Nurses fear what’s to come: ‘Walk down our unit for a day’

Stefanie Dazio

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The nurses of California are afraid.

It is the holiday season, and they are not home with their families. They are working, always working, completely gowned up — and worn down.

They are frightened by what people are doing, or not doing, during a coronavirus pandemic that has already killed over 320,000 in the United States and shows no signs of slowing down.

They are even more terrified of what is next.

“Every day, I look into the eyes of someone who is struggling to breathe,” said nurse Jenny Carrillo, her voice breaking.

A charge nurse at a medical centre in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, Carrillo is haunted by the daily counts of COVID-19 patients. Dark shadows circle her eyes.

On Tuesday evening, the hospital had 147 coronavirus patients — a record for the medical centre but a tiny fraction of the nearly two million cases recorded in California since the pandemic began.

A registered nurse helps fellow nurse put on her personal protective equipment in a COVID-19 unit at a medical centre in Los Angeles. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Nurses at a COVID-19 triage tent at a medical centre in Los Angeles; and a physical therapist helps a patient exercise in a COVID-19 unit at the medical centre

Close to 18,000 people were hospitalised in the state on Tuesday, and models projected the number could top 100,000 in a month — unimaginable for medical systems that are already running out of room. Over 23,000 people with COVID-19 have died in California, and the number is only expected to climb.

Associate director of Mission Hospital’s emergency department in Southern California’s Orange County Dr Jim Keany wondered how much more they can handle.

“Are we going to have the resources to take care of our community?” he said.

The first COVID-19 case in California was confirmed on January 25. It took 292 days to get to one million infections on November 11.

Just 44 days later, the number was closing in on two million.

On Tuesday, the medical centre had 147 coronavirus patients across its 377 beds, over double the record seen at the hospital in the first wave of the pandemic earlier this year.

“If you had told us in April that we would have 147 patients?” said Elizabeth Chow, the medical centre’s executive director of critical care and a nurse leader. “Never in my wildest dreams.”

And the nightmare is expected to get worse.

Despite health officials’ pleas that people stay home, millions of Americans are travelling ahead of of the holidays, much like they did last month for Thanksgiving.

Hospitals in California — and elsewhere — already have been pushed to the brink. They hired extra staff, cancelled elective surgeries and set up outdoor tents to treat patients, to boost capacity before the cases contracted over the holidays show up in the next few weeks.

The medical centre and Mission Hospital sprinkled holiday decorations throughout the hallways.

But the bright colours do not distract from the constant cacophony: ventilators belching like foghorns, monitors beeping, machines whirring — all trying to keep even one more person from adding to the death toll.

Still, there are hopeful moments.

On Monday, Mission Hospital celebrated a milestone: 100 patients who had been in the isolation intensive care unit — reserved for the sickest of the sick — survived and went home.

At the medical centre, Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles plays throughout the hospital when a COVID-19 patient is discharged.

The new pandemic tradition has happier roots — hospitals often sound a lullaby each time a baby is born.

It is a few seconds of respite, but it is not enough. For every patient who goes home, more are admitted.

The medical centre’s charge nurse Melanie LaMadrid tends to her patients in 12-hour shifts, holding their hands in her purple gloves.

“It is all we can do,” she said. “Watching them suffer is hard.”

These nurses are not only exhausted, they are angry with those who flout pleas to stay home, stay safe.

“It is not some selfish person who does not want to wear a mask,” Carrillo said. “I wish they could just walk down our unit for a day and look at the faces of some of these patients.”

“You can be our messengers”, nurse Genyza Dawson tells her patients when — or if — they get discharged. Dawson, who has a scar forming on her nose from the tight masks, begs them to spread the word.

“Now you know how it is,” she tells them. “You were one of the lucky ones.”