Alarms, exhausting shifts and sadness: Life on a COVID-19 ward

Alarms, exhausting shifts and sadness: Life on a COVID-19 ward

Story Summary: This article delves into the daily routines and lives of healthcare workers at a local hospital during the pandemic while encouraging readers to take a look at the importance of remaining vigilant to the on-going problem of COVID-19.

Alarms, buzzers and tones go off, alerting staff that something needs immediate attention.

Nurses, doctors and other staff whirl past each other, each with tasks to accomplish. Close your eyes and imagine standing on a hospital floor and watching as people and carts stream past you.

It could be that everything seems to move at hyper-speed or perhaps slow motion; either way, the hustle and bustle of a hospital floor is something one can only imagine. 

But for the healthcare staff at Elkhart General Hospital (EGH), this is their reality.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Feb. 8, there have been 462,037 deaths in the United States, due to COVID-19. 

Locally, there have been 24,925 reported cases in Elkhart County since March 2020 and, of those reported cases, there have been 400 deaths.

There is no group as close to the fight against COVID-19 as healthcare workers. 

Across the nation, they have worked long hours with massive numbers of patients, risking exposure daily to the infectious disease, to bring quality care to those suffering with COVID-19 while also caring for their other patients.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Elkhart General Hospital has operated three COVID-19 floors: Critical Care, mixed PCU (progressive care unit) and a medical COVID-19 floor. 

The expansion was required because, at times, the number of coronavirus patients exceeded 100. In recent weeks, the numbers have decreased across the county.

Those working on the COVID-19 units must follow strict protocols and guidelines to prevent spread of the virus.

“In order to enter a COVID-19 isolation room, besides wearing our usual gown and gloves, we either need to wear an N95 mask and face shield or a PAPR [powered air purifying respirator] unit where filtered air is pumped into a hood by a battery unit,” said Carolyn Heydon, an occupational therapist at EGH.

Critical care nurses try to keep their PAPR gear on at all times so they are able to enter rooms as quickly as possible during emergencies. 

Monitors and cameras have been added to each room so that staff members can see each patient they are caring for while keeping the room doors closed for safety.

Teamwork is a vital part of making the process work.

“We all help each other out as needed on any floor,” said Andrea Williams, a critical care nurse at EGH. “If one person has a patient that needs to be watched at all times, then we all work together to make sure all our other patients have equal care.” 

IV pumps are normally kept in patient rooms, but, on COVID-19 floors, IV pumps line the hallways outside the closed doors of patient rooms.

“IV pumps can go off for numerous reasons and if you are caring for more than one patient, as all nurses are, then you would have to put brand new PPE [personal protective equipment] on every time you go into a new room to check the IV pump,” Heydon said. “Having them [pumps] in the hallway ensures a more efficient process.”

Hospitals around the country have made extreme changes to secure the protection and well-being of patients and staff during the pandemic. New protocols make it difficult for families to be with loved ones. At EGH, COVID-19 patients cannot have physical visitors, but staff try to connect families via iPads.

Exceptions to the visitor policy are granted for extenuating circumstances, such as end-of-life visits and in cases where the patient is a dependent, rules that have been modified since the beginning of the pandemic when only patients or employees were allowed in the hospital.

As healthcare workers learn more about the disease, they have been able to come up with ways to better care for their patients. One example of this at EGH is a technique called manual proning.

This involves rolling a patient onto their stomach and having four to six staff members manage the patient along with the tubes and wires. Lying in this position allows a chance for the damaged and overworked chest muscles to rest while the back muscles assist with breathing. It also helps to loosen secretions. Patients are left in this prone position for four hours and then flipped again.

These uncertain times have taken a toll on everyone, but especially healthcare workers who are on the frontlines non-stop. 

It is especially difficult on hospital staff members when there are major signs of improvement in COVID-19 patients and then suddenly they take a turn for the worse and die.

“It is disappointing to constantly have situations where you do the best you can and still have negative outcomes,” said Dean Heisey, a chaplain at EGH.

While it could be expected that staff would start to burn out, most continue to work tirelessly to make COVID-19 patients feel comforted while they attempt to recover.

“It is really heart-wrenching when you have spent over 20 years working in critical care and knowing how to save people’s lives, and then COVID-19 comes and you do your absolute best and COVID-19 doesn’t care; it takes people away anyway.” 

“I’ve had to learn ways to cope,” she said. “I have been scrapbooking. I’m an avid scrapbooker so that is calming and de-stressing for me personally. I also have started to work out with a friend and that really helps too.”

Nationwide, the stress from such work is felt at home as some healthcare workers have had to live apart from their families. Some have had to keep their children out of school for the safety of other children.

“During the height of the worst part of the pandemic, when I would go home, I would strip down before coming in from the garage and then I would go straight to the shower,” Williams said. “There was one time I was so hungry when I got home that I was eating leftover pizza in my bathroom because I couldn’t be anywhere else in the house until I showered.”

Although vaccines have become available in Indiana to health care workers, first responders, and older adults 65 years of age and older, many hospitals are still overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients with no end in sight.

Williams says she wishes people would help by following safety precautions.

“When you are thinking about this pandemic and how much you just want it to be over, remember this: We must follow the rules set for us. We only know what we know and in that we must do the best we can.”

She also urges young people to think of others beyond themselves.

“This is bigger than us,” Williams said. “Try and think of the older people who might have COVID-19 and not die in the moment, but then have life-long lung issues. So, wear your mask, get the vaccination when it becomes available, and continue to practice social distancing; this is the only way we will successfully combat COVID-19.” 

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Written by Amber Heydon, Staff Writer

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