Even over the hums and beeping machines at Cox Branson’s Critical Care unit, you can still hear the heartbeat of the team – the encouraging voices Michelle Cole and Candy Dorman.
“You doing okay today?,” nurse manager Cole asks a COVID unit nurse. “Just tell me how I can help.”
Cole and assistant nurse manager Dorman are doing their daily rounds with staff – mental health checks, they say, are much needed lately. Because even though the vaccine brings hope for the future, and thankfully, hospitalizations are trending lower, there are still many acutely ill patients with COVID who require hospital care.
“The trauma of the pandemic has intensified our rounding and has us checking on them even more than we usually do,” says Cole, who has been a nurse for 29 years. “I’ve never seen the likes of this and really never imagined I’d see the likes of this. It feels like one big, long day that never ends.”
Their shift begins each morning before the sun comes up and ends long after it sets.
“The COVID patients in our care are so, so sick and need constant monitoring,” says Dorman, who’s in her 20th year of nursing. “To see the devastation this virus has caused is so hard for folks in the community to understand. We’re still trying to wrap our own minds around it.”
Both women have seen the Facebook fodder about COVID-19 being a “hoax” or it being “no more serious than a cold.” They admit the online chatter gets to them.
“It really hurts to be honest,” Cole says. “When I’m at the grocery store and see people blatantly disregard the masking order, it’s like a slap in the face. If they only knew what we’re dealing with here at the hospital and the heavy load we carry.”
It’s not only the number of COVID patients treated at Cox Branson that’s increasing, it’s the acuity of their illness.
“What usually keeps us going in critical care is seeing the people we save,” Cole explains. “We see them get better. That table has turned. Now people are coming in so sick that we’re doing everything we can and pulling out every trick in the bag to prevent a poor outcome. This virus is just so unpredictable and devastating. Some of those COVID patients will never go home.”
The team says seeing the families suffer through a loss never gets any easier for the loved ones or the staff. In end-of-life situations, the staff uses tele-monitors to allow families to see and talk to their family member through speakers and a screen.
“We try to be really sensitive to their needs,” Dorman says. “Seeing their loved one on the screen helps give them a sense of closure and peace. Nothing about COVID is ideal, so we do our best to accommodate patients and their families when things don’t look good.”
Cole even encourages families to send their loved one to the hospital with a cell phone.
“We’re always more than happy to help them FaceTime their family whenever they want,” she explains. “It’s so reassuring for them to see what’s going on with their loved one’s care. It’s one of the easiest ways for us to help bridge that gap in communication for them.”
Despite their efforts and unwavering commitment to seeing patients recover, Cole and Dorman say there are still frustrations from family members.
“We provide regular phone updates for families, but please be patient if you’re put on hold,” Cole says. “What people don’t see is the process of taking off all of our PPE before we can leave the patient’s room to answer the call. We understand families’ despair and will do whatever is in our power to help them. We will all work together to achieve the best outcome for your loved one.”
The daily grind of critical care in a pandemic continues to take an emotional toll on the team.
“The mental health of our staff is so important,” Cole says. “We remind them daily about free counseling they can receive with their benefits. We want to remove that stigma about being weak if you need help.”
“Some days, they find it hard to keep going,” Dorman adds. “At the beginning of the COVID crisis, they were sort of closed off from their feelings about it. Now, they open up so much more and understand the importance of support and self-care.”
The stress of a day in CCU is evident when two codes are called overhead during the interview for this story. Cole and Dorman sprint out the door both times to two different wings of the hospital to help save the patients. They return with exhausted breath. The day goes on.
Next month, it’ll be one year since the first local patients were diagnosed with COVID.
“Hard to believe we’re that far in,” Dorman says. “The load is still so heavy and gets very tiring. We’re not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel just yet.”
“We pray the community will try to understand the seriousness of this thing and stop downplaying its devastation,” Cole says. “Our team is tired. They are hurting. But they’ll never give up. Unless you’ve walked in our shoes, please don’t tell us how to tie the laces.”
Photo cutline: Michelle Cole and Candy Dorman lead the Critical Care team at Cox Branson