I come calling from the frontlines of COVID.
My colleagues and I are exhausted. Defeated. And on the brink of collapse.
I have been a health care worker for 15 years. I have never seen things so bad in so many ways.
At the height of COVID, I was working 12-hour overnight shifts and weekend day shifts, in addition to my full-time job of helping manage a life support system called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a life-support machine that takes over the functions of the patient’s heart, lungs, or both, when options are depleted.
ECMO is only offered to a select few patients who meet specific hospital dependent criteria, which are based in part on a patient’s age, comorbidities, as well as, availability of support staff and equipment. Sadly, many patients who don’t meet the criteria perish and those who do may end up hooked to an ECMO machine for days or months. Pre-COVID, the medical teams I worked with typically had up to five patients on ECMO at a time. ECMO requires a high level of technical medical support staff and many hospitals are not staffed or equipped to provide this aid. When their patients need this level of help, regional hospitals send them to us.
In 2020, the team of perfusionists at Advocate Christ Medical Center in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn had ECMO patients doubled up in rooms, 24 patients on ECMO with three perfusionists, when usually only one was present to monitor ECMO at a time, per 12-hour shift around the clock. This is in addition to their normal complement of nurses, doctors and care providers. Every day, we worried about patients dying, and most days at least one did.
Each death takes a personal toll on us.
I cannot count how many times I have told my husband that I did not want to go to work because I didn’t want to see another person die. It helped to know that when one patient passed away, an ECMO machine was freed up. Small victories, right?
To cope, frontline health care workers like me had to learn to work and live differently.
We self-quarantined ourselves from family and friends.
We took our clothes off in the backyard. Showered as soon as we got inside our homes. We tried not to touch a thing on the way in.
At work, we held the hands of our patients until their last breath.
We held up iPads so family members could say final goodbyes.
Today, I can tell you that frontline health care workers are too exhausted and too defeated to speak up. But, they need help. They need the public to do its part.
They are too overwhelmed and shocked to say what needs to be said. Let me try.
The reality is that more times than anyone wants to admit, stressed and overworked health care workers are unable to take proper care of their patients.
Believe me, each and every one of them wants to provide the level of care they provided before anyone heard the word COVID. The truth is, they are struggling to give the best care they can, given staffing shortages and having to work extra hours every week for two years straight. Right now, Omicron is wreaking more havoc on staffing levels across Chicago, the state, and the nation.
To provide a sense of how horrible things are, I will candidly share some of the most heartbreaking comments I have heard recently from fellow colleagues on the front lines:
“I heard a code red go off, but it was not my patient, and I did not have the energy to get up to help, so I went back to sleep to try and have energy for my patients.”
“I was waiting to vaccinate my children, but after seeing a 3-year-old be placed on ECMO for COVID-19 due to a failing heart, I sent my wife to get our second, younger child vaccinated.”
“I cannot watch these patients not get better for months on end and then die. I cannot watch this anymore.”
How are health care workers expected to protect their personal and professional well-being when they go to work and face these grueling realities hour after hour?
And conditions keep spiraling. Now, many hospitals have shortened quarantine for health care workers to 5-day periods upon onset of COVID symptoms or a positive test result, per new Centers for Disease Control guidelines. This blatant attempt to minimize sick days off and staffing shortages comes at the expense of the health care workers’ own health.
America’s health care workers are on the brink of collapse. If we want them to hold on and be there for us when we are too sick to walk, stand or breathe, we must act now.
Cast aside political opinions. Follow CDC guidelines. Wear masks when you are in a group of people. Remain properly vaccinated. Maintain social distances. And please extend extra consideration to health care workers.
Is that too much to ask to do for someone trying to save your life or the life of your loved one?
Julie Collins is a cardiovascular perfusionist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com