In the darkest days of the pandemic, the staff at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital devised a way to allow families to say goodbye to loved ones who were terminally ill with COVID-19. They moved patients to rooms where they’d be able to see and communicate with visitors through a window. To facilitate the goodbye, a nurse wearing an isolation gown, gloves, and both an N95 mask and a face shield, would hold a phone to the patient’s face while family members spoke to them for the last time. It was a grueling task. Not only did nurses risk infection and incur the psychological toll of witnessing family trauma, but underneath the PPE, it often got brutally hot and difficult to breathe. At the end of an hour-long meeting, nurses found themselves drenched in sweat and light-headed, their arms numb from holding up a phone or iPad for hours.
Despite the difficult conditions, Jennifer Bridges, a 39-year-old former bartender and CrossFit fanatic, was the first nurse to volunteer for the program. “I didn’t even care if I passed out,” said Bridges, whom other nurses describe as “devoted” to patient care and “extremely hardworking.” “I was going to hold out until my body gave out.”
In those days, Bridges’s strength and hard-nosed attitude helped her excel at work, but more recently those qualities have placed her at the center of a heated dispute with the hospital over her refusal to get a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine. Last month, Houston Methodist became the first hospital in the nation to require that all of its employees get vaccinated. Those who are unable to provide proof of vaccination by June 7 will be suspended without pay for two weeks, according to the company’s new HR policy; and those who haven’t been vaccinated by the end of their suspension will be subject to the “employment termination process.” To date, 98 percent of the 26,000 employees have gotten the jab. Bridges is refusing.