Hospitals were bulging at the seams. Waiting rooms overflowing. Supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and other medical equipment waning. Overwhelmed medical professionals were scrambling to control this strange disease that was killing their patients in record numbers.

Enter Aleta Allen. 

With the mental strength and courage of a soldier deployed to the battlefield, the highly trained registered nurse went to the frontlines of the COVID-19 war in hot spots across the country. Allen literally has the battle scars on her face.

“Sometimes we don’t eat,” said Allen, an intensive care unit nurse who was raised in Madison. “Sometimes we don’t use the bathroom until eight hours into our shift. Sometimes we don’t come out of that room for hours. Sometimes we’re just running with adrenaline through the roof doing all that we can do.”

Allen is describing typical days in the emergency departments during the pandemic. All COVID-19 designated rooms are occupied, and more patients — either known COVID-19 positive or unknown — keep arriving to get care. The scene played out day-after-day in Houston, Los Angeles and Milwaukee ICUs where Allen stepped up to support hospitals struggling under the demands of the coronavirus pandemic as a traveling nurse.

She’s been at it for a year now. Allen gears up when she gets there and enters something resembling a battle zone. She dons a N95 mask, a surgical mask over the top of that and then a face shield on top of that. She dresses into an isolation gown and latex gloves. Long hours, coupled with sweat, leaves her face marked with acne and deep creases from the masks.

ICU Nurse Aleta Allen’s smile without her PPE gear.

It is tough but necessary. It is a small sacrifice nurses, like Allen, make to advance the greater good of humanity amid this unpredictable disease.

Demand for rapid-response nurses to fill health care needs skyrocketed with COVID hospitalizations. Aiding patients in moments of vulnerability and fear requires a special type of selflessness and strength. Nurses, struggling against forces that are out of their control, face the risk of getting infected themselves.

The American Association of Colleges of Nurses says that several factors are contributing to the shortage in nurses, including insufficient enrollment and faculty at nursing schools to meet the demand, a significant number of nurses reaching retirement age, and high stress levels that are driving nurses to leave the profession. Health care workers are also falling ill and dying from the virus, as well.

“This virus is very scary,” Allen said. “Seeing people my age dying from COVID is just as scary.”

Nurses see the faces of those struggling with the novel coronavirus. There’s fear and there’s regret. Several COVID victims take their last breath through a ventilator. Often, they are alone because their loved ones are prohibited from being with them in person. If they are fortunate, they might catch a last glimpse through a smartphone screen.

Bearing witness behind facemasks and protective gear, in the eerie isolation of an intensive care unit, Allen is often right by a patient’s side.

“Having people dying and their families are not able to be with them at the bedside is tough,” she said. “As a nurse you take that on. You are the stand-in for that family. I’ve had to do this multiple times.

“I see burnout from a lot of nurses. I see frustration from the entire medical staff, from the doctors to the nurses, because at times there’s just nothing we can do. Sometimes there comes a point when there’s no turning back. You know this person is going to pass. It’s very tough,” Allen added.

One of the hardest moments for Allen this past spring was seeing five people in one family die from COVID within a week’s time. The family lost parents, grandparents and a son, leaving a 19-year-old family member to raise the younger siblings by himself. 

The staggering death toll is too painful to think about.

“I’m 37 years old and this is the most death I’ve seen in my entire career,” said Allen, a James Madison Memorial High School graduate who received her nursing degree from Columbia College of Nursing in Glendale, Wisconsin. “The public needs to know we are doing the best we can. We’re working long hours. We’re doing all of this because we care. Just try and remember that.”

Her hospital assignments can last from six to 13 weeks at a time. She works day shifts, night shifts, weekends, and holidays. To keep herself and her patients safe from the coronavirus, she isolates herself in hotel rooms at the end of every shift. She hikes to rejuvenate her spirit.

“I went out and just embraced the beauty,” said Allen, a nurse for six years. “I just learned to cherish those small moments of life.”

Since her profession has her tending to critical care coronavirus patients, she quarantined from family and friends. It was one of the hardest things to do. 

“I refused to be around my family because I was terrified that I could possibly infect anybody,” said Allen who finally managed to visit her parents for her father’s 70th birthday. 

As the pandemic lingers, Allen has maintained strict social distancing, while watching many other become more relaxed about precautionary measures. She is still seeing unexpected outcomes in her patients and grows frustrated by those who still believe the virus is a hoax.

Over 500,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. But behind millions of these cases are emergency responders and hospital staff, including doctors and nurses, working every day on the front lines to ensure that every person has a fighting chance against this virus.

“I get frustrated when some people say that there is only a certain percentage of people who die from COVID,” Allen said. “It doesn’t matter. One person dying from it is a problem because that’s somebody’s mother, father, brother or sister, or whoever. That life mattered to somebody. There’s no coming back from death. That person is missed and that matters.”