COVID-19 nurse at Bethesda Hospital describes treating patients, calls the situation ‘heartbreaking’

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Thursday marks two weeks since the first COVID-19 patients arrived at Bethesda Hospital. It’s the only facility in the state exclusively treating patients with the coronavirus.

Emily Allen, a registered nurse, started working at the facility immediately. She volunteered to transfer from St. Joseph’s in St. Paul.

“That’s where I feel like I’m being called to be,” said Allen. “When I became a nurse, I wanted to help people and this is a time where we need to come together."

She’s working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), taking care of the sickest patients.

“We’re getting an increasing amount of patients every day,” she said. “I know there are other patients that need to come over to us… we’re trying to spread those out a little bit and making sure we have enough adequate staff before we can bring over more patients.”

M Health Fairview told us it’s preparing to add another ICU by the end of the week to keep up with demand. The facility opened with 35 ICU beds and 55 medical-surgical beds.

Bethesda Hospital is seeing an increasing number of patients but has not reached capacity yet, according to a spokesperson.

Allen described the severity of the illness.

“Essentially in layman terms [COVID-19] basically turns your lungs into cement,” said Allen. “This virus does not target one specific age range or age group, we’ve got young, we’ve got middle-aged, we’ve got elderly.”

“It can really come out of nowhere, it can hit you in the blink of an eye and then before you know it you’re on a ventilator. I’m not trying to scare people, I’m just trying to be real,” she added.

According to Allen, ventilators have different settings that they can change depending on how sick the patient is.

She said it’s usually at about a five.

“These people are put to a 28 or 30 to kind of give you a ballpark [estimate],” she said. “These people are on the highest ventilator ranges I’ve ever seen in my career.”

It’s a scary situation for families. Visitors are not currently allowed at Bethesda Hospital, an effort to protect patients, nurses and doctors, and the public.

“Not being able to be there with your loved one is just, you know… heartbreaking,” said Allen. “It’s more even real now that families are sending in pictures of them when they were healthy, with their kids, it’s just heartbreaking.”

She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they’ve worked to connect families through FaceTime and phone calls, trying to give an update twice a day.

They’re also experiencing challenges.

“We still need more protective equipment,” said Allen. “We’re being asked to use one mask indefinitely unless it gets soiled or torn.”

They’re wearing gowns, goggles and face shields. If an N95 doesn’t fit correctly, nurses like Allen are wearing a helmet instead.

“It has a battery pack connected to it and it has a plastic face shield over it and it makes a seal under your chin and it kind of has an airflow system inside of the helmet,” she said.

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They also put on gloves and a gown.

She told us it takes them about five minutes to suit up before seeing each patient.

“We’re double-checking each other before we go into the rooms,” said Allen.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), there were 135 patients hospitalized as of Wednesday. Sixty-four patients were in the ICU.

M Health Fairview would not tell KSTP how many of those patients are being treated at Bethesda Hospital.

“Right now we’re able and very grateful, to have a one-to-one, patient-to-nurse ratio,” said Allen. “With what’s coming ahead, I don’t foresee that continuing to happen.”

Since the facility opened on March 26, the number of cases statewide has jumped from 346 to 1,154.

“We’re just seeing the very, very tip of this right now and things are going to get worse before they get better,” said Allen. “Just know that we care about every single patient, every single person and we are fighting for everybody and we’re not going to quit.”

She also wants Minnesotans to know they’re grateful for everyone who has been staying home and reaching out to the workers on the front line.

“Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts Minnesota, it’s not unnoticed, it’s so appreciated.”

M Health Fairview said starting on Thursday, all health care workers in its system who care for possible COVID-19 patients will wear N95 respirators.

In an e-mail a spokesperson said:

“To help conserve our respirator supply further, we will also be implementing a 5-day mask rotation process for N95 masks. We are also pursuing other decontamination options for respirators which will also help to extend our respirator use. Additionally, we are recommending N95 mask use for all providers performing intubation on patient regardless of COVID-19 status across our system.”

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