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CONVERSATIONS: Nurse Describes Unpreparedness, Fear Inside Central Florida ICU

AFP via Getty Images
Health care workers from Virginia Hospital Center put on their personal protective equipment before people arrive at a drive through testing site for coronavirus in Arlington, Va., on March 20, 2020.

Among the healthcare workers on the front-lines of the coronavirus crisis is Louella Ellis.

Ellis is an ICU nurse at Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford. She talked with 90.7's Amy Green about life inside her hospital.

ELLIS: I haven't seen anyone die from COVID, we're just preparing for that. So we are preparing and upping our game. Every time I go to work, we're doing a little bit more. We're having to wear surgical masks inside the hospital. We're trying to keep six feet away from each other in the hospital. But we've not yet experienced that surge of patients.

GREEN: What can you tell us about the experience of these patients at your hospital? What happens to these patients after they walk in the door? How are they treated? How are they isolated?

ELLIS: Patients are initially given a mask, and then if they show symptoms or if they've traveled in places that were high in COVID they would be tested. They would be put in an isolation room with a HEPA filtration system in the room until those tests came back. We would give supportive care for any patient that is having any respiratory issues. There would be supportive care with oxygen and that would include up to and including being incubated if need be.

GREEN: How long are the patients hospitalized with COVID-19 generally at your hospital?

ELLIS: I have not seen long hospital stays with COVID in my hospital, yet.

GREEN: Are these patients awake as they're on ventilators? Can you help paint a picture? What does that look like?

ELLIS: Yeah, they would be on ventilators. They would most often be sedated or not aware of what's going on around them, and we would provide for them everything that is essential for living. We would feed them through feeding tubes and give them formula into their bellies, and give their medications through tubes into their bellies. We would support their blood pressure, and their breathing would be constantly monitored. And we would clean their airway and clean their mouth with suction equipment that would open that area up to let COVID out of the system. We would do everything for the patient that is needed to sustain life and health at that time.

GREEN: How is treating these patients different than treating, say, a pneumonia patient?

ELLIS: It's the quickness of this pneumonia, and they're talking about an inflammatory process that is kind of like a septic shock type process that happens in the lungs. So that would be the difference. It is a pneumonia so we're going to treat it pretty much the same. The difference being is that it's a very contagious pneumonia that we need to protect ourselves and our other patients from.

GREEN: What are the ages of the patients, and do many of the patients have other co-morbidities like asthma.

ELLIS: They do have more co-morbidities, people who are attacked by this virus. But some people have been young without co-morbidities that have come, that have this virus, too.

GREEN: And talk to me a little bit about your situation treating these patients. How are you protecting yourself from exposure?

ELLIS: The expectation is that you wear the N95 mask for five encounters with your patient, that you would go in and out of that room for five times. And when you were in between those trips, you would put it into a brown paper bag with your name on it, and then you would put your hand back in it and get it back out and put it back on for five trips.

As the nurse, my problem with this is that you're handling the outside of that mask every time you put it back on your face. And you increase the risk of transferring that virus from the outside of your mask to your face. And from your face, that's the perfect way to contract the virus, is through your nose and mouth. And you've already put it really close to your face. So that's concerning to me that nurses are asked to do that, to wear those masks over and over and doctors are wearing them over and over, in and out of patients' rooms.

GREEN:  When you go into these patients' rooms to take care of them, how do you feel? Do you feel safe? Do you feel protected?

ELLIS: Not completely. I think there's a lot more we could be doing for our front-line nurses and that we have done more in lesser circumstances than we are now.

GREEN: When you go into these patients' room to take care of these patients, can you paint a picture? Help me visualize, what kinds of things are you doing to take care of these patients?

ELLIS: I do everything. Every two hours, their mouths are cleaned out so that you won't get any infection from your mouth, your airway. We would turn you, reposition the patient every two hours so they don't get a bed sore. These are all basic nursing needs that every patient has. And everyone takes a hands-on approach. I have to touch this patient. I clean them. I wash them. I care for them as much as you would an infant.

GREEN: Do you feel like the hospital is ready for the peak that is projected?

ELLIS: No, I don't. I do not believe it is. This is the calm before the storm. And when the storm hits, I don't believe any hospital in Florida will be ready.

GREEN: What is the mood among healthcare workers inside your hospital?

ELLIS: They're afraid. They are very much afraid. My family is not living with me. I'm living alone. I will not go see my grandchild because I'm afraid that I work in this environment. I don't want to expose my family. So we're feeling isolated, alone and afraid.

GREEN: How can the public help you?

ELLIS: I guess the public can help me by staying home. That's the biggest thing that they can do. They can wash their hands. They can take care of themselves and their family and isolate their family member away from them should they show symptom. So the best way to help any nurse is to try to stay healthy.

GREEN: I've been speaking with Louella Ellis, a nurse on the ICU floor at Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford. Thanks so much for joining us.

ELLIS: You're very welcome.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.
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