Teamwork among heartbreak

Monday, September 13, 2021

Exhaustion. Frustration. Fear.

Those are just a few of the words that nurses working with COVID patients use when they are asked about this recent surge.

“Our staff know the true meaning of teamwork, making changes and adapting quickly as we experience this historic event,” said Paul Korth, CRMC CEO. “All teams in all specialties have pulled together to take care of these patients and provide exceptional care in tough circumstances.”

When disaster hits, everyone comes together in the immediate aftermath to take care of those affected.

But this new surge of COVID patients is different.

They keep coming in. They are younger and they are sicker.

“As an organization, historically, like the March 3 tornado, everyone came together,” said Scott Lethi, CRMC chief nursing officer. “We looked at our current resources and went to different individuals and asked them to help.”

Lethi has stepped in and helps the already overwhelmed staff where he can. Chevelle Johnson, CRMC’s assistant chief nursing officer, has also put in assistance. One day she is walking the ICU floor, another day she is helping in the infusion lab.

The diabetes educator has a background in ICU and with that kind of background, she has stepped in to help. Post anesthesia care nurses, nurses that worked in same day surgery and other areas became ICU nurses overnight.

Even family practice, internal medicine and cardiologists have taken on some patient load to offset the hospitalist volume.

The PACU unit became ICU overflow. Space is tight and alarms go off all hours of day and night. Nurses go home and still hear those alarms in their heads.

“This wasn’t done to this extent the first time around,” Lethi said. “We had to adjust a bit faster, but we are more reactionary and had a better plan to implement and communicate at a better level. There’s a higher staffing demand for nurses now than a year ago.”

Before this surge hit, plans were implemented as to how to handle the increase patient load.

“Everyone from all departments are invaluable and all have pitched in to do whatever needs to be done to care for our patients,” Johnson said.

Nurses, techs, physicians and all involved in direct patient care express frustration, heartbreak, fear and are visibly overwhelmed.

“I feel that nothing we do makes a difference,” said nurse practitioner Gail Cook with tears in her eyes. “It’s disheartening. It’s frustrating. Since this round hit faster and harder, especially with younger people, we aren’t able to hold off on vents. They go on it quickly.”

Tanya Ward, ICU director, echoed that sad sentiment.

“The patient’s status can change quickly,” she said. “We are always on our toes.”

There was no break between this surge and COVID’s initial emergence about 18 months ago.

“We had no downtime,” she said. “People are dying in the ICU. I’ve been in nursing 28 years and more people have died during this COVID pandemic than I’ve seen my entire career.”

Michelle Smith, respiratory therapist, tries to be positive, but it’s hard.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “I feel so sad for the patients and their families. I encourage the patients to do their best, but I see the fear in their eyes and it breaks my heart.”

One thing nurses have heard is vaccine regret.

“Why did I wait so long?” or “Why didn’t I get the vaccine?” are common statements from those patients in the hospital.

Other nurses recalled countless times they’ve held the phone to allow family members, including young children, to say goodbye to their loved one.

ICU nurse Allison Breeding took to social media with this story:

“I wonder what you were thinking as you were lying there in bed, struggling to breathe. I remember the panic in your face as the healthcare team told you that it was time for the ventilator. I remember the panic in your voice begging us to sedate you while on the vent. I remember intubating you and not seeing your sats (oxygen saturation levels) come up, the physician hurriedly making changes to the vent – waiting, watching, praying. I remember emergently proning you – so quickly that I didn’t have time to change the EKG leads or take your gown off. Still watching the monitor – hoping and praying that your oxygen comes up. I remember starting the IV – bending your arm in the most uncomfortable way because I am alone in your room and the paralytic and sedation are not compatible. I remember being so angry and frustrated because I had to stick three times. I remember watching your heart rate creep up and up and up because you are hypoxic. I remember telling the physician that I’m scared you are going to code before we can get you transferred somewhere. I remember hoping and praying that there is a bed available for higher level of care. I remember the doctor talking to your dad about the code status of a 30 year old. I remember sitting at my station, watching your daddy hold your hand. I remember calling the report to the other facility. I remember the helicopter team coming to pick you up and taking us over an hour getting you ready for transport. I remember your daddy standing out in the hallway with all of your belongings – alone. And I wonder if I did everything right. I wonder if you’ll ever know how hard we worked to save you. My hope is that you make it. And this is COVID for me.”

CRMC will be sharing nurses’ stories on its’ social channels.

Please consider getting a vaccine. It could keep you out of the hospital. Visit vaccines.gov for a location near you. Any questions can be directed to the county’s help line at 931-646-4636 or your trusted physician.