In memoir, United Hospital nurse reflects on experiences in COVID ICU

The cover photo for Amanda V. Peterson’s memoir was taken by Dr. Avi Nahum, who treated COVID patients at Regions Hospital.

After accepting a post in United Hospital’s COVID intensive care unit in March 2020, Amanda V. Peterson began writing as a form of what she calls “paper therapy.” Two years later, Peterson is a published author, and her memoir, “Everybody Just Breathe,” sold out its first press run in just three weeks.

The book, published by Beaver’s Pond Press in St. Paul, is a candid, emotionally charged reflection on Peterson’s experience as a nurse and mother during the global pandemic. Its subtitle is something of a warning: “A COVID Nurse Memoir of Stamina and Swear Words.”

“ICU nursing kind of brings swear words to begin with, but I counted it up and my COVID-to-Jesus-to-F-bomb ratio was pretty solid,” Peterson laughed.

“It’s a year in the life of me trying to survive, of everyone trying to survive,” she added. “All day long I was telling my patients, ‘Just breathe, that’s your one job,’ because no one could. Then it became my own mantra, my own way to escape.”

Peterson, a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association, lives in Hudson, Wis., with her husband and two children. She has worked as a registered nurse since 2006, and in the ICU at St. Paul’s United Hospital for the last 14 years.

When United created a stand-alone COVID ICU in the spring of 2020, Peterson was among those who volunteered to work inside. For a full year, she saw only COVID-19 patients, and after a brief respite in 2021, Peterson was back in the COVID ICU when it reopened to handle the Delta wave last fall.

For Peterson “it wasn’t even a question” as to whether she would volunteer to work in the COVID ward.

“This was everything we had trained for,” she said. “You knew this was going to be a pivotal moment in everyone’s career, and I couldn’t sit that out. I wanted to be able to tell my kids that their mom stepped up.”

Peterson did not initially intend to write a book about her experiences – she calls herself an author “by accident” – but began typing her thoughts into a Word document and, sometimes, posting on social media after the pandemic began.

“I wrote a lot on social media about trying to educate the public, urging everybody to bond together and explaining what we were going through in the hospital,” Peterson said. “And I also wrote at home to kind of document what I was going through, almost trying to get it out of me so I could absorb more.”

Every January, Peterson makes a bound photo album for her family of highlights from the previous year, and last year she decided to do the same with her writing, collecting it in a 75-page file. Peterson sent the file to two local publishers and asked if they could bind it together as a keepsake.

Amanda V. Peterson

“Within two weeks both had written back and said they wanted the rest of this story,” Peterson said. “I picked the one that was going to let me keep my swear words.”

The book was scheduled to print last fall, but when the Delta wave hit, Peterson decided to keep writing. It finally published March 28, and a second press run is already in the works.

Reader reaction, she said, has been overwhelmingly positive, with nurses across the country reaching out with their responses to the book. For Peterson, it’s been a form of validation.

“It’s been like, ‘This is how I felt, but does anyone else feel this way?’” Peterson said. “And the response has been, ‘Hell yes, we felt that way!’”

Just as the writing process was therapeutic for her, Peterson hopes the book can be therapeutic for readers as well. She worked with a mental health professional to compile a list of discussion prompts, included at the end of “Everybody Just Breathe.”

“We as nurses had to just ‘do’ for so long that you couldn’t emotionally pass through it because you had to keep going,” Peterson said. “Normally, ICU nurses are adept at having a crappy shift, going home and letting it go. We compartmentalize for a living.

“But the problem with COVID was that it was everywhere. Everybody else is living it too. It’s all over the news. There’s a fear factor. We don’t know what we’re dealing with. So people don’t want to hear about your bad day because they’re coping like you’re trying to cope. You couldn’t vent it out. You couldn’t let it go.”

Peterson continues writing online at thisnursemom.com, where you can also buy a copy of “Everybody Just Breathe.”

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