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The Frontlines of COVID: Inside the ICU

Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 7:14 PM CDT
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WFIE) - For more than a year, our coverage has focused on the number of coronavirus patients inside intensive care units across the Tri-State.

For the very first time, 14 News is getting a look inside a local COVID ICU.

On the third floor of Deaconess Midtown Hospital is the neuro critical care unit. Currently, it is primarily a COVID ICU.

That’s where you can also find Critical Care Pulmonologist Dr. David Ryon.

“Reality has just a bad way of being real,” says Dr. Ryon, “and there are people dying here, and that’s what’s real.”

On units like this, doctors and nurses struggle to keep up.

”You always see all the pumps outside the door,” says Chelsea Stenftenagel, a nurse in the COVID ICU. “When I became a nurse, you would never have seen that. So when you see that, you’re like, ‘oh, we must have a lot of COVID today.’”

Before the coronavirus took hold of this ICU, doctors say the unit would typically require two, three or maybe four ventilators. Now, however, 15 vents keep people alive one breath at a time.

“In terms of the ICU’s,” says Dr. Ryon, “I feel like we are at the limits of physically and emotionally capacity. That is about where I would put it.”

Sarah McQuay is also a nurse in the COVID ICU.

“This beast of a virus took everything we knew and made it obsolete,” says McQuay. “It’s just a whole new set of rules. You just don’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know, because everything has changed.”

The status of the ICU changes by the minute. When 14 News visited, 17 patients filled 17 rooms - 15 of them, positive for the coronavirus.

“I need to mentally prepare before I get here, so I’m texting nightshift,” says McQuay. “What’s my assignment? Who do I got? How are things? How bad was your night? Just because, not only do you want to offer support, you kind of need to know what you are walking into.”

More than 18 months into the pandemic, doctors say their COVID patients are younger and more sick than ever before.

“This second phase now, it’s as bad as it’s ever been,” says Dr. Ryon.

The majority of the intensive care patients on this unit are on ventilators, unvaccinated and fighting for their lives.

“They are begging for the vaccine now,” says McQuay, “but your immune system is too sick. There is no way you could have this, and it actually be effective. It’s just too late.”

Nurses describe their day-to-day demands as a war zone - a battle between the reality inside and the misinformation outside.

“It’s upsetting and frustrating at the same time,” says Stenftenagel.

“There just comes a point when you need to step back,” says McQuay, “because, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how we are going to take care of these patients and hopefully get them through this. That’s what matters.”

For these exhausted healthcare workers, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

“I think so,” says Dr. Ryon.

“I am almost scared to look, honestly, for the light at the end of the tunnel right now,” says McQuay. “If you are running a race, you have to focus on the mile you are in, because if you focus on mile 24, but you are only on mile two, it seems so far away. So you focus on the here and now. You change what you can now. You are going to get there. You just have to stay focused.”

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