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‘COVID is real,’ exhausted EMC nurses testify

Sisters Chelsey Sutton and Sarah Sutton Lewis, both from Kite, have always had a special bond. I should know. Sarah is a year younger than my older sister, and Chelsey and I grew up together. I have memories with both of them as far back as I can remember. Their mom, Sharon Sutton, was a nurse. I can remember “Mrs. Sharon” doctoring many of my softball injuries. Their dad gave me my first job. The Sutton Family is as good as they come, so it’s no wonder Chelsey and Sarah chose a benevolent career path. They’re both RNs today and work together at Emanuel Medical Center, and their sisterly connection is coming in handy during the trying times of living and working through a pandemic like COVID-19. In this interview, the sisters give their take on COVID-19. In short, they say coronavirus is a very real problem and urge the public to take it seriously.

Prior to COVID, what was nursing like? What was the biggest “problem” you saw in terms of illnesses and/or visits, and how does the pandemic compare?

Lewis: Nursing was never easy. This virus, adding COVID patients to our census that have every day illnesses, just complicated things. Most of our acute illnesses consisted of diabtes, heart failure, dehydration, COPD, and influenza, just to name a few. Our patients range from pediatrics to geriatrics. Now, we have all of these illnesses to treat—plus COVID patients with comorbidities on top of that.

What is it like working during COVID? What do you want to say to people about this virus, and what does your work schedule look like these days?

Sutton: Working on the COVID unit is stressful but then again it’s not because we have a good team of nurses around us with the knowledge that you can work together and help these people. We have become a family that depends on each other. I would like to say this about COVID: I think it is very real. We have had several patients come in and say they never thought it was real or that it was fake until they got diagnosed with it and dealt with severe symptoms. Our normal schedules, we usually only work three days a week but here lately, I’ve been picking up about two extra days a week either because there is a nurse out sick with COVID or because I’m an extra nurse just to help because of the acuity of the patients and to give an extra hand to help everything run a little bit smoother on the unit. In the past couple of months, on average, I work at least 48 to 60 hours a week.

How do you feel as a frontline worker? Are you tired? Depressed? Frustrated? Just be real and honest. That’s what people will appreciate most—the raw, uncut truth from someone who’s working this beast.

Lewis: Being a frontline worker is very frustrating at times. You don’t know what to do in many situations, and you almost feel defeated on many days. I find myself getting depressed at times. I feel like I’m not spending enough time with my children or my family. I feel like I spend most of my days at the hospital taking care of patients, then I go home worrying about them. I wonder if they will they even be there in the morning for me to take report on. Your family doesn’t understand what you go through because they’re not in your situation and let’s face it, most families aren’t composed of all medical members and they will never get it. The people that do get it are people that you work with, with whom you’ve made your own family with. These are the people that you talk to most. You see people dying all the time, and your work family are the ones you usually cry or vent to… But there are rewarding days when somebody recovers from COVID or we see a critically ill patient turn around and get better.

What does a typical day at work look like now?

Sutton: A typical day at work starts with a mask and ends with a mask. We are constantly going, and we barely have time to eat. When we do have time for maybe lunch, we may only have time to eat in five minutes. We are always checking on these patients, along with our other patients, nonstop. It is a steady pace at best. That’s not including the days we have codes, sometimes one or two codes at the same time.

Did you get “assigned” to work COVID, or did you volunteer? What’s your response to having to work the pandemic?

Lewis: Basically, the med/surg floor at our hospital was converted into a COVID unit. We have four hallways, and two of the four hallways were made to be negative pressure hallways. However, we quickly learned that even the two hallways were not enough to house all of the COVID patients we have seen in the past couple of months.

Without breaking HIPPA, of course, describe the worst patient situation in regard to COVID you’ve had to handle. If you had to describe a real-life, local situation that would make people take this virus as seriously as you’d like them to, what would you say?

Sutton: My hardest day at work and the worst COVID situation I’ve worked had to have been when I had a patient not too much older than me. She was a COVID patient and she became very sick. While we were in the room with her, we continued to encourage her. I was joking around with her like most of my patients, and I told her we were going to do everything we could and that everything was going to be okay. We worked with this patient for hours but in the end, we lost the battle. I was not able to sleep for three days because every time I closed my eyes, I saw her face. The hardest part has been trying to figure out how to not take work home with us, but it’s hard when we have these patients for so many days and you make connections with them.

On the flip side, has there been a case that has given you hope?

Lewis: We had one patient that had probably been in the hospital for almost 40 days. The day that patient went home, I think we all probably shed a few tears. It was so sweet, and that patient was so happy. I’m very glad that all of us at EMC were a part of his recovery.

Describe from your point of view the overall local COVID situation.

Lewis: Locally, we are slammed at our little hospital. We are exhausted. We are fully staffed and are still requiring extra help. I think in general it’s about 50/50 with the public; some are doing their part and some aren’t. That’s just reality. As a small facility and staff, we just try to do our best at encouraging others to wash hands, social distances, and do whatever means necessary to keep yourself and others safe.

Why did you want to be a nurse, and how does that relate to the healthcare crisis we’re talking about?

Sutton: I wanted to be a nurse because I love to help people. Everyday when I go into to work, I’ve already had some of my patients for over a week and it’s already running through my head what can I do to help them to get better sooner. Nothing feels better than to walk in their room and see their smile on their face when I tell them I have their discharge papers.

How does COVID get better? What can people do to help y’all?

Lewis: I think what people can do to help out is wear their masks, social distance, and practice hand-washing hygiene. This has been key from the very beginning. Also, the vaccine is becoming more available to the general public everyday. That itself is a good option, in my opinion. You have to do what’s best for you and your situation. It’s always a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider about any vaccines, side effects, and/or contraindications.

