Health care heroes: the toll of a high death count

ICU nurse Kourtney Thomas saw more death in the past year than at any other point in her career. Photo by Bryan Esler

Editor’s note: This is part seven of a nine-part series on health care employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more stories, click here.

Kourtney Thomas remembers the first COVID-19 patient she saw back in March 2020. He was put on a ventilator but was eventually weaned off and walked out of the hospital. He was one of the only ones to do so from that first surge.

“We had no idea what would hit us,” said Thomas, an ICU nurse at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s. All COVID-19 patients were moved to the ICU unit “because of the care we could provide at all levels of acuity,” she said.

High-acuity patients were on ventilators and needed high levels of care, while low-acuity patients needed less care and were perhaps only using a cannula to deliver oxygen through the nose. Thomas noted that patients could go from low to high acuity quickly, and those put on ventilators rarely came off successfully.

“At the beginning, all of us nurses were eager, excited and ready to take on the challenge of COVID-19. We were ready to step up,” she said. “But as time has gone on, as we took care of patients through the summer and into the second surge, it’s complete burnout.”

She describes difficult shifts in which they lost patients and lost hope for the patients that remained. She and other ICU nurses saw more death than at any time during their careers.

“Families looked at us not as heroes but as killing their family members,” she said. “But we still wanted to provide the best care we could. By the second surge, the number of patients we lost weighed on our hearts. It’s gotten to the point where we cry at work, before and after work, and to each other. We love our jobs and are passionate, but we don’t feel like we’re helping people. So much was out of our control.”

Yet, said Thomas, she’s seen good changes in how she and fellow nurses do their jobs.

“All of us have a little more confidence to implement treatment plans as well as intervention for patients. We really advocated for our COVID patients and that has carried over to all of our patients,” she said. “Also, we’ve formed more of a relationship between the ICU docs on our unit and the nursing staff. We’ve been through so much this past year that we have a special bond and increased trust in each other.”

Thomas’ family lives on the other side of the state, but she has a strong relationship with her boyfriend’s family. She and her fellow ICU nurses have worked one or two extra shifts a week and are struggling through the second surge. There are fewer COVID-19 patients now, for which she’s grateful.

“COVID is real, and you don’t know how your body will react to it,” she said. “From a frontline health care worker, know that we are exhausted. All we ask is that you continue to follow guidelines and get the vaccine.”

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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