It’s hard for staff at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center not to run through worst-case scenarios when a new COVID-19 patient leaves their loved ones behind and checks into the hospital.
“You watch them say goodbye and you know in your head they might go to the ICU, get intubated and be dead tomorrow,” said Melissa Glascock, a lead respiratory therapist.
In her job, Glascock does intubation, extubation and daily breathing assessments for COVID-19 patients.
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Clark County in March, the main concern for medical workers was personal protective equipment. Supply shortages existed throughout the country, and many medical workers were inadequately protected from the virus.
Those concerns, combined with how much was unknown about the novel coronavirus at the time, prompted nurses to move out of their homes, send kids away or quarantine themselves away from family.
While medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients have a better grasp of the virus now, and better protective measures, the steady stream of sick patients and death that has manifested locally this fall and winter has taken a mental health toll.
“At first, it was how to stay safe,” Glascock said, “but now it’s dealing with the amount of patients that are coming in.”
Clark County saw highs in hospitalizations in November and December, with around 70 COVID-19 patients hospitalized during peak days.
Glascock said that sometimes staff are celebrating a patient’s improvement and recovery while “two doors down you’re mourning the loss of a COVID patient that just died.”
“This virus is so unpredictable in how fast it moves in patients,” Glascock continued. “All the sudden it’s the day they’re going to die. It sneaks up.”
In the quiet moments, Glascock said, staff can sometimes break down emotionally a little. Glascock has leaned on her family, the outdoors and her family’s alpacas to help her cope.
There’s a strain that comes with treating COVID-19 patients that doesn’t necessarily exist with other patients, and it goes beyond the burdensome protective gear staff have to wear for hours, or the high acuity of coronavirus patients.
It’s watching dying patients say goodbye to family over phone or video calls, or never getting to say goodbye at all. It’s how long staff can treat coronavirus patients, and how close they can become with the patients before death.
And it’s a fact that while staff are surrounded by sick and dying patients, there are plenty of people who believe the virus is a hoax or that it’s not serious, despite the fact that COVID-19 killed more than 340,000 last year, making it the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. Clark County had registered 144 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths as of Thursday.
Some people even hold those beliefs while they fall sick with coronavirus, said Colette Reilly, a nurse manager at Legacy Salmon Creek.
“We have a population of patients who don’t wear masks and don’t believe in it and now they are taking up a bed,” Reilly said. “It takes a huge emotional toll on people in a caring profession when patients don’t have the same compassion.”
Dreaded phone call
Lisa Streissguth-Kasberg, a charge nurse at Legacy Salmon Creek, said that making calls to families has been one of the hardest parts of her job. She has to sometimes let people know their relative is in the hospital.
“I’ve had more of those conversations in the last eight months than I have had in my career,” she said.
Streissguth-Kasberg has been leaning on a couple of co-workers who also happen to be best friends. They try to debrief each other frequently.
“They understand the stress and the frustration and the sadness,” Streissguth-Kasberg said.
All three women want the public to know how real and serious this virus is, and that it’s important to follow public health guidelines. In the case of COVID-19, small, easy actions by the public can save lives.
December did bring some good news for Glascock and Streissguth-Kasberg. They have received first doses of the coronavirus vaccine and will be administered the second and final dose in the near future.
In a text message, Glascock said she’s “thankful for science.”
“One of the most exciting things all year. Emotional in a happy sense,” she said. “I do feel comfort knowing we are on our way to putting this behind us, slowly but surely.”