Former ICU nurse Rachel Ellsworth quit her job
Covid-19 pushed this nurse to quit her job. See where she lives now
02:18 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Nursing was more than a career to Rachel Ellsworth. She says she was “called” to the work.

For 10 of her 12 years in nursing, Ellsworth was an indefatigable intensive care nurse. The work energized her, and she felt privileged to witness some of the most important moments of people’s lives, when their worlds shifted for better or worse. Though she did all she could to save them, she also found purpose in giving her patients a “peaceful, dignified death” when it was time.

“I was the kind of person who went into work every day, like, literally, ‘Let’s go save lives,’ for 12 years” she said. “I was just so excited to be there, so full of hope and compassion.”

When the pandemic began in spring 2020, her commitment was tested but not quashed. She and her colleagues talked about renting apartments and living apart from their families to serve their patients. Residents of their southeast Florida community threw parades for them to thank them for their work. Ellsworth felt supported, like the sacrifices she’d made were worth it.

Rachel Ellsworth's nursing job became more and more stressful and despairing throughout the pandemic.

Summer was worse. The hospital where she worked saw a major spike in Covid-19 patients. Some of those previous unknowns about the virus now had answers, many of them grim. It became disturbingly clear when a patient wouldn’t survive.

“We were very limited in what we could do to help them,” she said. “We were losing.”

The stress came to a head in late 2020 when a Covid-19 patient she “just adored, the sweetest guy,” begged her to try any treatments that could save him. But they’d tried everything. She had no hope to give him. There was no dignifying his death.

After months of debating the decision, she finally quit her job in January.

“It broke me,” she said. “It was just too much.”

Almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, America’s nurses – who for almost 20 years have been voted the country’s most trusted professionals – are running on empty. They’ve reused PPE, canceled PTO and worked extended shifts for employers they don’t always feel value their safety.

The stress and lack of support has driven many nurses to quit their jobs. And during the worst health crisis the US has seen in more than a century, the health care system can’t afford to lose them.

CNN spoke to three nurses from Florida, Oklahoma and Minnesota about why they quit their hospital jobs. It wasn’t a decision any of them made lightly – they’ve been nurses their entire adult lives.

And all three said they’re still overcome with guilt about leaving their jobs during the pandemic – even if they knew their decision was the right one.

“The mental-health impact this is going to have on nurses … I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of it yet,” Ellsworth said.

The pandemic has made existing problems worse, nurses say

The nurses who spoke to CNN quit for different reasons: Unsupportive workplaces, overwhelming stress, the fear of bringing Covid-19 home to their families.

But it wasn’t unusual for US nurses to consider quitting even before the pandemic.

“Covid has exacerbated all the problems that we know exist in a for-profit health care system,” said Jean Ross, president of the National Nurses United, one of the country’s largest nurses unions.

Before Covid-19, Ross said, nurses were increasingly told to “do more with less” – cover more hospital beds, handle more patients and work longer hours. Employers pointed to the nationwide nursing shortage. Even though there were more than 3 million nurses in the US workforce in 2019, the field isn’t growing at the same pace as the aging population that needs their care, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Burnout was the primary factor driving nurses to quit before the pandemic, according to a study published this month in the journal Health Policy. Of the more than 418,000 registered nurses who quit their jobs in 2017, more than 30% of them said they left because of burnout, citing stressful work environments and inadequate staffing.

Many nurses feel they can’t provide the best care when they’re stretched so thin, Ross said.

Megan Chao Smith struggled with an increasingly demanding workload before the pandemic.

Such was the case for Megan Chao Smith, a nurse in Minneapolis who before the pandemic worked on an end-stage heart failure floor. Nurses there helped their patients eat, breathe and use the restroom, among other basic functions. When her hospital cut staff, her workload doubled, and she said she often had to be in two rooms at once to keep her patients alive.

“If we were split in half, it still would