RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – This past weekend marked the first time in 15 months that WakeMed didn’t have a single COVID-19 patient in the ICU. The run lasted for 72 hours.
As the last COVID-19 patient left the ICU, doctors and nurses stopped and stood in silence to remember lives lost and reflect on lives changed.
“The emotional toll, the psychological toll on our health-care providers will be there for a very long time,” said Dr. David Kirk, who is WakeMed’s associate chief medical officer. He treats the hospital’s sickest patients in the COVID-19 ICU.
“It was just so overwhelming. It was the same disease. It was just beating you down day after day after day after day,” he recalled. “There were so many patients that were sick, and they were so sick.”
They were also alone, except for the team caring for them.
“You build of these friendships and these connections, which, when a patient had a bad outcome, made it even worse because you had so much invested, and ultimately the disease might win anyway,” Kirk said.
Despite the physically and emotionally exhausting work, Kirk said few staff members wanted a break from the COVID-19 ICU.
“Most of them felt so compassionate and so invested in getting us through this that they didn’t want to leave. They wanted to stay in their unit with their team and take care of the same patients regardless of how physically demanding it was, regardless of how emotionally demanding it was.”
After 15 grueling months, those days without COVID patients in the ICU gave the WakeMed team a moment to recognize something in themselves.
“What strength we had to go through this,” Kirk said.
Doctors and nurses didn’t expect the ICU to remain coronavirus-free for long, but Kirk said he hasn’t seen vaccinated patients hospitalized. He is hopeful vaccines will prevent major surges like hospitals saw last year.
“That burden has been on our shoulders for so long,” Kirk said. “We are just starting to catch our breath.”