Melissa Resch has helped coronavirus patients FaceTime their family members to say goodbye, then sat with them as they died.
David Eggman has listened to COVID-19 patients say their last words, including “that they didn’t realize it was as bad as it was.”
And Mallory Giese has had to disinfect the rooms of those patients after their deaths.
They all work at Aspirus Wausau Hospital, one of the many health care facilities in Wisconsin that have been overwhelmed by the state’s coronavirus surge.
As of Friday, a record 1,101 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus in Wisconsin, including 274 people in intensive care units.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Aspirus, which has 10 hospitals in its system, planned for up to 25 beds for coronavirus patients.
“We have been adding a lot of beds. We have about 98 beds throughout the system that are COVID-designated and we only have about 18 left, so that means we have about 80 people in COVID right now that are pretty sick,” said Matthew Heywood, CEO and president at Aspirus.
Most of Aspirus’ COVID-19 patients are at its hospital in Wausau.
Heywood said he and his team are trying to be transparent to try to help people better understand the virus, which has killed 1,574 Wisconsinites so far.
The virus may be “out of sight, out of mind for some people,” he said.
“We’re trying to help our communities see that this isn’t just the flu and that is a pretty serious situation,” Heywood said.
He acknowledged Aspirus hospitals have at times reached capacity in recent weeks, and said it has been transferring patients to other facilities, but has not yet needed to send anyone to the field hospital at State Fair Park.
“We want to keep our patients as close to home as we can,” Heywood said.
But the spike in cases is straining capacity and taking a toll on hospital workers — 215 members of the Aspirus staff were in isolation Thursday due to COVID-19, coronavirus symptoms or exposure to someone who has tested positive in the community.
Seeing people in the broader community not taking the virus seriously is especially difficult for staff members.
“I think the thing that’s most painful for them right now, and most challenging for them, is while they’re working their butts off — and they’re working hard — it’s the fact that they don’t know if the community sees how serious this is,” Heywood said. “They see the politicization of it, and then they see the repercussions of what’s happening when they do their job every day.
“And they’re watching people die.”
Nurse Melissa Resch: ‘You sit with them as they take their last breath’
Resch, a registered nurse who works on the coronavirus medical unit, said she was initially seeing “walking, talking, independent” patients.
“Now we’re seeing people (needing) high amounts of oxygen, needing to be repositioned, needing to be intubated,” Resch added. “Family members are then deciding what they need to do. … Do they withdraw care, or do they keep them on full life support.”
The hospital is treating COVID-19 patients ranging in age from their 20s to their 90s, she said.
“This doesn’t discriminate against age,” Resch said.
She urged people to wear masks, wash their hands, practice social distancing and stay home — especially if they are showing symptoms.
“N95 masks do not absorb tears when you are at a bedside,” she said. “Letting their family FaceTime them to say goodbye, and you sit with them as they take their last breath.”
She added, “And we’re seeing it more and more frequently.”
Resch stressed that it is difficult for health care workers to call family members and talk with them about removing loved ones from life support.
“It’s real world. And it’s here. And we as individuals can help prevent it,” she said. “Please help us save lives.”
Cleaner Mallory Giese: ‘Somebody just passed away in that room’
Giese, who works on the hospital’s cleaning crew, said it’s emotionally difficult to disinfect a room after a patient dies.
“In housekeeping, we are on the front lines as well,” she said. “There’s rooms where people have passed away. We go in and we have to clean, and it’s not an easy thing to do when you know that somebody just passed away in that room.”
She added, “We have to stay strong together.”
But Giese acknowledged it doesn’t always seem like people are looking out for each other in the community when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“It becomes a little frustrating when we, when you’re outside and you see people going into stores, things like that, without a mask on,” she said.
Giese said her family has been lucky and stayed healthy.
“I haven’t lost anybody yet from COVID. But there’s plenty of people who work here who have,” she said. “And so what we really want to get across in our message is to take this seriously, that people are dying from this.”
Nurse David Eggman: ‘Please start wearing masks’
Eggman, who’s worked as a registered nurse for 20 years, said he thinks anyone who spent just 15 minutes with him on “any given day” would be taking every possible precaution to avoid catching or spreading coronavirus.
“It’s not just about you,” he said. “It’s about the people you care about, as well.”
Eggman has also listened to the final words of COVID-19 patients.
“We have many patients who have come in here and their last words before we put a in breathing tube are they didn’t realize it was as bad as it was,” he said.
He said some of the patients have wanted nothing else than to see their family members again.
“I’m a grandparent, I would like to see my grandchildren,” Eggman said through tears.
He added, “By wearing a mask, you’re protecting them, as well as yourself. Please, if you do nothing else, please start wearing masks.”
Nurse Carolyn Sienko: ‘This is not a way that you want to die’
Sienko, a registered nurse working with COVID-19 patients, said people are dying from the virus despite the best efforts of health care workers.
“This is not something that you want to catch. This is not a way that you want to die,” she said. “People are dying every night. There’s nothing we can do about it. This virus is just beating them.”
Sienko added that all of her family events have been canceled because she’s so afraid of catching it and passing it along to family members.
She urged people to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“It’s scary,” she said. “We just need people to try to just not to get this as much as possible.”