WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - One day back in April, Katie O’Brien walked into Samaritan Medical Center and stepped into a new and frightening world, a world where she faced the COVID-19 virus.
Samaritan created two COVID patients-only wards - one for people sick with the virus, and one for people very sick with it.
O’Brien, a veteran intensive care unit nurse, was assigned to the COVID intensive care unit.
“It’s been pretty much an emotional and physical roller coaster,” she said one day not long ago, as she answered a reporter’s questions about what it was like to care for people desperately ill from a virus that was - remember, this was back in April - poorly understood.
“We’ve thankfully come a long way in understanding parts of the virus and treatments, things like that, but at first it was just...dealing with something we’d never seen before. It was just pretty overwhelming.”
Samaritan’s COVID intensive care unit operated for about a month, treated four COVID patients.
For 12 days, O’Brien didn’t go home. She put herself in quarantine at a local hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, where health care workers had their own entrance. She walked a lot and Facetimed with her daughters and husband.
“In a way, you’re fearful,” she said “that you’re gonna become ill, and thinking how that’s gonna affect your family, but yet you feel like that’s almost a selfish thing to think because these people are fighting for their lives.
“So it really tugs you in several different directions.”
She kept busy, worked as much as she could.
One of the things outsiders don’t understand about treating COVID patients; they’re very labor-intensive, what with the need to turn and reposition them. And you do it all inside Personal Protective Equipment, (PPE), which saves your life by keeping the virus out, but which is heavy, hot and - because the mask is so snug - makes your teeth hurt.
“Even the PPE we were so lucky to have; it’s tight,” she said. “Your teeth ache. Your body hurts when you go home.”
All that gear poses another problem: how do you communicate with your patient, who is probably hooked up to a machine?
“They have a big bulky machine on, it’s noisy, you’re trying to communicate with them, you’re trying to reassure them and provide compassionate care, and you’re talking through a face shield and two masks,” she said.
And the patients struggle to do the most basic thing, to breathe.
“You just do your best to reassure them. Being an asthmatic I know how scary it is to not be able to breathe,” Katie said.
Katie will tell you some good came from all this - the teamwork of her fellow Samaritan employees, the backing hospital management gave, and the way the community showed its support with things like free pizzas delivered to the hospital. It may seem like a small gesture, but it meant a lot.
“I’m the lucky one. I’m the one that’s on the other side of the bedside,” she said.
“I’m grateful to have a job I can go to and make a difference in someone’s life.”
Now she worries about the virus getting its second wind as the weather turns colder and people spend more time indoors. And she allows that she’s frustrated by people who won’t wear masks or social distance.
“I know the amount of PPE I’ve had to wear for a 12 hour shift, and it’s frustrating that somebody can’t put a mask on to go and do their grocery shopping or run their errands.”
“I’ve seen what this virus can do to people.”