From mosh pit to ER: Mudhoney bassist on being a nurse during COVID
By Charles R. Cross / Crosscut.com
Guy Maddison has experienced the pandemic from a unique viewpoint: He’s a registered nurse at Harborview Medical Center and he’s also a member of one of Seattle’s most legendary and enduring bands, Mudhoney. He has performed this unusual juggling act for a couple of decades, but none of the challenges during that tenure can compare with the upheaval of this past year and a half. Mudhoney halted its tour schedule, and Maddison’s Harborview job threw him into the middle of the emergency response to COVID-19.
“It has been crazy,” Maddison says in late in September, on a rare day off. “It’s been really crazy.” And when the bass player of Mudhoney says something is crazy, it is. The beloved local band is renowned for wild live shows and the slam-dance-inducing 1988 Sub Pop classic “Touch Me I’m Sick.” (“Ironic,” Maddison says, laughing.)
For many of the quarantine months, Maddison held a supervisory position at Harborview, working on the crisis management of COVID-19. It has been a difficult time to be a health care worker — particularly hard during the past six months. The nursing shortage is real, Maddison says, but it’s also emotionally taxing to know that many of the hospital patients with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
In August, Maddison launched a podcast: “Emergency Room: The Covid Diaries,” about the experience of being a health care worker during the pandemic. In the three episodes online so far, he speaks with various hospital staff about what it’s like on the front lines of the crisis. Part of the reason he started his podcast was in hopes it would raise awareness of what the unvaccinated might experience if they end up in Harborview’s intensive care unit. “There are people under the age of 50 in our hospital right now on life support,” he says.
Maddison came up with the podcast idea during some of the most terrifying months of the pandemic, in early 2020. He and other health care workers were unsure if they could even protect themselves while treating patients. Maddison would bike home from the hospital and retreat to his Wallingford basement to avoid potentially exposing his wife and 10-year-old daughter. “We were no longer touching, hugging. And eating and sleeping separately,” he says. “I just didn’t know if I could spread it to them.”
That familial isolation coincided with a break for Mudhoney, too. (The band never even considered doing a Zoom concert.) With rare extra time, he began to journal. He realized in the writing process that he had a particular window onto the health care crisis, one that few others did. He wanted to share those stories and insights, and switched to the idea of a podcast because it would allow him to include the voices of the people he works with at Harborview.
“Emergency Room: The Covid Diaries” runs about 40 minutes per episode, some of which feature Mudhoney riffs in the intros. But this is decidedly not a music promotion effort. In one episode, nurse Vanessa Makarewicz notes that, unlike other workers who stayed home and crafted or baked bread, health care workers have been so busy during lockdown, “We haven’t had time to get our sourdough starters going.”
Maddison thinks he’ll do a few more episodes of his podcast, though he hopes that at some point there won’t be much COVID-19 to document.
In mid-September, some of Harborview’s COVID-19 numbers were as high as they had ever been, but by the start of October, the trend had improved slightly. Still, Maddison is wary of dropping mitigation behaviors, such as mandatory masking. “Our numbers ticked down slightly, and that’s an indication that the measures that the governor has taken have worked,” he says. “We’ve also had increased vaccination rates. These things do work.”
I spoke with Maddison about the podcast, nursing, Mudhoney, and the state of music amid the pandemic.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mudhoney played its last show to date on Feb. 29, 2020, in Pioneertown, California. Did you have any idea at that point what was ahead?
Even though COVID was beginning to be discussed, we had no idea it was going to have the impact it did. Looking back, it was right on the cusp of the outbreak. Many friends traveled from Seattle for that show, so it was the last time we saw many people we knew for well over a year. We were preparing to head out that April to do a bunch of U.S. West Coast shows with the Meat Puppets. But it became pretty apparent we were going to take a long break.
What was it like working a shift when COVID-19 was first reported?
By the time it broke in the news, we had already admitted our first [COVID-19] positive patients. What was shocking with COVID was how many cases came in, and how much it took over the hospital. We transformed three other ICUs in the hospital for just COVID patients. The hospital itself looked totally different, even in a physical sense. There were big plexiglass barriers, doors that were air-sealed and double entrances.
We didn’t even know at first what we were dealing with, and it was very hard to test people. But we had experience with Ebola and SARS training, and with active tuberculosis cases. With all those we used some of the same procedures as COVID. One of our biggest issues was finding the right number of staff, because as soon as you don’t have enough staff, that’s when the mistakes happen, people have contact and the disease spreads. We were desperate to not to have that happen. After 18 months into this, I feel a lot more comfortable with the safety factors we’ve put in place. They really do work.
There’s a lot in the news about nursing shortages and hospitals being at the breaking point. What are you seeing?
We are in a dire straits, both regionally and nationally. At Harborview, we typically rely on travel nurses during our trauma season, in the summer, when more people in Seattle hurt themselves. But now every other place is short, too. It’s been a difficult job, and there are many people I know who have left the profession. Many baby boomers have chosen early retirement, and I don’t know if the nursing schools are turning out enough graduates to meet that demand. We are very short-staffed at the moment.
