INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (WXIN) – “Tired” is the most common symptom you’ll find among the staffers in the critical care unit at Eskenazi Hospital.

“Healthcare workers are exhausted, hospitals are overwhelmed and [we] just feel like there’s not an end,” said nurse Samantha Fenton.

For two years, COVID-related illness has pushed area hospital capacity to the brink – now add in the recent omicron variant surge prompting emergency measures to make more hospital beds available for COVID patients.

The Eskenazi critical care unit gets the sickest of the Indianapolis hospital’s COVID patients and the supply has been nonstop.

“The lowest we ever got was one [patient],” said critical care manager Karen Tucker. “We got down to one on July 1. We didn’t stay there long.”

Last week, WXIN was allowed to briefly visit the critical care unit and talk with some of the people who work there. On that day, there was only one empty bed.

Tucker said managing the team providing round-the-clock care for COVID patients has been a challenge. “You have days that are better than others and days that are pretty solemn. We’ve seen a lot of deaths, a lot of people [dying] by themselves.”

PREPARING FOR DEATH DAILY  

While caring for her COVID patients, Fenton talks with them, even the ones who cannot respond.

“You’re still in the hospital,” she says.

In this case, the patient is a woman lying on her stomach. It helps with her breathing. The woman is on a ventilator, which requires heavy sedation.

Fenton said her biggest challenge throughout the pandemic has been “every day, preparing yourself for death, quite frankly. I have seen, it seems like every day I work there’s probably a death versus before the pandemic.”

There are times, Fenton admits, she takes five minutes to collect herself, to pray or maybe vent to a colleague before she can resume working.

For patients recovering from COVID, it can be a long haul. The critical care unit has tended to some patients for almost a year.

“We think people are getting better and then it’s kind of like two steps forward and then five steps back. Just kind of this big roller coaster for the patients and for families. That’s frustrating and hard and sad all at the same time,” said Fenton.

‘AM I GOING TO LIVE?’

Stephanie Collins, a respiratory therapist, said, “I feel like I lean on my co-workers more than I ever have to get through a lot of days.”

Collins has been at Eskenazi her entire 12-year career. During the pandemic, she said, “I feel like I cried easier and more than I ever have.”

One of Collins’s jobs is to place COVID patients on ventilators. Studies suggest the survival rate for ventilated COVID patients is a little more than 50%.

Going on a ventilator is understandably frightening for patients.

“You can see it in their eyes,” Collins said. “It’s extremely sad because they’re saying like, ‘Save me’, ‘Help me’, ‘Am I going to live?’ And then they want to make that last phone call to their loved ones. Those are the emotional phone calls. It’s hard to walk away without a tear in your eye.”

Collins said it’s difficult to know how often she’s placed a patient on a ventilator in the last two years.

“I can’t even put a number on it,” she says.

WISHING PEOPLE PAID MORE ATTENTION

With sanitation standards pushed even higher at Eskenazi because of COVID, it’s Sharonda Ice’s job to clean, maintain and sanitize the critical care unit.

“Some of [the COVID patients] don’t make it out of the hospital, you know?” said Ice, an environmental science worker.

Those sanitation measures include rooms after a COVID patient has died.

“The gear that we wear in a hospital, we are safer, and we gear up pretty good. We really do protect ourselves well,” said Ice.

On the day WXIN interviewed Ice, 66.8% of all COVID patients at Eskenazi were unvaccinated. For hospital staff without an exemption, vaccination is mandatory.

Ice eagerly got her shots. “I was one of the first ones in my department wanting to get vaccinated,” she said.

Despite that, Ice recently returned to work from a breakout COVID infection.

“I know for a fact the shots are what saved my life because it was horrible. I don’t wish that on anybody,” said Ice.

She admits to getting upset when she hears people dismiss vaccines as an effective preventative measure against the coronavirus.

“I just wish that we all paid more attention to the information that’s out there, that we need.”

THE NEVER-ENDING GAUNTLET OF CARE

Because COVID patients in the critical care unit are there for long periods of time, Tucker explains they become like family members.

“You get attached. Several nurses went to funeral services and chipped in for the services,” said Tucker.

What caregivers here cling to is hope, that someday the two-year gauntlet of seriously ill COVID patients will end.  

”You have to believe things will change and this won’t be what you do every day…” she said. “… Because this is exhausting.”