Local nurses open up on emotional toll of combating COVID-19 on the front-line

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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — Many people personally know someone who was sent to the hospital–or at least tested positive for COVID-19. While most of them recover, some can’t beat the virus on their own. The virus doesn’t only affect them–but it also takes a toll-physically and mentally–on healthcare workers whose job is to help people heal.

We all…we’re all pretty sad. All of us – we cry every day. I go home and I cry,” explained Ginger el Brichi, a nurse at SwedishAmerican. “It’s hard to see people this sick and this sick for long.”

When COVID-19 started making headlines months ago–no one knew what to expect. That includes people in the medical community.

“At first, yeah that was the mindset, that this was just the flu. Then once you’ve physically seen someone my own age, who isn’t – you know – who’s a regular healthy person get very sick from this. It gets kind of – it shifts your mindset a little bit,” explained Kaitlyn Halbrader.

“I have heard from some people in the community that they think this is a hoax – that it’s not real. It is very real,” Brichi said.

Ginger el Brichi has been a nurse for nearly four decades. She’s using every bit of that experience to treat COVID-19 patients in SwedishAmerican Hospital’s critical care unit.

“ICU is generally hard physical labor anyway, but this population is very high labor. There is no easy patients to take care of. They’re all on ventilators. They’re all sedated, many of them paralyzed. Many of them prone,” she said. “It’s a lot of work…lot of stress.”

The hospital shifted staff to help deal with the workload. Some used to work in the ICU. Even with that past experience, special protective equipment can make the job tough.

“They’re all hot. The mask is hot. The hood is hot. You go in the rooms and it’s just hot. And you can’t breathe because N95 it just feels like you’re not getting enough air,” Brichi said.

Nurses like Ginger el Brichi, Jackie Abraham and Kaitlyn Halbrade lean on each other to handle the stress.

“Everyone that comes up to the floor is always making sure that we’re doing OK. Take a break if you need to and kind of take care of yourselves as well – cuz it is stressful, I mean, caring for patients that – we just don’t know,” Halbrader said.

Halbrader’s boyfriend is also a nurse on the COVID floor. Abraham has family members in healthcare–as her sister is a nurse practitioner and her brother-in-law is an infection prevention specialist.

“It’s been very emotional. It’s been very rewarding at the same time. And I think it’s been kind of encouraging in the same sense here at SwedishAmerican we’ve kind of been like a family,” Abraham explained.

The Swedes family has been hit more than once over the last few weeks and were forced to put their emotions aside when they found themselves caring for a coworker.

“She was a nurse that actually works primarily in our heart hospital that was taking care of patients who was on our COVID floor. So she actually took care of COVID patients [and] came down with COVID herself. And ended up starting out on our COVID unit deteriorated pretty quickly and ended up having to be over in the ICU and intubated,” Abraham said.

“Seeing someone like that who was a fellow nurse get to leave the hospital was pretty incredible and having that rally for her when she left,” Halbrader added.

The nurse is now on the road to recovery. Rachel Parrot is a patient care technician at Swedes studying to be a nurse. She also recovered from the virus.

“For me it was like the worst pain and uncomfortable-ness I’ve ever felt. But compared to everybody else it was probably very easy…” Parrot said.

She didn’t end up in the hospital. It took a while but she got better isolated at home. After careful monitoring, she was cleared to return to work. Remembering how afraid she was when she got sick taking care of patients was extra emotional for her.

“The first day back I saw a patient and I actually went to my car and cried… just because…thinking that could be me. That could be my family members. And we’re roughly the same age and it’s just crazy to think how different we had it,” Parrot added.

As serious as the virus hits patients, there are plenty of success stories. SwedishAmerican celebrates every one–with the “Rocky” theme song. The song plays throughout the hospital’s PA system when someone is able to breathe on their own again.

There is also a visual reminder of recoveries in a 2nd floor window that is full of colorful hearts. Brichi believes it is important to focus on the successes to balance the reality that COVID-19 can be a killer.

“To see people get better…I just took a breathing tube out of my patient a couple of hours ago. It’s wonderful. You feel…it’s so defeating in general with this virus that the success stories are great,” Brichi added.

As busy as critical care is right now, the nurses are preparing for another surge.

“So we know that we’re going to stay at a high level of patients on ventilators for a long time because people are gonna be going back out and going to work and so we’re just going to keep working hard in the ICU,” Brichi said.

All three nurses we talked to say that the thing the bothers them the most is that patients aren’t allowed visitors when they are admitted. This essentially cuts those patients off from their families during a very difficult time.

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