Right now the pandemic is the worst it’s ever been in Colorado. Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, and the current statewide test positivity rate is more than double the level experts say is needed to contain viral spread. But collective support for our health care workers—the frontline heroes of this deadly battle—has dwindled. Gone are the gestures that embodied the best of humanity this spring: the nightly howls, the handmade signs, the warm meal deliveries.
We asked three local health care workers who have treated COVID-19 patients from the beginning what it’s like to experience this drastic change, what they wish Coloradans understood about the virus, and how worried they are about the current surge. Here are their stories in their own words.
Kathleen Combs, 42
ICU nurse at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital
This past spring was the first ever time that I felt, as a health care worker, the support of a full community. The howling was insane. It was the coolest thing. Every night that I was home, I would open the windows at 8 p.m. It felt so good that people knew and thought about us. There was a guy who played a trumpet at change of shift every day. That was so neat to walk out of the hospital and listen to that and know that there was a person trying to show support. People also sent food and cards to the hospital.
All of that just slowly diminished as the pandemic wore on. And as nice as those gestures were, I don’t expect them to come back. I would really just prefer that people do what’s been asked. It breaks my heart when I see people not wearing masks and not following public health precautions. There are a million things that I would like to write on my own mask to try and prove a point to the people who won’t wear them. Like: “I wear this for all of the bodies I zip into body bags.” But I don’t think it’ll make any difference, and I’m generally a non-confrontational person, so I just try and steer clear and go about my business. It saddens me because wearing masks is the simplest thing we could do as a community to help decrease the spread. And yet there are so many folks who just adamantly refuse.
My mental health has certainly taken a dive since the pandemic started. You could ask my husband and my kids—they will tell you that I’m not quite the same person I was. I have been able to maintain some of the things that help keep me sane, like running and hiking with my family. But I do believe that in a few years, there will be a fair amount of PTSD. I haven’t slept well in months. I dream about taking care of patients all night. And it’s kind of a failure every single night. So I’m pretty sure that my mental health is actually worse than I think it is.
Watching patients coming in through the door recently and seeing how rapidly the numbers have gone back up, it makes me nervous for what the future holds.
Erin Trujillo, 39
ICU clinical nurse coordinator at North Suburban Medical Center
We nurses don’t do what we do for attention. We don’t need the hype and the glamour. Having the community support is amazing, but we’re not here for that recognition. We’re here to help see patients through their worst time and their family’s worst time. So even though we’ve been forgotten, we’re still coming here every day, we’re still giving 100 percent. We’re not doing less of a job than we were doing before. We are still here. We are still fighting. And we need your help.
It’s hard when you see members of the community disregarding social distancing or not wearing their masks. That’s hurtful, especially after what I’ve seen over the past few months. I’ve seen a lot of people pass away. I’m an ICU nurse, so I’m used to death, and I have a pretty good tolerance for that. But the amount that we’ve had recently, and the things that we’ve been through, I feel like it’s a sign of respect to follow the rules, social distance, wear your masks, and help us. We don’t need the food, we don’t need the cheers, but it’s nice to show support by doing what you’re supposed to do and help keep yourself and your loved ones out of the ICU.
I want people to know there’s a lot more that happens with COVID than what you see on TV. COVID is more than not being able to breathe. Some patients have strokes. Or kidney failure. Or clotting problems. Some start bleeding everywhere. And we’re there holding pressure on bleeds. We’re there holding somebody’s hand so they don’t die alone.
Our numbers are climbing. I can see it, and I’m anxious. But I feel like I have really good support here. Our leadership has offered resiliency exercises, and that’s really helped a lot. I think we’re more prepared now than we were in the spring. I try not to jump too far ahead though. I take it day by day, shift by shift.
Beth Hicks, 47
MD, hospitalist, and president of the medical staff at Sky Ridge Medical Center
We’ve seen more COVID cases in health care workers recently; I have colleagues who have COVID right now. Health care workers are a resource most people don’t think about, and that’s why it’s important that the whole community work together on this. You don’t know the health of the people around you. You could be exposing someone who had multiple medical problems and could get very, very ill. You could be exposing a health care worker, who then gets taken out of our resources to help the rest of the community. Right now we’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. It’s going to be a really rough winter if we have more and more health care workers who are getting infected and not able to take care of patients.
Seeing people not take public health precautions makes me feel unvalued. The medical community is trying to educate people that this is really important. Everyone has their right to choose, but when you see people choosing not to listen to the guidance, they’re basically saying, Well, you know, that’s fine, you can tell me this is important, but I’m not going to do it, even if it puts my family, my colleagues, and my community at risk.
It’s an honor to be able to take care of our community, and we want to be able to continue to do that. But we need your help. We can’t do it alone. We need your help in fighting the spread of this pandemic, by washing your hands and wearing your mask. All of us health care workers, we want to be on the front lines—it’s that passion, fire, and drive that we have to do what we do every single day. But we can’t do it alone.