On the eighth floor of UnityPoint’s Iowa Methodist Hospital in downtown Des Moines, 56-year-old Russell Braley watched daytime TV in one of the recovery units, breathing through a tube running from his nose to an oxygen unit.
“I’ve been in motorcycle wrecks. I’ve almost died several times in my lifetime. This was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through,” said Braley, a resident of Des Moines, about his recent battle with COVID-19.
He said the virus nearly killed him.
A month ago, Braley arrived at Methodist by ambulance. He was so sick he couldn’t get out of bed.
Like most of Methodist’s COVID-19 patients and Iowans hospitalized statewide, he’s unvaccinated.
Braley said he just hadn’t gotten around to getting the shot when he contracted the virus.
“It’s like, drowning above water. I mean, if you can’t breathe, there’s nothing else scarier,” he said.
Methodist Hospital is part of a system of UnityPoint facilities in Des Moines. The system employs 5,500 people and has 739 staffed beds.
A year and a half into the pandemic, these facilities no longer have designated COVID units. Instead, patients are scattered around in the different departments depending on their needs.
They lay in beds hooked up to tubes. Some are on ventilators. Those under isolation precautions have the same note taped on the closed doors of their rooms, reminding staff to take extra precautions before entering.
Every day, Julie Gibbons, who manages the system’s infection prevention, and her team count them all.
To Gibbons, these patients are more than numbers.
“We see these people. They’re real people that have COVID. Some of them are pregnant,” she said. “You know, some of them maybe are just delivered. Some of them are young children, and we count them.”
Gibbons pointed to a printed graph resting on her briefcase illustrating Des Moines UnityPoint system’s COVID case count since March of last year. It showed the spikes over time, but this one is clearly different. It’s lasting much longer.
“We’ve been at this high level between 65 and 77 patients for two and a half months. That’s a lot of COVID patients,” Gibbons said.
Last Wednesday, UnityPoint’s metro Des Moines facilities had 66 patients with active COVID cases. “Active” means patients who are still testing positive for the virus — the system’s official COVID count.
But Gibbons said, in reality, there are also about two dozen additional COVID patients who now test negative for the virus. They’re labeled as “recovered,” but they’re still in the hospital, fighting its effects.
“Some of them won’t ever get off the ventilator and will die even as COVID recovered because they’re just — their lungs are just so damaged,” she said.
‘I can’t explain the emotions’
The first stop for many patients coming in with COVID symptoms is the emergency room.
Clint Hawthorne, the medical director for Des Moines UnityPoint hospitals’ emergency rooms, said he’s grown accustomed to seeing up to 10 COVID patients come in during a 12-hour shift.
This doesn’t seem like a lot, but Hawthorne said if they’re admitted, these patients stay for long periods of time.
“It’s frustrating, but also sad, because a lot of these folks come in, they’re really sick,” he said. “They’re really miserable. Some of them don’t make it, and we don’t want that for anybody.”
For many patients, the ER is just a brief stop.
It’s the intensive care unit and nurses like Jillana Valbracht who care for the sickest COVID patients, often for weeks.
Valbracht said in her 15 years working at the hospital, she’s never seen the ICU this full.
“Every day, it seems like we’re trying to get patients out of the ICU so that way we can get patients into the ICU,” she said.
Stacy Johnson, another ICU nurse who has worked in the unit for nearly a decade, said her experience dealing with the surge is indescribable.
“I can’t explain the emotions you feel working in the front lines and dealing with people, I mean, my age dying in front of your eyes, you know, or whatnot,” Johnson said. “Like, it’s a lot to take in, you know.”
This kind of deep, prolonged stress is affecting all kinds of health care workers, and it’s leading to workforce shortages for many hospitals like Methodist.
Many workers who leave are vital to helping COVID patients. They’re hard to replace.
“It’s taken a huge toll on our department,” said Lisa Kingery, the supervisor for the respiratory care team.
She said her team sees every COVID patient in the hospital — and her team has many vacant positions right now.
“We’ve had a lot of seasoned staff, quit, go to different professions, go to different institutions. You know, everybody’s very tired and very burned out,” Kingery said.
That’s only put more pressure on the remaining respiratory therapists like Tena Romdall, who’s worked for UnityPoint for 25 years.
Romdall said before the pandemic, she enjoyed coming to work. Now she said she’s using her paid time off to take frequent breaks.
“I work maybe two weeks at a time and then take time off. That’s how I’ve dealt with it lately,” Romdall said.
But with COVID infection rates still high – and with vaccinations still lagging, the reality is many Iowans will need Methodist’s team of doctors, nurses and specialists in the coming months.
Hawthorne said he struggles to comprehend peoples’ hesitation towards the vaccine – which has been shown to be highly effective in preventing severe illness from the virus.
“It’s very rare for a physician to walk in, diagnose a condition and say, ‘here’s the best treatment possible. Oh you don’t want that treatment, you want these other treatments that really don’t work very well, and are much riskier. Why would you choose that?'” Hawthorne said.
Carrie O’Brien, a nurse epidemiologist on the infection prevention team, said it can be hard hearing all the misinformation surrounding the pandemic and having her professional opinion questioned.
“It’s just disheartening to not be believed for your profession, for your expertise to be questioned in the community,” O’Brien said. “And that’s not always, but you so want people to understand the impact that one person can make.”
‘They gave me a second chance’
Back on the eighth floor recovery unit, 52-year-old Polk County resident Brenton Harmison wiped tears from his eyes, taking slow breaths from the tube hooked into his nose as he recounted how the hospital saved his life.
“They gave me a second chance to live again,” he said. “It’s pretty emotional to think I was that close to being dead. COVID ain’t no joke.”
Harmison said he wants everyone to get vaccinated.