a tent over your head, and squirting a bitter saccharin solution mist into the tent to see if you can taste it, we often would ask others in line for this process if you’ve ever had to use one. Often it was never. I actually treated a patient in acute care a few years ago on airborne precautions for the measles. I was the frequent winner of the N95 wearing contest for wearing one one time in my 21 years of practice. This past year has changed that oddity for every healthcare provider and for our support personnel.
Never in my wildest nightmare did I think that I would have to become so intimately acquainted with the 3M size small N95. It leaves me with strap marks and a bit of redness once it’s off, often lasting for hours after doffing it. For a long while after my work day, I feel like I’ve had a suction cup over my mouth and nose. I guess it kind of looks like that, too.
If that’s not enough, I also double mask and wear goggles. The double masking keeps the N95 cleaner. And as an added bonus, if I do go into a contact or airborne precaution room, I can just replace the level 1 mask on top. The goggles were added as another layer of protection in September when it was discovered that the coronavirus can also enter the body through your eyes. It’s a lot of gear to wear all day, and I’m only treating COVID+ patients occasionally. Working with these patients also also requires a plastic gown and face shield.
I started my current job in August, right smack in the middle of the pandemic. It’s been so difficult to learn who everyone is and to match faces with names. That’s the weird part about starting a new, in person job during this ongoing crisis. I don’t often get to see everyone’s faces during our socially distanced lunches. But I’m getting there!
I feel very fortunate to have adequate PPE right now to protect both my patients and me. It gives me a great sense of peace and safety when I arrive to work and find my little brown bag with a fresh N95. I’m also grateful that the days of having to recycle our masks to wear again are also seemingly over. And I’m super grateful to work with the team of colleagues of which I am a part.
But the next time you’re out at the grocery and you see someone in scrubs trying to fit in that after work run for necessities, know that they have likely had a long day serving others in less than ideal circumstances. We’re a bit weary of wearing these fitted N95’s.
Please keep encouraging everyone to do their part. Get vaccinated if you can. And wear your mask! Maybe one day, our lives can return to something closer to normal.
Have you ever worn a fit tested N95 for an extended period of time? How is mask compliance in the community where you live? I’d love to hear about your experiences. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.