Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Everybody just breathe,” a book review July 26, 2022

Photo source: Amazon

I’m so freaking tired of people thinking this virus is bullshit, and that only old or unhealthy people are being affected by it. It is so hard to listen to.

I pulled this quote from Everybody Just Breathe: A COVID Nurse Memoir of Stamina and Swear Words by Amanda Peterson, who worked for 11 months in a Minnesota metro hospital’s COVID ICU Unit beginning in March 2020. Her memoir documents her time there, in what she terms the longest shift of her life. This was primarily prior to vaccines.

Hers is a powerful book in so many ways, but mostly because Peterson takes readers into the ICU. She spares no details in patients’ deteriorating conditions, their struggles to survive, or not, how their families are affected and how she’s been impacted.

A early depiction of the coronavirus. Image source: CDC

I challenge anyone to read this book and not come away with a strong visual of how COVID wreaks havoc on the body beyond an inability to breathe. As a non-medical person, I didn’t fully understand how destructive this virus can be. I do now, thanks to Peterson’s stories from the ICU. The ravages of COVID for a critically ill patient are beyond nightmarish.

In her book, Peterson uses the fictional “Jack” as a COVID patient. Privacy laws necessitate this, but “Jack” represents all the patients she cared for during her time in a special COVID unit where an air filtration system roared and medical staff worked tirelessly to save lives while also comforting patients whose loved ones could not be with them.

Raw emotions of anger, fear, frustration and more pack the pages of this book. Often Peterson reminds herself to just breathe, like the patients she prompts to just breathe. Her two young children provide comic relief, noted in interspersed humorous quotes. She escapes into nature. Finds peace in prayer, strength through her faith. Support from her co-workers.

Yet, she reveals how she feels shunned, ignored, silenced, disrespected, even called a liar by the very people she’s trying to help. Her hurt is palpable. Yet, this ICU nurse carries on with caring.

Photographed in the window of The Rare Pair in Northfield early in the pandemic. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

She is, Peterson writes, tired of simultaneously fighting the virus and the public. A public whom she calls selfish in their unwillingness to, for example, wear face masks and/or avoid gathering in crowds. Again, this was in the beginning of the pandemic, but still applicable today as highly-transmissible variants spread, infect, hospitalize and kill. I ask you to wear a mask not out of fear but out of love, she writes. Peterson repeatedly stresses the love perspective, that we ought to think about others. Why, she asks, is love so hard? I wonder the same.

That a pandemic can bring out selfishness and ugliness instead of community and love is horrifying, Peterson writes. She notes how COVID has become politicized but that the virus doesn’t care about politics. She’s right.

I came to this book with hesitancy, not about the content, but wondering whether this would be well-written. Just pages into the memoir, I was hooked. Peterson can write. Her writing style is like a conversation, free flowing (with swear words tossed in the mix), honest, introspective, nothing held back. Her stories, insights, experiences are powerful. Emotional. At times I laughed out loud. Other times I nearly cried at the immense suffering, loss and pain.

I encourage you to read this memoir by a COVID ICU nurse from Hudson, Wisconsin, who is, undeniably, in the right profession. Peterson deserves our respect and thanks for not only the care she’s given to all the “Jacks,” but also for the telling of her experiences in this unforgettable, impactful book.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling