ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - How will we remember this moment in time? Will we remember the fear, or the courage?
For those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, like the doctors, nurses, and staff at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, this has been a call to duty, a call to heal.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I sat it out,” said Dr. Andrew Olson. “This is in many ways my generation’s defining moment I think.”
Dr. Andrew Olson, like most of his colleagues, volunteered to work at Bethesda, now a dedicated COVID-19 hospital, like the firefighter who runs into a burning building over and over, hoping to safe one more.
“Even when family is not here those patients, those patients are not alone,” Olson said.
“This is scary. This is a scary place to be,” Angie Whitley, a nurse at Bethesda, said. “When I tell people I’m at the COVID hospital they’re scared to be near me, and that’s okay.”
Whitley has lost 20 patients, becoming a bridge to their families, holding iPads to say a final goodbye.
“It’s difficult to see what I see every day, what these nurses go through, what these patients and families go through,” Whitley said. “We had a patient her last request was to be surrounded by flowers and without hesitation, staff brought in flowers and she died peacefully surrounded by flowers. It chokes me up. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Even with so much death, there is also life here.
“I think it would be silly to look for too many silver linings in this right now, but there are positive stories that have to be told there are people whose lives are saved going home to their families,” Olson said.
When someone is well enough to be discharged from Bethesda, it is recorded on a white board. They ring a bell and they play an uplifting song.
“It’s a visual and auditory reminder of how important this is,” said Olson. “One more fight won.”
It is not just hospitals. This daily life and death struggle is playing out at long-term care facilities across Minnesota.
“This is honestly the most altruistic thing I can see anyone doing right now,” Jen Clark, an RN at The Emeralds at St. Paul, a long-term care facility, said.
Nurses have now replaced family in the final moments.
“I’m also maybe the only one who gets to hold a hand or I tell someone I barely know they are deeply loved,” Clark said.
“We give them that compassion, we talk to them like family like daughters and sisters and make them feel that this is home,” Faith Doyen, a CNA, said.
For many of these nurses, their own homes are no longer a refuge, but fraught with worry about infecting their own families.
“When I get home we don’t hug them I don’t kiss them anymore,” Doyen said. “It came to a point my daughter, she said ‘Mommy we don’t get the hugs and kisses anymore.’ Yeah because of what I’m doing I need to keep you safe.”
Time is a luxury they do not have. There are long hours, with little sleep.
“I have the pleasure of working with people who understand best practices and their endurance is humbling,” Clark said.
When asked about her own endurance, Clark said, “I don’t know that we really take our time to think about it, you know.”
One day we will properly mourn the losses, even as we celebrate the lives saved. No doubt, we will remember the fear, but it will be eclipsed by the courage we saw, inspired by the people who wore masks, who never forgot what it means to be human.
“Sometimes you get a little complacent. I’ve been a nurse 20 years and sometimes you need to find meaning again,” said Whitley. “And I think coming in here, you find that meaning and it’s rewarding.”
“It’s my honor and my privilege to be in this position and I am supported by champions,” Clark said.