Penrose nurses fight tears, fatigue 14 months into pandemic

A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2, was identified as...
A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2, was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).(Source: CDC)
Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 10:29 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - The seventh floor at Penrose Hospital is eerily quiet. For the past 14 months, it’s been transformed into a COVID unit. Every patient’s door is closed to prevent the spread of the virus, and patients are in those rooms, oftentimes, alone. There are isolation carts everywhere. Staff are all wearing personal protective equipment and hustling to their next task.

Nurses at Penrose have been on the frontlines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic going on 2 years. It’s been long and grueling at times, requiring an incredible amount of empathy for scared and struggling patients, especially those who are quarantined from their families while they fight for breaths of air.

Karen Kaiser, a registered nurse at Penrose, recalled a moment she had with a COVID-19 patient who passed away this winter.

“I spent, like, 30 minutes just rubbing her back, and it was, like, the best thing she said that had happened to her in weeks. She’d been on that floor for so long, and you know, sometimes, it’s something as simple of that,” Kaiser said. “Sometimes it’s just holding their hand and telling them that you’re there for them.”

That patient passed away later that day.

“I actually feel pretty honored to be there with people in their end of life, you know, when they’re ready,” Kaiser said.

Staff at Penrose say they’re used to death, but not the amount they’ve had over the course of the pandemic. As of Feb. 25, there have been nearly 6,000 COVID-19 deaths in Colorado, and more than half a million across the country. Thousands more people have been admitted to hospitals needing urgent treatment and care.

The holidays were a particularly tough time.

Over the week of Thanksgiving, Kaiser watched as many people die as she had over the last 2 years.

“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve cried in the car on the way home, but for me, that’s just kind of a release,” she said. “In that moment when (death) happens, you don’t really get the chance to process it because you have to just keep going.”

“Some people say, ‘Well, this is what you signed up for.’ Well, maybe? But maybe not,” said Tammi Phillips, the clinical manager for the seventh floor at Penrose Hospital.

Phillips says it’s been, at times, devastating to watch her nurses struggle with death, but she knows it’s because they care so much about the people they treat. They spend hours, days, weeks, even months with patients -- some who get to go home, others who spend their final moments in a hospital bed.

“The day I don’t cry when I lose a patient, is the day I don’t want to be a nurse,” Phillips said. “It’s been a long year, but I don’t think we’ve lost our empathy at all.”

There’s a journal and a candle in the ICU break room, where staff writes down the names of people who died. The chaplain at Penrose says it was especially helpful for nurses who were off when their patient passed away, so they could see they’re at peace.

Some of Phillip’s nurses have even taken a break from the career because of how emotionally taxing it’s been, something Phillips says is nothing to be ashamed of. Taking a break could be what’s needed in order to serve communities as a nurse over many more years.

Through all the tough times, there are moments to celebrate, too. Many patients do get to go home to see their families again, even if it takes weeks or months of care on the seventh floor. Over that time, patients really get to know their care teams.

“I had a patient who I just adored who was on the floor for, gosh, a month? And she was old, and she just kicked COVID’s butt, and she got to go home,” Kaiser said. “And I got to be there the day she left, and we hugged and cried.”

This year has been a year of learning and adapting for health care workers. Phillips says they learned quickly in the beginning that every day -- every hour, even -- their knowledge of the virus and best policies changed.

“I think we were very worried because we didn’t know what the fatality rate was going to be,” Phillips said. “I’ve got nurses that took their scrubs off in the garage and then walked right into the showers -- had no interaction with their family until they did so.”

During the first peak of the virus, not one of her staff got sick, thanks to tedious but effective policies to stay protected at work.

Now, months later, she says she’s so proud of her nurses and her profession for their dedication and perseverance.

“God bless every one of my staff, and any nurse, and any caregiver around the world, because it’s been tough, but I’m just so proud of my profession and everything that we’ve done,” she said. “I’m super proud that we just never let a patient die alone if we could help it.”

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