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Another world: Nurses on the coronavirus front line

Another world: Nurses on the coronavirus front line

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York General Hospital RN Traci Rystrom peeks from the negative pressure hallway after gowning up and getting ready to head into the hallway reserved for COVID-19 patients.

YORK – York General Hospital nurses are on the front line of battling COVID-19 in York; it’s an endeavor filled with pain – both physical and emotional.

A hallway in the hospital is blocked off specifically for COVID-19 patients, having 11 beds. So far, the greatest number of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients at York General’s coronavirus until is 7.

Nurses are working 12-hour shifts, donning PPE gear. “The gowns we have are plastic. It sticks to your arms,” said Cheryl Eklund, Director of Med/Surg at York General Hospital. Gowns are fluid-proof, plus there is other protective equipment: a hair net, an N95 mask, a face shield, an isolation gown, booties, goggles, and gloves. “They are basically in their PPE their entire shift,” Eklund said. For nurses, suiting up in PPE is done so frequently it’s become an ingrained routine. “The process is second nature now – I just go step by step,” said Traci Rystrom, a Med/Surg RN.

The hallway has almost become its own little world, the blocked off section occupied by only certified staff and patients. Robots and environmental services professionals do double duty – cleaning rooms and sterilizing anything that isn’t destroyed. “For the most part people are being troopers. We just try to do it one at a time and take it day-by-day,” Eklund, who has also been working the floor, said. “The hallway is what we consider ‘dirty,’”. After passing through a sealed-off entryway, the PPE-clad nurses then go through fire doors to reach their patients.

Safety measures can be painful. Masks rub the dedicated nurses faces raw, as they sweat within their protective equipment, which is carefully, frequently changed. “People have rigged up different things to keep the pressure off their ears.”

Still, the most pain comes from seeing their patients. When transfers are necessary, patients sometimes must be sent further away than usual. Lincoln is full, so the team sends people to Omaha. “A lot of these people we know. It feels like pushing away your family.”

Eklund said some patients who need hospital-level care have been avoiding coming to the hospital, for fear of contracting COVID-19. “They’re not going to get COVID from us or another patient. We’re probably the safest here taking care of our patients in PPE than when we are outIf a person with an illness is unsure about coming to the hospital, Eklund advised they call first. “I think there has been four or five times we haven’t had a bed except for COVID beds,” she said. “It’s scary. You just hope everybody can stay as healthy as possible.”

According to Four Corners Health Department, which serves York, Seward, Butler and Polk counties, as of Nov. 18, 2020, the total cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in the Four Corners District was 2,816. Among those are 148 cases identified between November 17-18.

“Right now health care workers are stretched to their limit, but we will continue until this is all done,” Eklund said. It’s hard for her team to understand why some people refuse to follow protective measures like wearing a mask – it’s almost a slap in the nurses’ raw, sore faces. “People just need to wear a mask. Any effectiveness is better than nothing. Keep those masks on when you’re out of your house or around other people.” Eklund also advises people to maintain social distance and wash hands frequently. “We did a great job the first time around, but we definitely haven’t flattened that curve,” she added. “Anything people can help us keep the numbers down we greatly appreciate.”

While in their secluded hallway world, Eklund said her team often thinks about families affected by the pandemic, whether they have a loved one with COVID-19 or hospitalized for other reasons. “Not having visitors for our patients and turning visitors away… you feel kind of heartless, but you have to keep people safe,” Eklund said. She often thinks about her own family, too – like missing her grandchildren and her mother, age 79. Her mother lives out of state, and Eklund has seen her only once since the pandemic hit. She said she misses her family, but isn’t willing to play Russian Roulette with a disease that has already made people around the world suffer, some losing their lives to the illness.

The novel coronavirus affects people differently – some seemingly not at all, at best. Some of the lasting implications of being diagnosed with COVID-19 are still unknown, researchers frantically trying to discover more about the novel coronavirus.

At its worse, COVID-19 kills. Some patients essentially drown in their own fluids, saturating and taking over their lungs as their body tries to fight off the disease. Some develop sepsis, as the infection reaches the bloodstream traveling the body destroying tissue along the way.

Some statistics indicate a low death rate, but the amount of potential excruciating pain – physical and emotional – can put things into perspective.

“The thought of not seeing my grandkids is hard,” Eklund said, but she realizes the importance of preventative measures, including with her mother. “She’s healthy; she’d probably be OK, but what if she’s not? I don’t want to be the one that gives it to her.”

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McKenzie Kohler of Amherst has had a history of pneumonia, once being hospitalized with it, but she typically goes to the doctor for an antibiotic and does well. Her plan was to go to the doctor Friday morning, Nov. 6, to get tested for COVID-19. She saw a nurse practitioner at Kearney Clinic who tested her for the virus and believed she had bronchitis.

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