Pandemic Front Line: Healthcare Heroes on the COVID-19 Unit

The staff of F6/5 general internal medicine, otherwise known as the "COVID unit" as of March 2020, transformed to provide care to patients suspected of, or confirmed to have COVID-19.


It was early March when nurses on the F6/5 unit realized their jobs were about to change in ways that none of them had ever experienced before. As UW Health starting seeing an increase in patients being hospitalized with COVID-19, this "General Internal Medicine" unit was transformed into the hospital's special pathogens unit - the part of the hospital that provides care to patients suspected of, or confirmed to have, highly infectious diseases considered a threat to public health.


On a strictly operational level, that meant closing off the unit to general traffic from the rest of the hospital, securing entry points, changing patient transfer routes, and converting all the rooms on the unit to negative air pressure, among other things. But for the nurses who work there, those changes were minor compared to the adaptations and innovation required to provide the highest level of care to this new patient population.


"We all knew, of course, that at any time our unit could be converted into the special pathogens unit, but none of us had experienced that kind of situation during our careers here," said Sara Schoen, nurse manager on F6/5. "While it was probably one of the most challenging professional experiences any of us had ever experienced, I am really proud of how our nursing staff met this challenge head on, not only because of their commitment to their work and patients but also because of how they relied on each other to get through this."


One of the more challenging aspects during the early days of the pandemic was adjusting to the new safety protocols designed to limit the number of providers and staff who could interact with COVID-positive patients. As a result, nursing staff had to take on a variety of new roles, in addition to navigating the complicated new reality of caring for patients during a pandemic.


For example, culinary staff was no longer allowed to bring food in, phlebotomy stopped doing blood draws, physical and occupational therapy was suspended, and assistance with patient transfer was limited. All of these services were still required for patients, of course, but it was the nursing staff that stepped in to fill all those roles.


Other relatively simple tasks, like checking patients' oxygen levels, became difficult during the early days of the pandemic, too, mostly because nurses couldn't physically round on their patients as often as they had in the past. Prior to the pandemic, when a patient's oxygen levels got too low a nurse would be alerted about their vitals on a pager, after which they would then go to the room to address the problem. But that wasn't possible during COVID-19, when reducing the amount of staff exposure to the virus and preserving the dwindling supply of PPE made such simple tasks more challenging. As a workaround, staff developed a process by which each patient's pulse oximeter was hooked up to the regular telemetry box in the room, allowing the oxygen levels to be monitored at the nurses station without anybody having to enter the room, saving precious PPE and minimizing unnecessary exposure.


"Every day it feels like we are learning something new about our jobs and about each other," says Kaitlyn Wallin, a nurse on F6/5, who was only a year into her nursing career when the pandemic hit. "It is difficult but rewarding, and the experience is helping us improve processes that have, ultimately, led to more efficient and effective care."


But perhaps the single most important thing the nursing staff on F6/5 has given these patients during pandemic is something that defines their compassionate level of care.


"The emotional support required by these patients is incredibly high, not only because they are not feeling well, but because of the social isolation that occurs as a result of the visitor restrictions and lack of direct contact with loved ones," Wallin says. "I realized during this time just how much support family brings and, lacking that, how much these patients rely on us to talk with them, to console them when they need it, and to become one of their most consistent sources of support while they're here."


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