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ICU Nurse Explains COVID-19 Impact on Patients & Nurses

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At first, Starla Becker-Tillinghast wasn’t sure if there was anything to the novel coronavirus. That was before patients with COVID-19 ended up in the Critical Care Unit at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, where she works.

“When you just have pneumonia, we give you some antibiotics, you usually get better and go home,” said Becker-Tillinghast, a critical care nurse for 24 years at the Lebanon hospital. “When you get COVID-19, your body has this big inflammatory response, which is what causes your blood to clot, and your lungs get stiff and it’s hard for oxygen to get through and into your body. I call it the self-destruct sequence.”

Becker-Tillinghast thinks it’s not taken seriously by some because they haven’t seen the disease for themselves. She said that even co-workers from around the hospital weren’t aware how the virus has impacted the region.

“I had a co-worker say, ‘what, you’ve taken care of maybe two COVID-19’ patients?’ and I said ‘no we’ve had 118 (as of July 2021),’” Becker-Tillinghast said. “This person didn’t know how many patients we’d taken care of because they don’t see these patients. We keep these patients isolated; very few visitors get to see them.”

Becker-Tillinghast recently took some time to be interviewed on video about what she and her co-workers have seen. Check out her videos on YouTube and read some of the excerpts below:

What Does COVID-19 Treatment Look Like for a Critically Ill Patient?

“With COVID, we tried to treat it with antiviral medications, but by the time the patients come in, they’ve usually been sick two weeks, and you can hardly stop that viral problem now when they’ve had it two weeks. Then we tried to treat their immune response, to calm it down, but that immune system response is so strong it is really hard to stop, so we just give supportive treatment. We give high-flow oxygen, trying to force enough oxygen into them.”

What Is This Like for a Patient?

“They don’t like it very much. It’s hard, they’re really sick, they’re just focusing on breathing, and we’re running high-flow oxygen on them with these big, noisy machines are blowing oxygen in their face. Sometimes we have to put them on BiPAP, which is a mask over their face, it’s really tight and blowing oxygen and they just barely have time to take it off and even take a little sip of water.

“It’s hard for them to hear what we’re saying, hard for us to hear them. We try to get them to lay on their belly to expand their lung surface area, we try to get them to lean forward, and it doesn’t feel good.

“They become exhausted, they have a hard time sleeping, and we’re always working with them, trying to give them treatments and move them around.”

How Would You Describe the Protective Equipment You Have to Wear?

“The hardest thing for a nurse in that regard is that you need to get in that room right now, if that patient has pulled their oxygen off or if they need you, we’re used to just flying in the room, and we have to stop and put everything on. I’m so thankful we have it, but it takes a long time and that’s frustrating.

“And then once we’re in the room, we’re sweating, you’re steaming everything up. Sometimes that is really hard, it gets in the way of care. They can’t hear what you’re saying, it’s hard for them to hear us, and it’s quite an operation, and the sweat we’ve poured, it’s just like your own personal little sauna.”

Who Are the COVID-19 Patients in the Hospital Today?

“The spike we’re seeing now is the unvaccinated people. Before it was just people who didn’t have access to the vaccine yet. I always ask the patients how they got the virus, and their most common response is, “from my church group,” or “from my family,” because you trust those people, and a lot of times you can have COVID-19, especially if you’re young, and not be symptomatic.

“That’s when other people have gotten sick, and this is maybe the fourth spike we’ve seen. The first spike was just because nobody knew and they caught it, and then another spike happened in November that was pretty severe. We got another spike in May, and now the spike we’re seeing is unvaccinated people, and it seems like they’re coming in younger, like in their 50s.”

What Would You Say to People on the Fence About the COVID-19 Vaccines?

“I’d say calculate your risks and calculate the risk you are to your loved ones.

“I have websites that I review. The Oregon Health Authority site lets you go by the ZIP code and see which community is the least vaccinated. Worldometer can give you information worldwide as well as per state to see what your risk is in your state, like how many per million die or get it. I also like Information is Beautiful, it’s a website that gives a lot of percentages so that when you’re trying to decide your risk level.

“I would just say if you’re not going to get vaccinated, do not expose your beloved elderly people to this disease, or my beloved elderly people.

“It’s scary to get vaccinated. I got a reaction, I was pretty sick, but I’ve also seen what happens when you don’t get vaccinated. I would far rather have a vaccine a month and feel sick one day a month than ever go through this disease and/or be the one that gave it to somebody else and caused their death, it’s a harsh and hard thing.”

If you have questions about the COVID-19 vaccines, don’t hesitate to ask your primary care provider. Find a vaccination opportunity near you at samhealth.org/GetTheVaccine.