August 5, 2021

Frontline workers describe the realities of a COVID-19 unit as cases rise

A hospital worker wearing personal protective equipment, including a face shield

'It’s heartbreaking ... This is preventable. We can’t go back to last fall.'

Madison, Wis. – As COVID-19 cases rise across Wisconsin, frontline doctors and nurses at UW Health are reflecting on what it was like to care for patients before there was a vaccine available, how it feels to watch cases rise now that a vaccine is readily available and what it is like for patients to be hospitalized with COVID-19.

In recent months, nearly all the people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the United States have been unvaccinated, and the same is true here at UW Health say Dr. Ann Sheehy, a hospitalist who has been taking care of COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic.

“It’s heartbreaking and frustrating as a provider to see unvaccinated individuals admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. This is preventable,” said Sheehy. “I think back to the beginning of the pandemic when so many people died because there was no vaccine. Now we have the best tool to end this pandemic, so it is extremely disheartening that people are choosing to prolong this emergency and put themselves and others at risk by not getting the vaccine.”

When a person requires hospitalization for COVID-19, it is often because they cannot get the oxygen they need without help. Care providers try to make patients as comfortable as possible, but patients cannot have visitors and often must spend much of their day in isolation or with health care providers wearing full personal protective equipment. If a person’s COVID-19 case becomes severe enough, they can require a ventilator, which means a tube is inserted down their windpipe into their lungs to assist their breathing and the patient needs to be sedated or even placed in a medical coma to keep them alive, Sheehy described.

While vaccinated people can still get COVID-19 – the delta variant is especially contagious – breakthrough cases are still rare, and the vaccine is extremely effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death, said Sheehy.

“Getting the vaccine is the difference between life and death for many,” she said.

Maddie Weitz, a nurse at UW Health who has been treating COVID-19 patients since the beginning, said she hopes people listen to the experts and think of others when deciding to get the vaccine.

“Cases are rising and we’re prepared to care for our patients, but we’re scared. We need people to wear masks and get vaccinated,” said Weitz. “Last year was so physically and emotionally demanding, we as nurses worry that we cannot survive another surge. We can’t go back. Please get vaccinated.”

“This is a brutal disease. It’s hard to watch patients who cannot catch their breath. It’s painful to watch them speak to loved ones before they go on a ventilator knowing they might never see them again,” said Sheehy. “These moments will stick with healthcare providers for the rest of their lives. We beg everyone in Wisconsin to get vaccinated.”

Dr. Ann Sheehy and nurse Maddie Weitz treat COVID-19 patients at UW Health