When Amelia Ellsworth and Katie Bialczak received the invitation to volunteer, they didn’t hesitate to respond.
Yes, they would fly to New Orleans and help treat people in a COVID-19 hot spot.
A fellow nurse at Centerpoint Medical Center, Liz Sorensen, was no stranger herself to nursing adventures of sorts, with stints in two other continents.
They were among 27 nurses from metro area HCA Midwest hospitals who returned to the metro area earlier this week after they spent an at-times draining week assisting the staff at Tulane Medical Center, a Louisiana hospital also owned by HCA that was swamped with COVID-19 patients.
In all, HCA officials said, about 200 medical personnel volunteered to help in the region, as area hospitals remain within capacity to handle patient loads. Ellsworth, Bialczak and Sorensen were part of the first wave, and HCA sent another handful of helpers this week, though future teams will depend on the local situation.
“New Orleans very quickly became a hot spot, and we can share resources like that,” said Ellsworth, a 2011 Truman High School alum, adding that she saw the message seeking volunteers when she woke up one morning.
“Before I could pull the sleep from my eyes, I was saying, ‘Yes,’” she said. “It’s hard to explain why we have that instinct, but you say yes and you go. That’s your family in nursing down there.”
“We know what it’s like to have one stressful shift; they had it every shift,” Bialczak said. “Knowing I could help was a great opportunity.”
“We can read about it all we want, but until you get down there you don’t know what it will be like. I can absolutely imagine (the trauma); the first week and a half was really hard for them. It takes a second to catch on and see the trend.”
Sorensen said she was able to draw a bit on her time working in a pediatric AIDS clinic in west Africa and her five years teaching nursing assistant classes in India. Tulane Medical Center wasn’t as primitive, for sure, but it was far from her normal Centerpoint ICU shift.
“Obviously this is a very different situation, but because I’ve been thrown into situations where I learned how to adapt, it helped going into this environment,” said Sorensen, who like Ellsworth works in the intensive care unit at Centerpoint and did so at Tulane.
“For me, the COVID patients would be on a normal day the sickest of the sick in an ICU, and every single patient was that patient you’re most worried about,” she said.
For all three, there was some learning curve – not as much from being in a different facility, but dealing with a different illness and trying to figure out the best ways to treat patients while keeping the strictest sanitary practices.
“When I called my family, I said, ‘These are people who are terribly ill, and we were on the front line of science down there, seeing what was working,” Ellsworth said.
“This is a different kind of disease where we’re learning as we go,” said Bialczak, who works in a unit a step down from ICU. “When I came home, I absolutely did (tell others about the illness’ severity), just seeing how quickly they can get sick. It was a lot to learn at one time.”
Sorensen, who had treated some possible COVID-19 patients at Centerpoint (they were found to be not infected) said the nurses they worked with helped integrate them into their group, and they were able to trade some tips.
“We were able to learn from them – what’s working, what’s not working,” she said. “We don’t have a frame of reference (for COVID-19). I definitely think it will be something to bring back to the group here. I even shared my ideas from Centerpoint, some things we did that worked.”
In addition to treating a constant stream of severe patients, nurses often had to be the patients’ main source of emotional support, as family can’t be inside hospitals due to risk of spreading the coronavirus.
“When you’re losing patient after patient after patient, throwing everything we’ve got at our patient, and they’re on a ventilator and no family around,” Ellsworth said, “nursing in general – pandemic or not – we deal with a lot of stress sometimes. We’re used to healing people, and we could see the exhaustion in their faces.”
Sorensen said Tulane had started a family hotline for people to check on their loved ones, but nurses still had to do plenty of heavy lifting.
“Healing isn’t just about physical; it’s the emotional and spiritual,” she said, “and nurses are really having to pick up that.
“I treat each patient the same as I would treat my own family. When they drop off someone at the hospital and they just had a cough, and now they’re on a ventilator and they can’t see them, it’s hard.”
Ellsworth said they could see firsthand and share with others what can happen if large groups of people don’t heed social distancing – noting that some New Orleans residents gathered to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day a couple weeks earlier. Hopefully Centerpoint and other area hospitals don’t experience their own such struggles.
“What we’re really trying to tell people is we’re not just trying to tackle death,” she said. “We’re looking at hospital capacity and trying to care for patients with other ailments. The things we were having to do with these patients every day, you wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
“It really is no exaggeration that they did two weeks earlier is what we saw, and what we’re going to see in two weeks is (from) the steps we take today.”