Before the latest surge of the coronavirus, Louisiana neurologist Robin Davis focused on her specialty: treating patients with epilepsy. These days, as virus patients flood her hospital in record numbers, she has taken on the additional duties of nurse, janitor and orderly.
“I was giving bed baths on Sunday, emptying trash cans, changing sheets, rolling patients to MRI,” said Davis, who has been coming in on her days off to provide some relief to overworked nurses at Ochsner Medical Center in the New Orleans suburb of Jefferson.
The rapidly escalating surge in COVID-19 infections across the U.S. is once again overwhelming hospitals, especially in hot spots such as Louisiana, which hit a record number of coronavirus hospitalizations last week. Nearly 2,900 virus patients are currently hospitalized — and state health officials say the number of cases may not peak for several more weeks. Louisiana has the country's fourth-lowest vaccination rate, with just a little more than 37% of residents fully inoculated.
On a recent day at Ochsner, healthcare providers rushed up and down halls, throwing on and taking off protective clothing every time they entered a new area of the building. In dozens of ICU rooms, patients lay pallid and motionless, tubes down their throats, as beeping machines pumped drugs into their system and ventilators forced air into their weakened lungs. Healthcare contractors brought in from other hospitals quickly familiarized themselves with a new environment as they rushed to ease the load of the overtaxed staff.
“We’re trying to provide the most consistent care we can, but to do that we need more hands,” Davis said. “One of the biggest issues for our nurses is, the volume of patients is such that we’re having to create beds that didn’t previously exist. We’re having to find providers that weren’t previously put in place.”
AN OVERWHELMING CASELOAD
Ochsner Health is the largest healthcare provider in Louisiana, with 40 medical facilities across the state. More than 1,000 people — nearly 40% of the state’s currently hospitalized coronavirus patients — are being treated at Ochsner’s facilities. Roughly 200 of those are at the main campus in Jefferson, where three floors in the hospital’s West Tower have been built out as care units for coronavirus patients.
Resources have been strained to the limit across the state with hospitals starting to turn away people with other life-threatening emergencies such as heart attacks or strokes. Elective surgeries and other nonurgent care have been suspended.
Davis said there’s no greater need for her help than in Ochsner’s thinly stretched nursing department. She noted that her many recent duties have included fetching medication for nurses and pushing patients in wheelchairs.
“If it took pressure off a nurse, if it gave her time to do what she needed to do, that’s what we did,” she said. “Sunday was supposed to be my day off with my kids, but we need help here, and one day I want to be able to tell those two little boys I did the thing that was needed at the time it was needed.”
NURSES HELPING NURSES
In Ochsner Medical Center's intensive care unit, nurses Joan Blizzard and Arthur Bienvenu try to care for each other along with their coronavirus patients.
They tie each other's gowns, prep medicines and machines together with barely a word, shuffle in and out of patients' rooms, their eyes the only part of their faces visible through their protective gear.
For the past year and a half, Bienvenu said, working 50 to 60 hours a week caring for patients and being surrounded by fellow staff has helped him cope with the loss of his father to the virus last year.
He said he shares his father’s story with other grieving families, including how his dad was on a ventilator for more than 20 days in the spring and how his family had to make the difficult decision to take him off it.
“The outcome wouldn’t be what he wanted,” Bienvenu said. “He wouldn’t want to live with the trach and PEG (feeding tube) and the severity of the situation, so we decided to transition to comfort from progressive measures, and the little bit of dignity and respect my dad had left, we preserved that.”
Bienvenu said working with other families experiencing loss has helped give him purpose during the most tragic time of his life.
“People would ask me, ‘Why are you still coming in?’" he said. "Because these people need us, you know? We have to put a stop to this. Everybody has a different path through this. I’m blessed to be around the people I’m around. That’s the only way I’m here.”
Critical care nurse Mary Lubrano has watched her colleagues running up and down the intensive care unit hallway at Ochsner Medical Center while she lies in a hospital bed with the virus. She has been hospitalized for two weeks and counting, her breathing labored as she suffers from low oxygen.
