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The Story Behind the Book ‘Just Breathe: COVID Stories From The Heart of Minnesota’

Published in Inside CentraCare, For the Health of It Author: CentraCare

When COVID-19 patients began arriving at St. Cloud Hospital more than three years ago, Lisa Kilgard, BSN, RN-BC, raised her hand to move full-time to the or COVID unit to take care of vulnerable members of her community. For Amanda Shank, BSN, CMSRN, and Nicole May, BSN, RN, the decision was less straightforward, as both were moved to the COVID-19 unit when patient numbers increased and there was a need for more nurses.

What was it like in the Med 1 Unit, taking care of the sickest COVID patients?

LisaLisa explained that you might be the patient’s only contact with the outside world. In turn, the nurses became very attached to each patient, as they were sometimes the only ones allowed in the room. Nurses in the COVID-19 unit were often alone at the patient’s bedside, holding the person’s hand, even when — especially when — that person’s condition was worsening.

It was the kind of setting that really bonded people together. Nurses to their patients – nurses with other nurses. Lisa, Amanda and Nicole had to support each other through some of the most challenging times — days and nights that were grueling and led to so many emotions.

An Idea to Heal

Lisa felt like she needed to do something to support the unit. One day, while Lisa was walking the halls of the unit with a hospital administrator, he mentioned a book he was reading that was an author’s personal journal. This sparked an idea for Lisa: what if she could give the nurses of their unit a simple, similar outlet to heal from their stress and trauma?

Lisa turned to Nicole and Amanda with the idea and asked them to document their experiences, and then spread the word to other nurses on the unit. What began as a small project for the nurses in their unit blossomed into a full-length book of nearly 100 stories from nurses and other frontline health care workers across CentraCare.

“How we approached this book is kind of like how we approached COVID in our unit,” said Nicole. “We didn't really know what we were getting into, but we got this idea in our minds, and then we had to figure out what we were going to do to accomplish our goals.”

Stories of Strength

The stories that they received truly captured all the emotions from the pandemic: sadness and defeat, sarcasm and humor, anger and disappointment, hope and inspiration. At the end of the day, they needed something to bring them together. The three nurses agreed that writing down how they were feeling was the best way to process these emotions. Amanda noted the healing properties of writing down her trauma, as the nurses in their unit had built up so much stress, emotion and pain, but had nowhere for it to go.

Journaling provided Lisa and her fellow nurses with an outlet to move forward and continue to have hope for the future. She shared that even her 15-year-old daughter wrote a piece for the book, which helped both mother and daughter work through the uncertainty, fear and anxiety they had felt. A lot of the entries they received used expressive language to describe their experience and — while the language was often colorful — it was truthful, the three nurses agreed, and resonated with how they all felt.

“The stories made me realize that I’m not the only one who held patients’ hands while they were intubated but couldn’t save them,” said Lisa. “I’m not the only one who tried to do everything possible, and it still didn’t work.”

“Like I’m not alone,” Nicole agreed.

“Just Breathe” Available Now

It took a lot of logistics and help across the health system to turn a seed of an idea into a fully formed and tangible product.

Generous donors to the CentraCare Foundation made the publishing and printing of the book possible. They helped the seed to flourish into the finished product.

The book, titled “Just Breathe: COVID Stories From The Heart of Minnesota,” is a collection of journal entries, stories, poems and creative writing that is each author’s own experience and feelings. It is now available for purchase at CentraCare Gift Gallery locations and Amazon.

Portions of this story are from the article: “Healing Words: How Nurses in One COVID-19 Unit Found an Innovative Approach to Dealing With Trauma.”