Westminster nurses’ experience in NJ ER offers perspective on COVID-19

‘I hope no one ever has to see that, again’

Scott Taylor
staylor@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/26/20

Emergency room nurse Katie Adkins said she was reluctant to tell any specific stories from her three weeks working in a New Jersey emergency room, treating dying COVID-19 patients. It’s not that …

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Westminster nurses’ experience in NJ ER offers perspective on COVID-19

‘I hope no one ever has to see that, again’

Posted

Emergency room nurse Katie Adkins said she was reluctant to tell any specific stories from her three weeks working in a New Jersey emergency room, treating dying COVID-19 patients.

It’s not that she doesn’t have the stories or doesn’t know how to tell them. And it’s not that she doesn’t want to talk about it.

“I really don’t know if the general public is ready to hear about how bad it could have really been,” Adkins said.

Adkins witnessed the disease ravage patients firsthand, and watched it withstand just about any treatment medical professionals had for it. She watched doctors come in and try alternate treatments and watched patients die while their families could only visit via their smart phone.

“We did literally everything we could,” she said. “We exhausted the rule book, basically, on keeping some of these guys alive. And we didn’t win, most of the time.”

Even the ones who survived found their lives profoundly changed.

“It’s the amount of death, it’s the amount of lives forever impacted,” Adkins said. “You don’t just get over it if you’ve been on a ventilator for 30 days. It’s going to do permanent damage to your lungs and permanent damage to the rest of your body.”

An honor

Adkins was one of the group of 34 nurses that flew out of Colorado April 21 to spend three weeks helping at three New Jersey hospitals.

“It was an honor. Those guys went through hell before we got there,” she said. “And to be there and to be able to stand beside them as they recovered and put their ER back together, it was an honor.”

An emergency room nurse at Westminster’s St. Anthony North, Adkins was stationed at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s a hospital roughly the size of Denver’s Presbyterian St. Luke, with between 40 and 50 emergency room beds.

The difference, she said, was that COVID-19 made it impossible to treat those beds like emergency room beds. The pandemic forced the hospital to treat the emergency room, along with the entire hospital, as one big, slow-moving intensive care unit.

Where a normal emergency room visit lasts two hours for a patient, these visits lasted several days. And emergency room nurses are used to treating patients and either releasing them to go home or sending them on to another unit for more treatment.

“An ICU nurse has one or two patients — or in this case, five or six —that you treat for the whole shift,” she said. “Normally in the ER, they get there and you know within the first two hours if your patient is going to get released or get sent upstairs.”

Instead, these patients stayed, right where they were.

From really bad to just bad

Adkins said the cases of COVID-19 had peaked just before the Colorado nurses arrived, so their role was to give the New Jersey nurses a break.

“When we got there, it was still pretty rough,” she said. “Actually, the day we arrived they saw kind of a turn from things being really bad to just being bad.”

New Jersey, with its proximity to New York, has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, with more than 150,000 confirmed cases as of May 21 and more than 10,000 deaths.

Colorado has fared better so far, with almost 23,000 confirmed cases and 1,300 deaths. As of May 21, 3,955 Coloradoans had been hospitalized with COVID-19.

The Colorado nurses were stationed at four hospitals spread around the Garden State: Trinitas in Elizabeth, where Adkins was; St. Peter’s Healthcare System in New Brunswick; and the Paterson and Wayne campuses of St. Joseph’s Health.

Five of the nurses, including Adkins, came from the St. Anthony North Health Campus in Westminster while 27 came from Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs. One nurse came from the St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo and Saint Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco.

Each worked an emergency room-standard schedule of four 12-hour days, returning to a mostly-closed hotel when they were off-shift. Adkins checked in with her Colorado family daily, having video chats with her four-year-daughter, waiting for her next shift to start.

A whole body killer

Adkins said she was surprised to see how all encompassing the diseases is. One of the main complications was the high incidence of sepsis, a condition that occurs when the body reacts to an infection by flooding the blood stream with various chemicals. Those chemicals can overwhelming the body, attacking organs, making it difficult to breathe, lowering blood pressure and spiking the heart rate.

“So they’re not just fighting COVID, they’re fighting all these other health issues that can become lifelong,” she said. “I saw it firsthand in New Jersey. It's not just COVID. It’s everything else. Kidneys start failing, your heart has issues. COVID literally attacks every part of your body and many of those effects last for the rest of your life.”

The deaths she witnessed were also hard because the patients were alone. The family couldn’t be there in person, just via video chats.

“The families can’t see what’s happening, so they’re pleading with you to do something,” she said. “They can’t see everything you are doing. It’s a disconnect. It’s a disconnect from the families, for the providers, the patients. Everyone feels it. We’re not sure what to do.”

Time off

Now back home with her family, she’s taking some vacation time off. Her husband, she said, is very happy to have a second parent back home.

She’ll return to her Westminster ER in June.

Colorado has been enormously lucky, keeping the spread of COVID-19 down through social distancing, she said.

“I feel like Colorado, we’ve been very fortunate” she said. “I’ve been looking at the numbers in comparison between Colorado and New Jersey. They got hit so hard and so fast. What the other nurses were telling me is that one day it was normal, the next day they had the first COVID positive. And by the third day, they were overrun.”

There was no way to ease into it, she said. That’s why it matters that Colorado has done a good job of flattening the curve, and slowed down the disease’s spread.

“I do think Colorado is doing a good job slowly reopening, rather than just being like, 'We’re open! Come play!” she said.

“I just hope we never have to see what New Jersey saw, in our lifetimes,” she said. “I hope no one ever has to see that, again.”

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