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Montrose Gives

ICU staff share experiences of battling COVID-19 alongside patients

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Laying in a hospital bed in isolation can be mentally and physically trying for patients, especially patients in the COVID-19 units at Montrose Memorial Hospital. While the coronavirus limits patients’ interactions with family, MMH staff are taking steps to combat this isolation, treating patients like friends and family.

Caring for patients as they would their loved ones has been a guiding principle for MMH staff that only became more important as staff treated patients with COVID-19. A team of doctors and nurses continue to treat COVID-19 patients daily, implementing new techniques and personal touches to support patients’ mental and physical wellness.

MMH staff transformed units into COVID-19 units in March 2020, on the heels of the national awareness of the coronavirus impacting the world. The Same Day Surgery unit, the telemetry hallway and the Joint Replacement Center were transformed into COVID-19 units by a team at MMH.

Sherry Meaker, an educator for the ICU at MMH has worked in the ICU for 13 years. She was one of many people involved in setting up COVID-19 units at the hospital.

“I was asked to assist with the set-up and management of the initial COVID unit,” Meaker said. “Using the knowledge and experience gained, I was also able to establish the second COVID area as well. For both units, I helped facilitate the education for the staff.”

The second unit was set up in November 2020.

Throughout the implementation process of both units, Meaker said there was a considerable amount of displacement.

“Units were asked to move their operations to make room for COVID patients,” she said. “There was not a single unit in the hospital that was not affected by this. However, everyone was more than willing to pitch in and help out.

“MMH staff went above and beyond to make these units, and I am proud of how the hospital came together.”

As local healthcare professionals continue to care for COVID-19 patients, they have pioneered ways of care that brings some normalcy back for patients.

Andrea Reed, an ICU registered nurse for the past two years, said the pandemic has not changed her passion for connecting with the person behind the patient.

“Our patients are not allowed visitors, which means hospital staff and hospital environment are all they have for several days,” Reed said. “When I can incorporate more of who they are outside the hospital environment, this allows for a moment of joy in otherwise a very difficult day and improves the patient’s psychosocial health.”

Proning as a tool

Taylor Johnen has been a nurse for over three years and has worked as a float pool nurse since the hospital opened a COVID-19 unit in March of 2020.

“I worked full-time on that unit for the (first) several weeks it was open and then transitioned into taking care of COVID-19 patients in a set of rooms we designated as COVID rooms outside the ICU,” Johnen said.

Since the virus is new, Johnen said the past year has been a “learn-as-we-go” process.

“COVID-19 is so unpredictable, and we are all still learning the best way to treat this virus,” she said. “I think one of the most challenging aspects of caring for COVID-19 patients is watching the individuals that do end up very ill become critically sick so fast. Their recovery is also often painfully slow, and it is frustrating to watch them do everything we ask of them to recover yet their lungs still need weeks to months to heal.”

However, MMH staff have found success by educating and assisting patients with proning, where the patient lays on his belly.

“Proning has proven to be such an important tool in helping patients recover from COVID-19,” Johnen said. “Proning alters the way oxygen and blood move through the lungs, and it increases ventilation in the back and bottom of the lungs, which tend to collapse during a COVID infection.

Johnen is currently caring for patients in the 10-bed COVID unit MMH opened in December.

Managing COVID-19 units

The COVID units were designed with infection control and patient and staff safety as the top priorities. While the COVID units are similar to other units at MMH, there are some major differences.

“The major differences being that the room doors are kept closed at all times and bins to place ‘isolation’ linens and PPE for disinfection are outside each room,” Johnen said. “Half of the rooms are also equipped with negative air pressure units that aid in protecting staff from exposure to the virus if we believe the virus has the possibility of being aerosolized in that specific room.”

Meaker added the staff is constantly learning new ways and treatments for the virus by utilizing resources within the critical care community.

“We realize that we are providing care for loved ones in our community, and we strive to provide the best care possible within our capabilities,” Meaker said.

In addition to caring for patients, the staff worked with the infection preventionist, environmental services and engineering to keep the COVID-19 units sanitized.

“This involved educating staff in the donning and doffing process to ensure clean areas stayed clean, making sure cleaning supplies were fully stocked and staffing appropriately for each shift,” Reed said. “This may sound like a simple task, but keep in mind this unit was meant to be separated from the hospital as much as possible and only designated staff was allowed to enter the unit.”

However, there are challenges MMH staff face related to patients’ care in the COVID-19 units that are not present in other units. One of the biggest challenges is no outside visitation leaving patients with a feeling of isolation.

“The biggest challenges that I have faced are the isolation of the patients and the emotional exhaustion of the staff,” Meaker said. “Because we are trying to contain and stop the spread of the coronavirus, we have had to limit visitors for these patients.”

Staff have spent as much time with a patient by charting at the bedside to combat feelings of isolation.

But the toll of the pandemic was not limited to patients and their families. The medical professionals were also affected.

“The emotional toll is clearly evident on staff members’ faces,” Meaker said. “We have worked hard over these last few months.

“During the initial COVID unit, there was not much information about how the disease transmitted. It was the first time in my nursing career that I had to really evaluate how to keep myself and my family safe while caring for patients.”

Although the pandemic has challenged hospital staff, COVID patients and their families, Johnen has experienced many special moments.

“My favorite moments with my COVID-19 patients are when we see a critical patient start to make gains in their recovery and the whole team gets to cheer them on,” Johnen said. “I also love the moment I get to roll patients out to the front of the hospital to go home. Both the patient and their loved ones often burst into tears of relief and it is such a special moment to be a part of.”

With the pandemic ongoing, the three healthcare professionals expressed appreciation for their team that is working to provide patient care and maintain staff sanity.

“Flexibility and teamwork are your best friends,” Reed said. “Looking back, it is unbelievable we were able to assemble a fully functioning unit in a week’s time. I am thankful for this difficult time in my career because it taught me what a caring spirit can truly accomplish.”

As vaccinations continue to be administered throughout the community and build up herd immunity, the medical professionals at MMH press on, delivering quality care to COVID-19 patients as they pioneer new care treatments. While the struggles they faced and still battle have left them mentally and physically drained, their compassion for their friends and family pushes them to give everyday during the pandemic as they serve the community.

Lauren Brant is a staff writer and digital content coordinator for the Montrose Daily Press.

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