“It can be a little daunting to walk in here every day, but this is my job,” said Lindsay Desmond. “I’m an ER nurse, and this is what I signed up for.”
Desmond is in her second year working the night shift in Chester County Hospital’s Emergency Room, where she and her colleagues have been on the front lines screening, admitting, and treating COVID-19 patients. Now, with vaccines becoming more available, she has begun to feel a sense of hope for the future.
In the early spring, with the first spike of COVID-19 in the U.S., healthcare workers like Desmond were especially on guard because they had never experienced a pandemic of this scale in their lifetimes.
“When it first started back in March, we saw the initial wave of patients coming in who were really scared,” said Desmond, a Wallingford resident. “Everyone who had a cough or a running nose was coming in thinking they had the virus. Nobody knew how they were going to react because it’s novel; we were terrified, too.”
The hospital set up a tent outside for the screening of new virus patients, and the surge in actual cases was eventually reduced due to the stay-at-home orders, according to Desmond.
“When we went under strict lockdown measures and the requirements to socially distance, we didn’t see as much of an uptick in cases as we thought initially,” she said.
As most had feared, however, another spike in cases came in the fall.
“Starting right when the kids went back to school, and with people getting more relaxed and going back out to eat, we had as many inpatient COVID cases as there were in our downtown Philadelphia hospital,” said Desmond.
The decision was made that all patients visiting the ER, even those with a just a twisted ankle or other minor injury, should be screened for COVID-19 exposure as part of triage. If a patient admitted to having been exposed to someone with the virus, he or she was taken to a cohort area for further screening in order to limit their exposure to non-COVID patients and hospital staff.
“If we have an open bed in that section, we try to get them back in the room as soon as possible,” said Desmond. “We then ask about their symptoms and then we may test them, or if they are here to be tested, we do so as part of the workup.”
The specific COVID-19 symptoms of shortness of breath and decreased levels of oxygen saturation are key reasons for admitting patients to the hospital for observation. If their condition improves, these patients may be sent home. Under Chester County Hospital’s COVID Watch program, however, a nurse will keep in contact with them at home to ensure symptoms don’t worsen.
Although the hospital has never run out of beds like other facilities around the county, Desmond admits that, at times, it has become like a chess game in deciding where to move those who get admitted. She said that the situation was particularly critical right after Thanksgiving.
“We saw a huge influx of COVID patients after the holiday,” she said. “I get it – being alone for this long really stinks – but the amount of people who are older and exposed themselves to the virus during Thanksgiving is just sad. Now, at any given time, the ‘COVID’ area in the hospital is almost always full with virus patients.”
Through it all, Desmond and her colleagues have fared better than expected, mainly by pulling together and supporting one another.
“It’s hard to go home and tell people who don’t work in a hospital what it’s really like,” she said. “We see what this virus does to people, and it’s heartbreaking, so we really had to lean on each other. We’ve laughed and cried, and through it all, I found a new trust in my colleagues. The pandemic has really brought us together because we had to figure it out as a team, make plans, and trust and depend on one another.”
As front-line workers – heroes, actually – Desmond and her team at the hospital have received their first doses of the vaccine. She admits that it brought smiles and excitement to her colleagues at the hospital, knowing for the first time all year they could feel some glimmer of hope.
“I want to tell people that there is light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine, and we just have to hunker down for a little bit longer and trust the science,” she said. “I know people are scared of the vaccine, but I’m scared of COVID-19. I’m going to socially distance and wear a mask, and hopefully by summer, we will all be able to get back to our normal existence.”