As we endure the spread of the viral plague COVID-19, we fall into two groups. In what might be called the civilian group, we are for the most part staying distant, trying to avoid virus-filled droplets — perhaps even an exchange of air — that can make us very sick, even kill us. We’re walking and talking — unless foolhardy — 6 feet from one another, and trying to stay home.
Then there is the other group, those whose jobs require them to touch and tend the most severely afflicted, trying, with no proven medicine, to make them well. In Arkansas, more than 250 of them have become infected themselves, some in the course of their work taking care of people whose disease is still lurking unannounced, some from inadequate protective wear. As of April 20, one in three were nurses and one in five were certified nursing assistants, licensed health care workers, or unlicensed health care, workers. Nearly one in 10 were doctors.
It takes mental, physical, and emotional strength to tend to patients in critical care. It also takes a measure of courage when those patients have been infected by a virus about which little is known except that it is highly transmissible. It comes with loneliness, as caregivers separate from family to protect them from what may have been picked up in the hospital.
“Right now, I kind of equate it to, if this was a war and I was a soldier,” Elizabeth Sullivan, a registered nurse for 12 years at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said. “This is what I would be doing.”
Sullivan, 39, is a clinical services manager for an intensive care unit but is on the front lines, seeing patients sequestered in the COVID-19 unit because, she said, she would never ask her staff to do what she would not.
In an early April interview, Sullivan described the patients she sees in the all-RN-staffed E4 Medical Neurology Unit, for people with strokes, brain bleeds, and other medical needs, including those on mechanical ventilation.
“When [COVID-19 patients] come in, they truly are struggling to breathe,” she said, and intubation is usually necessary. Before the medical team puts a patient on a ventilator, they explain what will happen and try to get a sense of who their patients are. “We try to talk to them, ask them, ‘Tell us your story,’ ” Sullivan said. The nurses explain that they want to be able to help their families as well as the patient, to establish a bond. “We let them know we are doing everything we can,” Sullivan said. “There is a lot of fear. The patients are coming in asking for help.”
Because the risk of transmission of the virus is so high, family members cannot visit the ICU, even if the patient is at death’s door. But there is communication: Nurses and attending physicians call and take calls. “They can ask questions and still participate in the plan of care,” Sullivan said.
The patients may be heavily sedated, unable to communicate, but family members are able to see them: UAMS provided iPads to nurses caring for COVID-19 patients, so families could connect by FaceTime. (ARKANSAS TIMES)