You talk about the importance of all the hospital workers — from doctors to cleaners — on “Emergency Room: The Covid Diaries.” What gave you the idea to start a podcast?
I was coming home and self-isolating. I started journaling, and I surprised myself with how many words I wrote. I reached out to my friend Matthew Hall, who is a legitimate journalist, and he said we should interview health care workers on what this was really like. I’m lucky to have connections to Ruinous Media through Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse, who works there, and they put the extra touch on it. People regularly rate RNs and physicians as some of the most trusted members of society, so I felt that if that is still true, then perhaps their direct stories could change some opinions.
As a health care worker, you’ve also been a spokesperson for Bloodworks Northwest’s “Music’s in Our Blood” campaign, urging people to donate blood. Can you speak to the scarcity of blood products?
Blood donation is vital to all hospitals and to things people may not think about, like cancer treatment. At Harborview, one trauma case can consume 20 or 30 units of blood just to get stabilized. People are still in car accidents and being shot, unfortunately, even during this time of COVID. Blood donations remain a safe activity, and we have considerations for COVID. It’s one of the ways you can help — and you find out whether you’ve had COVID already when your antibodies are tested. I was very thankful when I did, and I found out that I hadn’t contracted it.
You moved to Seattle from Australia in 1990 and joined Mudhoney in 2000, when Matt Lukin, the original bass player, left. When did you get into nursing?
In the late ’90s, I went to nursing school at Shoreline Community College. I had been playing in band, and was in Bloodloss with Mark Arm, but I was working as a pest control technician. I started at Harborview when I got out of school in 2000, and have worked there ever since, either in the ICU or with the anesthesia department. I wanted a job I felt had a purpose. The mission of Harborview, as the county hospital, is to provide health care to people who often have limited access. They can be the incarcerated, the homeless, people with mental illness and marginalized populations. I chose to work there for those very reasons.
Mudhoney lead singer Mark Arm told me having a nurse in the band has been useful at times on the road. (“He can’t cure your cold,” Arm said, “but he can walk you through your fake heart attack symptoms.”) How is being a nurse similar to being in Mudhoney, and are there times you’ve had to use your nursing skills in your band life?
They really are two different worlds, but on occasion those worlds collide. I took stitches out of a skater dude’s buttocks in Texas one night. I have helped with some crowd injuries, including a stage diver who hurt his neck and a woman who broke her patella. The guys often consult me on health matters, but they also like to hear my work tales, as long as it’s not at dinner.
Mudhoney hasn’t gone back on the road or announced any dates until late 2022. Why?
COVID hit in early 2020, and we had that year completely planned out, but we pushed stuff back. This was rough because even though we make records, the generally considered experience of Mudhoney is that you go and see us live. Our shows are usually in 500 to 1,500 seat venues, nearly always indoors. We just decided the risk to others and to ourselves wasn’t justifiable to pursue our usual operations. We pushed everything off, and Mudhoney doesn’t intend to play any shows until 2022. Hopefully, things will look better.
We didn’t even see each other for a while, but we started meeting over Zoom, and eventually vaccines came around. Mudhoney got vaccinated, and then we started to practice again in person. We’ve been working on songs and thinking about an album.
A lot of bands and venues have announced “vaccinated-only” shows. Did the delta variant affect your options?
I choose not to go to any indoor shows. I did attend one outdoor concert for the blood drive. There’s been some inventive attempts with balcony shows and other clever solutions, but I’m not ready to go back.
The delta wave is highly infectious. There are breakthrough cases, and because it’s a respiratory disease, being in close contact in unventilated areas puts you potentially at risk … regardless of vaccination status. Even outdoor events have been spreaders, like Sturgis [South Dakota motorcycle rally]. In my opinion, there’s too much risk attending indoor events.
What do you think is the best advice at present for music fans?
Follow the science, follow the numbers, follow the experts and know that our governor is following experts. Vaccination is safe, and any side effects tend to be very minor, and vaccination is the number one tool to return to normalcy. I shy away from talking about the complicated interplays that drive other things, like business livelihoods that are themselves legitimate concerns.
Music is an interconnected thing, though, and this has affected everyone from club owners to booking agents to road crews. And we have lost a lot of clubs. There are financial victims, in music and in other ways. You can support bands you like, though, by buying their records or using something like Bandcamp to even just purchase a song for 99 cents. Mudhoney sold tickets to some shows we had scheduled at the Crocodile in May 2020, which we’ve postponed. There are still over 80% of the people who bought tickets to those shows who haven’t asked for refunds. That kind of support is a way to help a club stay in business.
But you can also help music, health care, and our world by just doing the small things: Get vaccinated if you haven’t, donate blood and wear a mask. These are the basic social contracts that we do to keep others healthy and safe. They are the way to end this pandemic and to return to a new normal life. It’s all about keeping the number of infections and hospitalizations down. Mudhoney, and all the other live music you love, will then be back from this long, strange intermission.
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