As frontline caregivers in Centura Health – St. Catherine Hospital’s battle against COVID-19, Registered Nurses Kaylee Chavez and KayLoni Sandoval admit they have never experienced anything quite like the pandemic that has spanned the globe and continues to infect people at an alarming rate.
The virus can spread rapidly and hit communities hard. Health care leaders and frontline caregivers have been navigating through a sea of uncertainty ever since COVID-19’s arrival. Like the virus itself, the ever-changing nature of the situation has at times seemed overwhelming.
Still, Chavez and Sandoval view the virus and the work they’re doing just like anything else that gets thrown their way on a routine nurse’s shift: They meet it head-on, learn as they go and adapt. That’s what nurses do.
“I think as we’ve gotten into it farther – a few more weeks into it – we kind of grasped what we needed to do,” said Chavez, who started at St. Catherine five years ago as a unit clerk, was a CNA, and just became an RN a year ago.
While the early stages of the pandemic and subsequent uncertainty that reigned were stressful, as nurses at St. Catherine have settled into the new normal – being heavily clad in personal protective equipment, absorbing new guidelines and protocols coming at them in rapid-fire fashion, and learning about the virus on the fly – they are starting to feel more comfortable.
“As nurses, we are trained to adapt and just assess the situation and see what we have to do,” Chavez said. “That’s just normal for us – just routine.”
That doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
“At first, I’m not gonna lie, it was very frustrating. It was very upsetting because things were changing so much all the time,” Sandoval said. “I feel like now, emotionally, I’ve been able to keep a little more stable.”
With COVID-19 patients, Chavez said, nurses have taken on additional responsibilities in their whole-person-care approach, oftentimes carrying out the roles of CNA, respiratory therapy and housekeeping. Yet at the same time, they’re trying to limit the number of times they enter patients’ rooms.
“Not spending as much time with our patients is kind of hard, especially with these (COVID) patients here because they feel really isolated,” Chavez said.
The two caregivers say the severity of the cases and the symptoms they have seen have varied greatly, as have the ages of their patients – Chavez said the youngest patient she’s cared for was 29, and the oldest was 94.
Some patients have had no symptoms, but imaging shows the virus in their lungs. Others have mild symptoms, but a concerning history of respiratory issues that leads to hospitalization.
Body aches, fevers, coughs and sometimes gastrointestinal discomfort all can be symptoms, Sandoval said. Others are short of breath or have elevated heart rates.
A patient’s condition can change quickly, and suddenly, they need oxygen. If patients come to the hospital early enough, and doctors and nurses can assess their situation, Sandoval said, health care workers can raise those oxygen levels.
“If they start to go downhill quickly, that’s kind of what’s scary. They start to desaturate really fast, and that can be really tough to get that oxygenation back up,” said Sandoval, who has been an RN for seven years, all at St. Catherine. “It’s a learning curve for everybody – for nurses, for doctors. ‘Should we be getting these patients out of bed to help their lung status?’ And, ‘Are they too critical to get out of bed?’ I think as we’re moving forward with learning more things about these patients, you just kind of have to adapt as you go.”
As a float nurse, Sandoval moves from the Emergency Department to the Medical/surgical unit. As she does, she can share knowledge back and forth.
“It’s kind of nice to take bits and pieces from each unit, and when I go to those units, I can help implement some of those things,” Sandoval said. “I love being able to flow and learn different things, and it’s nice for your patients, too, because then you have more information to bring them, and that seems to bring them comfort.”
Southwest Kansas has seen a surge of patients in the last couple of weeks, later than other hard-hit areas around the country. That delay, Sandoval said, gave local health care workers the opportunity to prepare and learn from colleagues in other regions.
“Unfortunately, they had to learn as they went – of course, we do, too,” Sandoval said. “But with all the stuff that they’ve had to go through and the different things that they’ve seen, we’ve been able to implement those here. And we’ve been able to save our PPE, and we haven’t been running short on things.”
Both Chavez and Sandoval have been impressed with how much communities in southwest Kansas have stepped up to help, whether through donations of food to fuel the frontline caregivers, or in some cases with PPE to bolster supplies.
Sandoval is particularly thankful for community members who sewed headbands for nurses to wear to protect their ears, which were getting rubbed raw from having to wear masks all day.
“Our community has been so supportive. It’s been a pretty amazing experience,” Sandoval said. “Even though it’s wild and crazy, I think the community has really come together and said, ‘Hey, it’s time to get together and unite here.’”
Striking a work/life balance is always a challenge for nurses. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult, as caregivers bring the stress of the new normal home with them while doing everything in their power to not bring home the virus.
Sandoval said she feels Centura and St. Catherine have created a care environment where she and her colleagues can safely treat COVID-19 patients.
“It’s been nice that we’ve been able to change our clothes before and after work. We’re able to leave our shoes here,” Sandoval said. “Stuff like that makes me feel safer going home and not having to worry about bringing it home to my family.”
Even though COVID-19 care has quickly become a matter of routine, Sandoval admits she still has a hard time believing how the virus has, in many ways, turned our world upside down.
“I would never have thought I would have seen it in my lifetime, to be honest. You always kind of mentally prepare for anything that can happen during your day as a nurse, and you know that you’re going to have to adapt. But I never thought I would deal with this,” Sandoval said. “But, it’s kind of cool to be a part of history and be able to say – one day, when I have kids – that ‘Yeah, I lived through that. I helped through that. I was on the front lines for that.’”