The people on the front lines of the novel coronavirus

April 21, 2020

In the spirit of teamwork and commitment, UCHealth’s employees celebrate each time a patient who has been treated for COVID-19 is released from the hospital. So far, more than 550 people have been treated and later released from the hospital. Here are a few of the stories from the front lines:

Judith Taylor

Judith Taylor takes a deep breath before she goes in to a patient’s room in the ICU at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.

Taylor, a registered nurse, says she is worried for herself, her co-workers and her husband and kids during the novel coronavirus pandemic. When she considers how scared the patients are, she keeps her own fear in perspective.

A photo of Judith Taylor, a nurse at UCHealth Memorial Hospital and one of the people on the front line of the novel coronavirus.
Judith Taylor

“That fear is always with me every time I have to go into a COVID room,’’ she says. “But then I also understand that the patient needs me, and I have to do everything to help them in every way again. So, my fear doesn’t matter. It does, but it doesn’t. I have to remember that the patients are scared, more scared probably than I am,’’ she said.

Taylor usually takes care of patients while they are in recovery after surgery. Since many surgeries have been postponed, she and others from the post-anesthesia unit have been transferred to help out in the ICUs.

“I try to remember that what I’m feeling, these patients could be feeling 10 times more,” she said.

Taylor has three kids, ages 17, 14 and 9 at home. She keeps a bucket in her garage where she places her work clothes.

“I take my uniform off. My shoes, everything stays in my garage. I spray down my shoes, I Clorox my car and then I go straight to the shower before I even talk to them or touch them just to try to eliminate the chances of taking something home to them.’’

A nurse for 19 years, Taylor knows they need her now more than ever.

Erin Bennett, charge nurse on ICU

Four weeks ago when the numbers of patients with the new coronavirus began rising in Colorado, Erin Bennett drove her two children, ages 4 and 10, to their grandparents’ home in Kansas.

Erin Bennett
Erin Bennett

Bennett, a nurse for 12 years who works in an Intensive Care Unit at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, told her kids that their grandparents missed them, and that she needed to take care of the sick people in the hospital.

“I don’t think they really understand,’’ Bennett said. “They know I’m a nurse, and I take care of a lot of sick people, but I wanted them to be safe.’’

At work, Bennett works 12-hour shifts, leading a team in the ICU. Patient rooms are enclosed in glass and in the rooms where COVID-19 patients receive care, the glass is scrawled with messages written in an erasable magic marker.

“We write on the glass if we need something so that if you are on the inside, you can communicate with the outside if you have a need. That way, you don’t have to come out, you don’t have to take off your PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to come out, we can pass you whatever medicine or wipe – whatever equipment or supplies you may need,’’ Bennett said.

Nurses spend anywhere from 15 minutes to a full hour at a time with a COVID patient, depending upon the patient’s needs. Nurses check vital signs, medications, blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels. Many patients are on ventilators and have feeding tubes to ensure they receive proper nutrition. Nurses also check to make sure patients are adequately sedated and have received their daily medications – prescriptions for blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes.

“When you are in the room, you want to make sure you are getting all of your cares done because it is not as easy to just come out,’’ she said.

Even though patients with COVID in the ICU are sedated, Bennett said, “Our practice is always to talk to people and explain things to everybody. Even if you are intubated and sedated, we explain what we are doing, no matter the level of consciousness they have. We want to be sure they are aware of what is going on.’’

Bennett said the ICU is a stressful but rewarding place. Though patients have died, many have lived.

“We have had many people come off the ventilators and move out of the ICU. We have lost people, but we have had quite a few success stories too,’’ she said.

Jeannie Fleet and Katie McCord

Jeannie Fleet and Katie McCord are physical therapists. Normally, they provide physical therapy for patients in ​all units of the hospital, including those in the ICUs who are acutely ill. Much of their work involves helping people sit up, get out of bed, ​and ​learn how to mobilize safely in order to return to their everyday lives once they leave the hospital setting.

Jeannie Fleet and Katie McCord
Jeannie Fleet and Katie McCord

During the outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19, Fleet and McCord are part of a “turn team’’ at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central. Their job is to help ​the nursing staff in the ICUs to turn over patients with COVID-19 – many of whom spend up to 16​-20 hours a day on their stomachs.

Placing the sickest patients on their stomachs – prone positioning – helps increase the amount of oxygen that patients can get into their lungs.

A turn team is comprised of ​at least five people. A respiratory therapist is positioned at the patient’s head and ensures that when the patient is turned that ventilator hoses stay in the proper position. A nurse ​or therapist announces the commands for turning the patient ​and everyone works as a team to position a completely sedated patient from their back to their stomach (or vice versa) in a coordinated sequence. It takes much planning, set-up, and teamwork to be effective and smooth.

Fleet said therapists ​always talk to the patients to let them know what is happening.

“We don’t know if they are hearing us,’’ Fleet said. “But we let people know that we’re here to help, and we’re just going to move you around and reposition you.’’