“That was me," she said of the other nurses, her voice choking with emotion. “And I wanted to be able to help them.”
Lubrano works in the critical care unit at St. Bernard Parish Hospital, an Ochsner-run facility near her home in Chalmette, where she was initially hospitalized before being transferred to the Jefferson campus.
She said she still checks her emails as often as possible to see how her fellow nurses in Chalmette are holding up.
“They are busting their butts there, and they are full of COVID patients, and it’s the same nurses on the schedule every day. They just go and go,” she said. “As a nurse, it’s all about giving back, so I can’t wait to get back out there.”
IT'S WORSE THIS TIME
The magnitude of this most recent coronavirus surge — largely spurred by the highly contagious delta variant — is profound, Blizzard said.
“People are getting sick so quickly this time,” she said. “They will be talking to you, and within hours, we’re having multiple people at the bedside" performing emergency procedures. "It is so scary.”
If they survive, many will live with years of impairment, she said.
Bienvenu wants people to understand the severity of the current situation.
“It hits all of us different,” he said. “Yes, one individual can have coughs or sneezes, but another individual can be on a ventilator."
WISHING THEY HAD BEEN VACCINATED
Jerome Batiste, a 26-year-old New Orleans resident, said he so rarely got sick he didn’t think he needed the coronavirus vaccine. He assumed he had a strong immune system, having gone the entire pandemic without getting infected, he said.
As he sat by a window in a recovery room in one of Ochsner’s COVID units, taking in some sunshine from the bench near his hospital bed, he said he’s not only wishing he’d gotten the vaccine but wants everyone he knows to get it, “and I’ll go if they need somebody to go with them.”
Batiste isn’t sure where he contracted the virus but said he had been on a family trip to Disney World and had also visited friends in the weeks before falling ill.
“It just happened,” he said. “It just came out of the blue. I started coughing a lot.”
He said he took over-the-counter cough medicine, hoping it would pass, but “it just got worse and worse, and I started throwing up a lot, and I couldn’t keep anything down.”
Since he was admitted to the hospital last week, he’s been given vitamins, steroids, breathing treatments and shots to prevent blood clots. He’s also developed a rare condition in which his body’s muscle tissue has begun to break down, requiring a kidney flush to prevent further illness.
Batiste said he’s telling family and friends to not get “comfortable” when it comes to the virus and to protect themselves with the shot.
“I just didn’t take it as serious as most young people should,” he said, a port with tubes for his medicine sticking out of his right forearm. “You’re never too safe to go and get vaccinated.”
Mary Lubrano, the critical care nurse now ill with COVID-19, said she had never been hospitalized until this year. She said she had intended to get vaccinated, but a breast cancer diagnosis in February, followed by surgery and radiation to eradicate it, caused her to put off the shot.
She said she was also nervous about jeopardizing her health after a relative suffered a stroke shortly after receiving the vaccine. She knows most people have mild side effects, if any, but she was still hesitant. The vaccines have been proven to be safe in studies and in use in more than half the U.S. population and are far less risky than the virus itself.
“I had my follow-up, getting brave to do my vaccine, and I got COVID instead,” said Lubrano, who called it the scariest time in her life. “You take breathing for granted. … When you sit down and can’t get air in your lungs ... that is so fearful, and I don’t want anyone to ever have to feel that way.”
Lubrano said her husband fell ill first and was hospitalized while she quarantined at home. He has since been released and is recovering at home, still on oxygen, she said.
Since her hospitalization, Lubrano's entire family — her daughters, sisters and their spouses — have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
“I made it my mission to make sure nobody has to suffer this way,” she said, an oxygen tube attached to her nose. “Everyone needs to be vaccinated. We’ll never beat this any other way.”
Davis, the neurologist who has been forced to take on added duties during the most recent coronavirus surge, says she can’t stress enough the importance of getting vaccinated. She recalls how a year ago — before vaccines were available — she watched helplessly as friends and neighbors died.
“They were people that didn’t have a chance,” she said. “There was nothing we could do to stop this for them. You’ve got a chance now. You have something that gives you the opportunity to have a fate that isn’t like theirs. Please don’t squander it.”