Katie Harris is a registered nurse who works in a COVID-19 unit at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Appleton. (Photo: Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
APPLETON, Wis. — The coronavirus entered Katie Harris’s life innocently: as a trivia question.
What was the name of the virus that had just begun to hit the United States? She and her longtime best friend, who had both recently relocated to Arizona to work as travel nurses, didn’t know the answer.
Now, she knows all too well.
Harris returned to Wisconsin’s Fox Valley in May and picked back up at ThedaCare, where she started her nursing career three years prior. When she left Arizona, she knew COVID-19 was here to stay — but during the summer, ThedaCare, like hospitals around the state, saw a lull in patients. At the end of August, fewer than 300 people across Wisconsin were hospitalized with the virus.
But by early fall, a surge in cases was stressing hospitals in the the state. Today, nearly 2,000 COVID-19 patients are in hospitals.
ThedaCare hospitals have fluctuated between 90 and 100% capacity in recent weeks. One official said in four decades on the job, he’d never seen patient volumes as high.
Medical experts begged people to stay at home for the Thanksgiving holiday, but Harris said she and her coworkers on one of the COVID-19 units in Appleton, Wis. already know what’s going to happen.
“We’ve been through the ringer for months, and the community has seen everything. We’ve laid it all out there,” she said. “And people still probably aren’t going to listen.”
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Nurses on other units have told her they don’t know how she does it, but she rarely has time to stop and assess the gravity of the situation she’s in. She shows up because the patients need her.
Increasingly, they need her for everything — they’re so fatigued they need assistance getting to the bathroom, sitting up, even moving around in bed — as the number of seriously ill people in the hospital grows. She’s seen patients’ conditions worsen rapidly, from feeling fine in the morning to needing to be rushed to the ICU and placed on a ventilator in the afternoon.
But dealing with multiple patients with respiratory issues, physically taxing as it might be, isn’t new to nurses, and isn’t the hardest part for Harris.
What’s hard is that she’s now a stand-in family member for each of them, too, as hospitals’ visitor restrictions to prevent further spread of the virus often leave patients to fight the disease alone.
“Am I dying?” they’ll ask her.
Most days, there’s no sense in sugarcoating the answer. Harris can’t always tell them what they want to hear, but she can tell them what they need to do to improve their chances — whether it’s proning, a technique where patients lie on their stomachs to better expand the lungs, or working on other breathing exercises.
That’s what she’ll remember when the pandemic subsides: the feeling of being a patient’s lifeline, their one-man band, and what a difference her emotional support could make in their recovery. The work, more than ever, is deeply personal.
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Harris also plays a crucial role in updating family members about their sick loved ones. It’s hard to deliver the news over the phone that a patient hasn’t had a particularly good day. Sometimes, she said, the person on the other end of the line just cries.
There are days when the effort of driving home after a 12-hour shift is about all she can muster, and there are days when she calls co-workers to vent. Having a team she can count on, she said, makes the hard days easier.
“We know we need that support from each other,” Harris said. “They understand what you’re going through. They don’t even have to say a word.”
Where support is missing, she feels, is from the community. Seeing people resist guidance to stay home and wear a mask is hard to swallow, she said, when she sees what could happen to them if they get infected.
She feels like health care workers aren’t being heard. Either people who are acting carelessly don’t understand what she and her coworkers go through, she said, or they just don’t care.
“What else can we do?” Harris said. “What else do people in the community need us to do to prove to them that this is serious?”
Follow Madeline Heim on Twitter at @madeline_heim.
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