Did you ever think we’d get to where we are today with COVID? Did you ever think when you became a nurse you’d actually have to dress out in full PPE for something like this? Work in a pandemic? And is there anything you learned in school that could’ve prepared you for this?

Sutton: It has now been a year since COVID first came to the U.S. and from experience, I think we have learned so much. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without such great teamwork from our doctors, nurses, respiratory, physical therapy, radiology, lab, EMS, nutrition, and so many more people—the entire hospital! A pandemic takes everyone at all times. I knew we would have to dress out like this for flu or C. diff, but not to this extent or for hours at a time. There have been times, like last year, where we were overwhelmed with flu cases, but it does not even come close to the COVID pandemic. Nursing school taught me most of my skills to use during this pandemic, but nursing school also taught me how to cope with stress because let’s be honest, up until this pandemic, nursing school was of the most stressful times of my life.

Speaking of PPE, tell people what that is, what it includes, how long it takes to dress out, how important it is and why, and how you feel wearing it.

Lewis: PPE is personal protective equipment. It’s what we put on before we go in each patient’s room. We put on gloves, gowns, hair covers, face shields, and, most importantly, our N95 mask. We also include a surgical mask on top of our N95 mask. It takes several minutes to gown up before we go into a patient’s room. We have no idea how long we will be in each room. Sometimes we can be in there just minutes, but there have been times we’ve been in a room for hours. The importance of wearing PPE is to protect ourselves from contracting the COVID virus, along with our staff members.

How scary is working COVID and why? How do you deal with those emotions?

Lewis: When the pandemic first began, I was very scared. The longer the pandemic continued, I was more scared to take it home to my family or friends than I was actually getting it myself. Also, a state of paranoia remains every day. Every time I get a headache or every time I get the sniffles, I think I may have COVID-19. I just try to stay as safe as I can each day.

How do you escape the harsh reality of work?

Lewis: I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I love spending time with my children, my husband, and, of course, my sister when I don’t see her at work. Every shift I work, I just focus on seeing my family when I get home because they really make it worth it. I have such a strong support system with family and friends, and I’m so grateful for them all.

Sutton: On my days off, I really try to spend most of my time with my family and friends. It’s really important in times like this to have people that you can vent to so you don’t become mentally overwhelmed.

What was it like in the early days of COVID when you were called healthcare heroes? How did that make you feel, and do you think people still feel that way today?

Sutton: In the early days of COVID, we didn’t see a lot of patients come in with it so we remained hopeful that maybe it would not spread to rural Georgia. However, in late July and early August, reality set in. We were having so many patients die weekly, and I felt completely defeated. No matter what we did, it felt like we couldn’t save them. As new treatments for COVID came out, the feeling of defeat became a little less common. It felt great to be called a hero, but we’ve never done it for the praise. Trying to save people’s lives has been our goal since day one of our careers, not just when the pandemic began. Sure, I think people still think the same, but I think people have become lax about the situation because COVID has been around a year—but it is still very real and very serious.

Think back to when you first heard about COVID. What was your reaction? How, if at all, has your mindset changed since then and why?

Lewis: I would say when I first heard about COVID, I was nervous and scared. I really didn’t know what to expect. I think my mindset as far as the seriousness of it still remains the same, but I’m a little bit more experienced in how to handle the situation if someone gets sick, whether it’s one of my patients or one of my family members at home.

On a similar note, when did y’all start preparing for COVID here, and what did those preparatory measures look like?

Sutton: We started preparations in March 2020. We had guidelines of what to wear in patients’ room. There was a list of questions to ask each patient on admissions to screen them to find out if they may possibly have COVID or have been exposed to it. This allowed us to test the correct patients when there were not a lot of test available. Then, a short couple months later, we stopped allowing visitors to help prevent them from spreading the virus or vice versa, the patient giving the visitor the virus. In those months as well, every employee was required to wear a mask at all times. This is when our COVID hallways went up.

How many beds, if any at all, are available here? If someone gets a serious case of COVID, can they expect to get help here at all? If not, where might they be sent instead?

Lewis: At Emanuel Medical Center, there are eight beds in the ER, there are eight beds in ICU, and there are 18 beds on the med/surg floor. For the past several weeks, all of those have been full at some point. Our facility is always willing to help when we can. We have found a way in pretty much all situations to help, given the circumstances. As for where patients can be sent to if you cannot get a bed at our facility, that’s unknown. There are a lot of hospitals that are in the same position that we are in. Sometimes, you can get lucky and get a bed close to home or even in your own state, but there have been instances where we have had to send people out of state to receive care.

Our local hospital has been mentioned in some national news articles. Give your honest reaction to that.

Lewis: Honestly, it really doesn’t surprise me. There are still people that believe it’s not real, but there are hotspots all over the country. I know we aren’t alone. Unfortunately, we live in a society today where people are going to do what they want to do, when they want to do it, with no regard for consequences. It’s not about telling people what to do; it’s for your protection.

Finally, what advice do you have for people who have COVID? What are some simple, at-home approaches they can take to help y’all not get any more overwhelmed?

Sutton: There’s no reason to panic just because you have tested positive for COVID. Not every case requires a visit to the hospital. With mild cases, the most important thing is to get up, get moving around, and stay hydrated. Another important thing is to keep a check on your oxygen levels. There’s a list of vitamins that you can take at home such as zinc, vitamin C, vitamin B, and vitamin D. Our hospital also has a new infusion called the BAM infusion, which is used for people who are high-risk for the potential to get severely sick to prevent hospitalization. If you think you’re a candidate, talk with your personal care physician. There are qualifications on the EMC Facebook page.

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