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Doctors and nurses share stories of working in COVID ICU

Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 6:53 PM CDT
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WFIE) - The frontline of COVID is often called a “war zone” by those strapped up and ready for battle.

Dr. David Ryon is a critical care pulmonologist, working with patients in the intensive care unit.

“Some of dealing with this is like a war,” says Dr. Ryon. “PTSD is a real diagnosis that comes up. It is a trauma to helping people die.”

[PREVIOUS: The Frontlines of COVID: Inside the ICU]

To make matters worse, Dr. Ryon says the people in the ICU now are younger than ever before.

“They are my peers,” says Sarah McQuay, a nurse in the COVID ICU. “They have children my children’s age. They are missing their football games. They are missing homecoming dances.”

“We had a 27-year-old just recently,” says Chelsea Stenftenagel, a fellow ICU nurse. “I am 27. I couldn’t imagine. If that were my husband and I couldn’t come and see him, it would be the most upsetting thing in my entire life.”

“It’s also harder, because I feel like if that vaccine would have been received by the patient,” says McQuay, “we would have never met.”

Doctors say almost all of the COVID patients who end up needing intensive care are unvaccinated. They say the virus can even take hold of entire families.

“Some will die and some won’t,” says Dr. Ryon. “There is trauma all around it that - I just feel for these folks taking care of them.”

“My goal for our community is for no one to watch their family member die through a glass door,” says McQuay. “That’s my goal.”

Not all of these patients make it back to the safe side of the glass door, like one of McQuay’s patients last year.

“Thankfully, he was able to call his family before he was intubated,” says McQuay. “Many weeks later, it was time to withdraw care. There was nothing else we could do, and he was not going to survive. The screams from the family on the other side of the door still wake me up at night. I hear them in my sleep. I don’t wish that on anyone. Not even my worst enemy.”

Devastated families are separated by a sheet of glass in the ICU.

“They can’t hold them,” says McQuay. “They can’t touch them. They can’t give them a final kiss. They can look at them through a glass like you do at an aquarium or a zoo. It’s so impersonal, and it’s not fair to either party.”

At this point in the pandemic, nurses care for two, sometimes three, critically ill patients at once. Heavy duty PPE is their line of defense.

“I feel like I live in the PAPR,” says Stenftenagel. “There are some days where I’m in there, in that PAPR, for five hours straight just going around the unit trying to help everybody and take care of my COVID patients as well. It is hard, because I feel like they look at me like I’m foreign. That’s not a person, almost. They are scared when they see you in that gear.”

“I don’t want to say it breaks your heart,” says McQuay, “but it really does. So you just have to detach from that, so you can keep going for your own family.”

What keeps these nurses going on even the toughest of days?

“Hope,” says McQuay. “Hope that I am going to make a difference in just one person. Hope that today is the day that I see some improvement.”

McQuay says she enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband to help escape the demands at work. She says she also finds joy and humor in spending time with her children.

“It’s hard,” says Stenftenagel. “It’s hard to go home and try to destress.”

Similar to McQuay, Stenftenagel says she finds time to focus on her own mental and physical health during her days off, while also leaning on her husband and dog.

Through it all, these healthcare heroes answer the call to action.

“I’m doing alright,” says Dr. Ryon. “Critical care has to do with dealing with dying people on a regular basis, and this is another way this is happening.”

Dr. Ryon says he’s been in healthcare for 30 years, but this year has been unlike any other.

Like soldiers on the frontlines, they have each other’s back.

“I still wouldn’t work anywhere else,” says McQuay. “I love my coworkers. I still love my job. It’s still really hard. But I’m grateful for my team. I’m grateful for my management. And hopefully, we are going to kick this. We are going to make a difference. We just need the community to help us.”

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