Christopher Keith

Christopher Keith is a kind soul, a chaplain at UCHealth Memorial Hospital who supports patients, family and staff.

A photo of Christopher Keith
Christopher Keith

During the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, he is often called upon to connect families via FaceTime or Zoom by using an iPad. That way, families can stay in touch with a loved one who is hospitalized. In some cases, families say goodbye via a video connection.

“It’s a good thing and it’s the right thing,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, I know what we are doing is right and good, but this is hard.

Chaplains are part of care conferences and regularly check in with families. During video conferences, Keith said, he encourages family members to talk to their loved one just like they would at any other time.

Chaplains stay out of the way of the medical staff, but their presence is a gift, not only to patients, but the staff.

“What we  normally do is ask the family what is important to their family,’’ Keith said. “One family asked us to play music, another one asked that we say prayers and read scripture. One family asked that we squeeze hands. They had a practice of squeezing each other’s hands three times before they went to bed at night.’’

Keith said chaplains talk to patients, even if they are sedated or unable to speak.

“We tell them their family is here and that they are on the video and we make sure the volume is up,’’ Keith said. “As much as I’ve seen with anybody, they seem as responsive if they’re going to be responsive. Sometimes they could see their eyelids lift or they try to talk around the ventilator. When they extubate them and the time is near, sometimes they want to stay with the video and sometimes they say, “Ok. Thank you.’’

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Christina Wilson

On her days off, Christine Wilson, a registered nurse for 18 years, asks her family and friends to practice what she calls ‘NTARD Days’ – Not Talking About Rona Days.

“It just kind of saturates you when you are here,’’ she says from an intensive care unit at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.

Like many, Wilson is perplexed by the virus. In one room, she is caring for a man who is near death and in another room, there’s a patient who is rebounding and getting better. She wonders why some patients do better than others.

A photo of Christina Wilson
Christina Wilson

A big part of the job is talking to family members of the patients. Families of one patient call on the hour; the family of a second patient calls two or three times a day.

“They call pretty frequently,’’ she said. “We have help from chaplains who arrange for families to see their loved ones via FaceTime.’’

She said staff are relying on their co-workers to help patients and each other.

“It seems like the staff that I have met in the last couple of weeks are pretty well adjusted to what is necessary to take care of our patients,’’ she said. “It feels like what is necessary changes daily but it seems like everybody is going with the flow, they’re used to the changes. People seem to be rolling with it and I appreciate the positivity with everyone here.’’

She is eager to return to her normal role of taking care of patients after surgery, though working in the ICU with the sickest of patients has reminded her of just how fragile life is.

“It’s a good perspective maker, because I haven’t take care of the very sick people in a few years. It reminds me that life is short, though I don’t dwell on that. It makes me grateful for my health and my family’s health.’’

She says she is grateful to be working for UCHealth during the biggest public health emergency in a century.

“I love it here. I just love it,’’ she said.

Tana Steiner-Smith

Tana Steiner-Smith builds relationships.

Tana Steiner-Smith

As a social worker in the intensive care unit at UCHealth Memorial Central, Steiner-Smith helps patients and families during crisis. For some, it’s listening and providing counsel. For others, it’s providing resources, support for out-of-hospital needs, or preparing for next steps.

When patients come to the hospital without identification, Steiner-Smith works to identify the person and to notify their families. She also helps staff when difficult conversations must occur, including end of life decisions. The COVID-19 pandemic makes those conversations even more challenging. To protect patients, families and staff,  UCHealth is restricting visitors. Difficult conversations now take place over the phone as anxious family members seek updates about their loved ones. Steiner-Smith is an empathetic bridge between patient, medical teams and families. Families may visit at the end of life and are supported by Steiner-Smith and other staff.

“I love the interactions and relationships I am fortunate to have with patients, their families and the ICU team,” Steiner-Smith said. “The ICU team is phenomenal. We recognize it’s an unprecedented time and that we’ll get through this with grace, understanding and patience.”

Terry Kirksey

Terry Kirksey

When UCHealth Memorial Hospital leaders needed patient rooms with specialized air flows, they turned to 35-year HVAC professional Terry Kirksey for help.

Though he prefers to work behind the scenes, Kirksey was front and center as several standard hospital rooms were converted to isolation rooms in anticipation of COVID-19 patients. A key feature of isolation rooms is ensuring proper filtering and venting so air exits at a higher rate than it comes in.

For the Houston, Texas transplant who once worked for NASA, converting rooms to a negative air flow is all in a day’s work. It’s also his personal contribution to helping his community deal with a crisis.

“We’re a team of seven,” Kirksey said of his colleagues. “A true team. Every one of us has stepped up and is willing to do what it takes to help. When we go to a room, whether it’s checking the temperature of a refrigerator or measuring air flow, we try to be quick and to put folks at ease. We understand what’s at stake here.”

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.