Special Report: Inside the front lines of a Bryan Health COVID-19 unit

Published: Dec. 9, 2020 at 11:20 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 10, 2020 at 8:53 AM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - On 6th Floor North at Bryan Health East, you’ll find one of up to nine COVID-19 units spread across the hospital’s two Lincoln campuses. It’s a place where patients from Lancaster and surrounding counties receive the highest level of critical care. It’s a place where hope, death, and resiliency all meet.

On December 9, for the first time, 10/11 NOW got a tour inside the COVID-19 unit to see what it was like. It was a fairly quiet hour, but according to nurses on staff, a quiet hour during COVID-19 is busier than most in non-pandemic times.

Rather than scrubs, nurses and doctors are in full personal protective equipment for their shifts. That includes masks or a PAPR, along with gowns and gloves anytime they enter a hot zone, or a patient’s room.

The outfits look more like spacesuits than hospital attire.

“They’ve got sweat rolling down their face with their PAPRs on, and a lot of times, tears rolling down their faces,” Dr. Bill Johnson said when talking about the staff. ”But, they’re there to do the job, and they’re not the kind to give up. They’ll see it through to the end.”

Waiting rooms are empty, but hallways are full of sanitation stations. Closets and break rooms are now PPE storage areas. Thanks to extensions, the stand that monitors a patient’s vitals and medicine sits outside of the room so it’s not in the “hot zone.”

Between 40 and 50 nurses work on Bryan’s intensive care unit, but over the last nine months, only about four have tested positive to the virus.

The takeaway, according to medical professionals, masks and protection work. Many sounded off on the anger they get when the topic is politicized.

A few staff members talked with us in the middle of their shifts.

“One of the hardest ones, I was talking to a patient in the morning and by the afternoon, I was holding up the phone to his ear so the family could say goodbye,” said one nurse.

Families are allowed compassionate care visits for end-of-life situations, but sometimes, families can’t get there in time.

Chaplains are also key in fighting the pandemic, whether a patient has faith or none at all.

Nina Redl has been a chaplain at Bryan Health for 15 years. On Wednesday, she told us about an incident she had just that morning.

“I was in a room with a lovely elderly lady who’s on a bi-pap at the moment,” she said. “She’s tired and can’t talk. Her husband can’t come visit her. Her son can’t come visit her. And she has very few people in her life. She was just silently crying under that mask. I was sitting next to her just holding her hand as she was holding on.”

“She couldn’t tell me because she was so tired, so I just spent 45 minutes there, not talking with her, just holding her,” Redl said. “I think COVID goes beyond what we can put in words, what people go through, but we can also help in ways that go beyond words.”

Another doctor reflected on how he told a family member the patient was looking good, only to find out a day later he died from complications associated with COVID-19.

“My 10 year-old asks me did anybody die today. Or how many people died today?” said one nurse.

There is some good news, though, Bryan Health is seeing hospitalizations slowly drop.

DateCOVID-19 PositiveCOVID-19 (not infectious)Total COVID-19 PatientsCOVID-19 in ICU
Oct 2339n/a396
Oct 305766314
Nov 683139613
Nov 111131212521
Nov 18126913521
Nov 251052412928
Dec 21102713721
Dec 9792610523
Dec 165896715

Though, like the rest of the state (Nebraska is currently #2 in the U.S. in recent deaths per capita), Bryan Health is seeing death on a daily basis. From March through September, there were roughly 25. In the last nine weeks, there’s been about 100 more.

“When you hear, ‘I don’t want to die. Help me doc!’ it’s gut-wrenching,” said Dr. Alissa Clough, president of Inpatient Physicians Associates.

“Having to tell a loved one that their family member is not going to survive is the worst thing in the world,” Dr. Johnson said.

Another doctor on the 6th Floor just wants doubters to listen.

“We need trust from people who are weary,” he said. “People who are skeptical, who don’t believe it; we need them to give us the benefit of the doubt for a while.”

And while there’s hope on the horizon with steadying numbers and a promising vaccine, patience is key.

“I tell my patients, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Dr. Clough said.

But unlike a marathon, critical care is a team sport, especially when loved one’s can’t be there.

“I think it helps the families who have loved ones in those units, to know they’re getting several phone calls a day,” said Redl. “We’re trying to FaceTime them in, have them part of the process as much as we can, to bridge that gap for them. But also to bridge the gap for us because quite frankly, nobody can do this alone.”

“I do feel like we’re all invigorated by each other and we gain energy off of each other because of what each other is doing,” Dr. Johnson said. “That really helps.”

All of the medical professionals at Bryan Health we spoke with expressed extreme confidence in the upcoming vaccine, some even joking there’s a competition to be first in line. They believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

As for what happens until vaccines can reach the general population, they say Nebraskans need to persevere and stay safe. It’s not time for anyone to let their guard down.

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