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St. Johnsbury hospital staffers on continuing care during COVID: 'We're hanging on with our fingernails'

A photo of three people in gowns, face masks, goggles and face shields
NVRH, Courtesy
/
VPR
ER nurses at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury pose for a photo in their full personal protective gear.

COVID numbers in the Northeast Kingdom have been climbing, and according to staff at the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, the weeks after Halloween have been the most trying since the beginning of the pandemic.

Every day this week, VPR is airing stories from frontline healthcare workers at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury.  Today independent producer Erica Heilman talks with four nurses from the medical surgical unit about what they're seeing and how they're holding up. 

Erica: “We're all a little bit tired of hearing about this. We would sort of like to think, you know, it's really not that bad because you have new treatments.”

Sharon Mallett: “It is that bad.”

This is Sharon Mallett.

Sharon Mallett: “See, that's the problem. The community doesn't understand what is happening inside this building. There are sick people in here from COVID.”

"[Y]ou have to be like, playing a cheerleader ... And trying to explain to them they need to play a part in this healing process. And how you be able to decrease the anxiety and fear in them, I think is really is becoming a big, important part in our role as nurses.”
Ghazi Mohamed, traveling nurse working at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital

This is Kara Lawrence.

Kara Lawrence: “And I think that with COVID, the pandemic, people didn't go to the doctors. So now they're getting admitted to the hospital, and they may have had one issue three years ago. Now they've got six or seven issues because that first issue wasn't treated appropriately because of the pandemic.”

Sharon Mallett: “And Halloween really took its toll on us. We've had patients come in negative and then they develop symptoms after a couple of days, and they're positive, and Kara and I have been out in the parking lot, swabbing our staff and bringing them to the lab to make sure they can work.

“It's very sad. And patients get frustrated. I don't know if they have with you, Wendy, but you know, they don't prone, they don't lay on their bellies, they don't take our suggestions, which will make them feel better. They get angry at us. They don't want to …”

This is Wendy Longmoore.

Wendy Longmoore: “I can remember one lady … and I just remember her laying there saying, ‘I don't understand why this is happening,’ but I remember helping with her care, and I'm like, ‘You, you need to get up. You need to sit up, you need to get up out of bed.’ And she didn't want to. And I remember when she was getting worse, just kind of leaning forward and as best you can anyway, have some physical connection. And like I said, we have double face masks, and double gloves, and double masks and a face shield. And I remember trying to like, just kiss her on the forehead, kind of like, ‘You know, you need to help yourself. You will get stronger. You can get stronger.’ Um, she didn't. And then she got sent to the ICU, and she passed.”

This is Ghazi Mohamed.

Ghazi Mohamed: “And I think with the COVID patient, I think we have extra psychological factors to it. Especially with the whole thing around the COVID and how COVID is related to death, you know, and you put people in one room and they start having increased fear, anxiety, loneliness and nostalgia. In all this, I think it affects the patients directly, negatively and to us indirectly as well.

“And I think as you said, you have to be like, playing a cheerleader, how you can put hope into those people. You know, that we're doing the best, we’re doing the most. And trying to explain to them they need to play a part in this healing process. And how you be able to decrease the anxiety and fear in them, I think is really is becoming a big, important part in our role as nurses.”

More from VPR: One St. Johnsbury hospitalist, tired of risking her life at work, pleads with Vermonters to get vaccinated

Erica: “The nature of COVID changes the nurses’ role. And what are your new symptoms as a nurse because of those new jobs and that new pressure?”

Kara Lawrence: “Right now, we're exhausted. I don't know what else to say. We're tired. We've done this for eighteen months.”

Sharon Mallett: “Every morning I pop up the numbers on my computer, I shake my head, I slam the computer down and I come to work. ‘Cause every day it’s higher. You see these hearts out in the trees? They were here probably a year ago. And I remember coming to work one day and the hearts were gone. You know, the community hates us. We don't let them in. We're isolating them and the hearts are gone. And so Kara reached out to the philanthropy department, who hit the community members. And then one day, it was a Sunday, I was coming in to do a line and, oh my gosh! All the hearts were back. And it was just … that was a great feeling.”

Erica: “Well, what is special about being at a small, rural place? What is it? I mean, what might UVM just not be able to wrap their heads around because of the nature and the size of this place? Does anything come to mind?”

Sharon Mallett: “I know these guys, and I'm going to protect them with everything I've got. I know Wendy works on a farm. I know what time she gets up, and what time she goes to bed. And I know she had to fix fence last night. Right? So I'm going to protect her with everything I’ve got. To make sure she can come into work tomorrow.”

Ghazi Mohamed: “Yeah, I think it's a big difference. I'm a traveling nurse and the amount of protection they put in to protect their staff, I'd never seen before. Even their care about their communities and people … I think they do an amazing job when you look at the, how the hospital and resources are so small to them. But they do an amazing job.”

Kara Lawrence: “You think about UVM and the tertiary center. They're taking care of the sickest of these COVID patients. We're not the news. We're not – we don't have the patients that are intubated, because they're getting transferred to the tertiary centers in most cases. So what people are seeing on the news – and they're seeing people in beds just laying there intubated – is not reality for us. We're dealing with the people that are still able to walk and talk in most situations.”

Sharon Mallett: “We're preventing them from getting to UVM.”

“I think for me, the day that I really got angry was the day I was one-on-one with an ICU-level patient and there was no beds in New England for him. He'd had a stroke, and his brain was bleeding and there was nowhere for him to go. And I was with him one-on-one for hours, trying to make sure that he was OK. That's the day I was mad.”
Kara Lawrence, Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital

Erica: “When you're a professional, right and you're listening to the news, and they're talking about the numbers – but what is it missing?”

Kara Lawrence: “I think for me, the day that I really got angry was the day I was one-on-one with an ICU-level patient and there was no beds in New England for him. He'd had a stroke, and his brain was bleeding and there was nowhere for him to go. And I was with him one-on-one for hours, trying to make sure that he was OK. That's the day I was mad.”

Erica: “And he was not COVID positive.”

Kara Lawrence: “He was not. He was just a very ill patient. He was not COVID positive. But thinking there was not an ICU bed in New England for him, made me mad.”

Sharon Mallett: “I seemed to be the only one in the store anymore, wearing a mask. And I'm fully vaccinated, and I'm looking around going, ‘Oh, didn't everybody see the numbers this morning?’”

Erica: “Can you tell me where, where you shop?”

Sharon Mallett: “The liquor store.”

[Laughter]

Sharon Mallett: “You know the nurses are trained … we're trained to let it go. You learn to adapt to it. We don't have these conversations with radio or TV. We are always trained to just take it and deal with it internally, and manage it somehow internally, and not to let the public know how we suffer.”

Kara Lawrence: “We're coasting uphill. We're digging with our fingernails. We're hanging on with our fingernails, right now.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vprnet.

Corrected: December 7, 2021 at 12:20 PM EST
The photo credit in this story has been corrected.
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