Upstate nurse served on front lines of Coronavirus war
It wasn’t a call Sara Wooding received in April.
It was a calling.
Like most people in the Upstate, she spent the early spring sheltering in place and watching TV news about the Coronavirus, her mind full of fear and anxiety.
Before long, however, the 31-year-old nurse anesthetist decided to take a risk — and take some action. She searched the Internet, looking for a position on the front lines of America’s war against the deadly new illness.
“I felt like I had been trained to do this job that was so much needed,” explains Wooding, a CRNA who’d worked for Prisma Health in Greenville before the pandemic hit.
Not surprisingly her online search revealed an enormous demand for COVID-19 nurses nationwide. Ultimately, she decided to drive nearly 700 miles to take a temporary position at Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit. She arrived on April 10 to find the place slammed with coronavirus patients.
“They had such a surge in need for COVID ICU beds that they converted the surgery recovery room and the gastrointestinal wing into ICU units to treat patients suffering from the virus,” she says.
Suffice it to say, Wooding walked into a hospital teaming with chaos and death. Of the 250 beds inside the hospital, she estimates at least 100 were designated for coronavirus patients. In those early days of the pandemic, she says Ascension staff members were very apprehensive about contracting the illness from patients. Thus, doctors and nurses took every precaution — wearing protective gear that included a full body suit, gloves, helmet, mask and face shield. It really was as if the staff was putting on their battle armor to go to war each day.
And that war against the virus proved an intense, draining and heart-wrenching affair. Though Wooding claims most of the Michigan COVID patients were in their 50s and 60s, she saw a 34-year-old man who’d been totally healthy die there her first week.
“What we were seeing was a slow 30-40 day progression towards total lung failure,” she says. “A typical patient would get the virus and be sick at home for about a week coughing and sneezing, then they would start to get short of breath. Once they started breathing really fast, they’d come to the hospital where they were given oxygen. At that point, some got better but most of them didn’t.”
Wooding estimates 90-95 percent of COVID victims that had to be placed on ventilators eventually passed away. Such an astronomical fatality rate brought feelings of hopelessness and defeat to doctors and nurses, who were used to seeing patients recover from their illnesses before the pandemic came along.
Quickly they learned to prioritize their dying patients’ comfort ahead of things that had previously been deemed more important like medication, vital signs and diagnostic tests.
Once a patient was intubated, it was the nurses’ job to care for them. That meant brushing their teeth, putting chapstick on their lips and wiping the sleep from their eyes. It also meant bathing them in their beds and constantly repositioning them to prevent bruises and bedsores.
“These patients were all alone, so I felt like their guardian because their family couldn’t be present,” says the nurse. “For the really sick ones, the nurses were the last people they saw before they went on life support and died.”
The emotional strain of the work took its toll on Wooding. When she’d return to her hotel room the mornings after her shift, she found it difficult to sleep. Often she found herself on her cell phone crying to her mother, who is also a nurse and could understand some of the details and hardships of her daughter’s experience.
Getting to Know the Families
After wrapping up her one-month stint in Detroit, Wooding took two months off to rest and decompress. But in the late summer, she returned to the front lines of the coronavirus war, taking a two-month job at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. There, she found the work even more taxing than the Michigan job had been.
“The staffing was limited so there weren’t enough nursing assistants, unit secretaries or other adjunct services,” she explains. “Those positions normally filled by assistants had to be covered by the nurses. That’s what burned me out the most — having to answer every single phone call on the unit and having to do the job of a secretary in addition to the normal nursing care.”
Perhaps what made the Florida job hardest, however, were the tight relationships Wooding forged with the patients and their families. Though some were conscious when she was assigned to them, most spiraled down the same predictable road to respiratory failure and death. One patient told her he loved her. Another told her he was scared. Others held her hand and cried, unable to see their loved ones because of the risk of contagion.
In Florida, Wooding had the grim job of updating families on a patient’s condition, even when it meant telling them they had passed away.
“I was really really depressed in Jacksonville because I got to know all of the patients so well. I could answer the phone and know whose family member it was just from their voice,” she says.
She even used her own cellphone for family Skype calls with the patients, and believes such interchanges were beneficial, even when the patient was unconscious.
“I thought I could take better care of the patient if I talked to their family and found out more about them,” says Wooding. “…What they did, who they loved, their hobbies and interests …”
One African American patient’s wife informed Wooding her husband had sung professionally in a gospel group for many years. He had performed all around Jacksonville, including a few times at St. Vincent, where he eventually ended up as a patient. The wife told Wooding it might lift her husband’s spirits if the nurse could find one of the group’s videos on Youtube and play it for him. When she did, the patient (still conscious at the time) became so excited that Wooding ended up staying at the hospital with him long after her shift ended.
Even though the man ultimately succumbed to the virus, his faith provided him with an inner peace Wooding says was unmistakable.
“I was listening to his music one day after work and the lyrics were about crossing a river with Jesus to the heavenly home,” she says. “It was really beautiful and it explained why he was so calm even though he knew he was dying. He had no trouble accepting death because he believed he was going to heaven. His faith helped him make the transition.”
Recently, Wooding made a transition of her own, moving from the Upstate to Charleston to resume her work as a nurse anesthetist. After doing a month in Detroit and two more in Jacksonville, she’s thrilled to be off the Covid wards and back to working with patients who actually have a good chance of recovery. However, Wooding will never forget the patients she took care of during the spring and summer. And though she gave those men and women everything a nurse could, she’ll never shake the memories of how sad their final days were.
“Once I got familiar with the 30-40 day progression of the illness, the horrible shortness of breath, and most of all the isolation, I realized that Covid has got to be among the worst possible ways to die,” she says. “I can’t imagine being alone in a hospital room, struggling to breathe 24/7 and not even getting to see my family.”