FARGO — What started as just a few rooms for COVID-19 patients just months ago is now four floors with the possibility of more to be added.
WDAY News reporter Kevin Wallevand has been granted exclusive access inside the COVID-19 units at Sanford Health in Fargo.
In this first part of a three-part series, one nurse shares the experiences of herself and hundreds of other health workers in the state taking care of the myriad of COVID-19 patients. She took care of the first local COVID-19 patient at the start of the pandemic, and she's still at it, helping patients survive the disease or spending time with them during their final hours.
After eight straight months working the COVID-19 unit at Sanford Health, registered nurse Melanie Allen suits up in air-filtering gear that lets her safely go into one of the 100 COVID-19 rooms with patients at the Sanford Broadway Clinic in Fargo.
Halls that once were home to newborns and ailing children are now rooms full of COVID-19 patients that may not go home.
"Slowly, the ICU kept growing and growing, and that is why we had to move to the fourth floor and the sixth floor and so on," Allen said.
After working for so long with pandemic patients, one has to wonder how nurses like Allen keep going.
"You just do it. Some days are better than others," she said. "It is not perfect, not rainbows every day. We do the best we can with what we have."
As we walked through the toughest part of the COVID-19 floor, we heard the sound of ventilators keeping patients of all ages alive. All are sedated and fighting for their lives.
"They are my parents' age, my age, my husband's age. I wish people would understand what we go through," Allen said. "This is not a joke or 'fake news.' This is real."
The health care workers don't just battle to keep these patients alive; they also have to deal with issues like keeping enough staff on the floor to do it. Many nurses are home sick or quarantined, and their kids are learning from home, meaning there is often stress waiting for them at home after their shifts are over.
"This is not only physically demanding, but mentally and emotionally draining," Allen said.
Many of the patients do get better and go home, but the nurses are almost numb to the sheer number of people coding or crashing.
"There have been days where you go to five codes in two hours," Allen said.
The four floors of COVID-19 patients need nurses, lab techs and physicians. All this while trying to convince the public about the seriousness of the pandemic.
"I honestly (wish) they could come up and watch for a day," Allen said. "I wish they could see the horror that is part of some of our days."
At times, it feels as if the workers at the unit are working in a field hospital on the front lines of a war. Even just flipping over a patient to help them breathe can take time, equipment and multiple staff members.
"Sometimes, when we need to prone them, it takes five to seven staff members. That is a half hour (where) seven people are tied up in one room with one patient," Allen explained.
The disease impacts people in cruel ways. One minute, a patient is fine and nearly ready to go home, but then they will take a sudden turn for the worse.
"He stood up to go to the restroom, but had an issue with breathing," Sanford Health COVID-19 physician Dr. Rishi Seth recalled. "He told his nurse he could not breathe, and he passed away 30 minutes later."
Thankfully, there are wins as well. Like 32-year-old Keith Hoffman, a patient recovering from COVID-19. As he went home, the a song played over the intercom, telling everyone on the floor of the successful fight against the disease.
It's a highlight of the day when sometimes there are too few.
"It brings that little hope that is there, because there (are) days there is not that hope, and you can't go on like that," Allen said.
In part two of this series, Kevin Wallevand talks with physicians who have been asked to leave their clinic duties to work at the COVID-19 unit.