CORONAVIRUS

Nurses on front line of coronavirus response learn to adapt to unprecedented scenario

Cedar Rapids health care workers face continuous risk of infection

Celsey Huber is a UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's Hospital charge nurse caring for coronavirus patients on the general COVI
Celsey Huber is a UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital charge nurse caring for coronavirus patients on the general COVID-19 floor of the hospital. Photographed in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 7, 2020. Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The first week she worked on the COVID-19 floor of the hospital, Celsey Huber would cry on her way to work.

There were so many questions to be grappled with, said the 31-year-old charge nurse at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids. What if she gets sick and takes the virus home to her family? How long will this pandemic last? Will she be able to take care of these patients the way she needs to?

“There were so many questions at the beginning,” Huber told The Gazette.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 10,000 Iowans since the first case was identified in March, has created an unprecedented scenario for the state’s health care systems and its workers.

“I cannot compare this to any situation I’ve ever had to deal with,” said Sara Butler, a critical care nurse practitioner in Mercy Medical Center’s intensive care unit, where her primary role is to care for patients in respiratory failure.

“We’ve really had to be flexible and learn as we go and learn what’s important in how we adapt and deal with patients.”

National Nurses Week, which comes to a close on Tuesday, May 12, has brought recognition for these health care workers across the country for their work on the front lines during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

And in doing so, they have put themselves at risk, according to recent data.

At least 9,000 health care workers in the United States have contracted COVID-19, and 27 have died, according to preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this past month. Half of those who tested positive believe they were exposed while at work, the CDC stated.

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But one international nurses organization calculates the figure of sickened health care workers may be higher than figures reported by authorities.

The International Council of Nurses announced Wednesday it believes at least 90,000 health care workers worldwide have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 200 nurses have died. The Council, a federation of more than 100 nursing associations, based its estimates on information collected from its nursing association members.

Learning as they go

Though Cedar Rapids hospitals have been caring for novel coronavirus patients for weeks now, that fear of infection hasn’t gone away.

“We’re not used to that feeling that everything I touch, everything I’m surrounded by could put us at risk,” said Butler, 33-year-old North Liberty resident. “I’ve never had to think so hard and closely about what I’m doing ... . It’s definitely more of a process, so there is anxiety involved with that.”

One of the most challenging pieces for local nurses during this time is adapting and learning as they go, Butler said.

“With other diagnoses, we have a set framework and a plan on how to treat patients, Butler said. “With (COVID-19), which has limited treatment options, we don’t have a set framework and guidance. It’s frustrating, and I feel bad for patients.”

But working in the critical care setting, with some of the hospital’s sickest patients, Butler said health care workers are trained “to expect the unexpected.”

“You’re used to adapting to situations quickly, and that’s the nature of the field,” Butler said. “This is a unique situation, but in general we’ve trained to adapt quickly.”

The St. Luke’s floor dedicated to caring for COVID-19 patients who don’t need critical care is made up of a staff from across various hospital units and departments. The labor pool was created when the hospital’s elective surgeries and procedures were postponed this past month to conserve personal protective equipment.

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Employees from departments that essentially were closing down were offered the opportunity to join the pool to help care for diagnosed COVID-19 patients.

Huber, who typically is a supervising nurse on the orthopedic unit at St. Luke’s, volunteered. While she was anxious about the possibility of being exposed to the virus, she felt the calling to help.

Now, Huber is working with nurses from across the hospital.

“The people in our unit, we’ve been together now for seven weeks. We’re coming into our stride and we’re feeling comfortable,” Huber said. “As far as coming into work, you no longer see the panicked face when they get to the unit.

“People know where to go, they feel comfortable and confident in how they will take care of the patient.”

With family members unable to visit patients in the hospital due to coronavirus-related mitigation practices, both nurses said one of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic has been watching patients go through illness — and even death — without being surrounded by their loved ones.

Nurses at both Cedar Rapids hospitals frequently communicate with families about the condition of their loved one, especially if patients aren’t able to call their families themselves.

“I’m usually seeing some of the sicker patients, and those are more likely to pass away. We’re used to dealing with death in our profession, but it’s just a different dynamic when the patient is isolated,” Butler said.

While situation is unprecedented, Butler added it doesn’t feel from her perspective that Mercy Medical Center or other local hospitals are overwhelmed — a fear of many when the virus began sweeping through the country.

“I don’t feel like we are overwhelmed, I think we are well-prepared,” she said.

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Since that first week, Huber said she’s learned to rely on available resources, including hospital management, her support system at home and her faith. Nowadays, Huber’s 30-minute drive to St. Luke’s Hospital has become an opportunity for a pep talk, she said.

“As I drive in, I give myself this talk about how I was going to help these people, how I was going to help the other nurses and I was going to be overcoming my own fears,” she said. “... This is new, but you have to stick to what we know and try to do your best.”

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.