CLEVELAND — University Hospitals’ Seidman Cancer Center’s 7th-floor Medical Intensive Care Unit’s staff has a bond that can’t be broken. It’s a bond that comes from going to battle.
“Inside these walls, it was very bad,” said Jennifer Gebbie, an assistant nurse manager for the MICU.
“There got to be a point where it was hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I think we can see it now, but there was a long period there when we didn’t know when it was going to end,” she said.
She’s talking about their main opponent for the past two years: COVID-19.
When the novel coronavirus first made its way to Ohio, most, underestimated its impact.
“When it first started I really thought it would just be a few months and it would be over with and everything would go back to normal and, as we all know now, things aren’t normal anymore,” said respiratory therapist Brad Demars.
The MICU medical director Rana Hejal said she, too, couldn’t have predicted in March of 2020 what the next two years had in store.
“I thought it was going to be exactly what we had in the H1N1 pandemic that we had in 2009, unfortunately, it wasn’t. When we started to see our first few patients, the ones who ended up on the ventilator and the ones who ended up on ECMO [extracorporeal membrane oxygenation] it was very clear we were dealing with a very serious problem,” she said.
The sickest of sick patients ended up in the MICU.
“The severity of their illness and the lung damage that was caused by COVID was very bad," she said.
These were some of the worst patients and the sickest patients that I’ve ever taken care of in my 30 years as a respiratory therapist,” said Demars.
Gebbie said the days were long and the lows made some of them unbearable.
“To have that separation between the families and patients was one of the hardest parts for us. We brought in modalities like Zoom to do meetings with families and end of life care with them, but it’s not the same as holding a gloved nurse’s hand than it is your family member as you’re dying,” she said. “It was just heartbreaking.”
Hejal said those losses still weigh heavy on all of them.
“The days when we lost patients, particularly the young ones, that you had to tell their families ‘sorry, but your loved one has died.' "Those were the hardest,” she said. “In the last wave, we had a couple of weeks that were just horrible. We were losing one or two patients a day, and though you try and you try and you kind of fix as much as you can, the body stops responding.”
But she said it was the wins that kept them going and gave them a sense of hope.
“There was a lady who she thought I was her angel. Those are very nice days, no question. You go home saying ‘wow, I love what I do,' said Hejal. “The other day, one of our very sick patients we had, sent us a picture of him working in his hardware store.
Patients that walked out of the hospital because the staff members continued to walk into the hospital day in and day out throughout the past two years.
“We all showed up to do our job every day, and that’s what we were supposed to do,” said Demars.
Gebbie said they’ll carry the emotional scars, the anxiety, the loss with them forever.
“None of us that went through this are the same that we were two years ago,” she said. “I think when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t see what that fight really looks like until you can look backward.”
But Hejal said they’re stronger and more equipped than ever to deal with whatever comes their way in the future.
“I’m not sure we are completely out of it but I do believe we know a lot more now than two years ago,” she said.