LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Inside the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center intensive care unit, there were few beds left in the hospital where many COVID-19 patients make their last stand.
Separated from their families, the technicians, nurses and doctors become their medical and emotional lifelines.
“It’s hard work,” Hannah Kolenc, an ICU nurse, said. “It’s definitely a lot harder than our regular ICU patients.”
Kolenc said the pandemic has changed the way she works as she and her colleagues face the prospect of contracting the deadly virus on a daily basis.
“When you go into rooms, you have to wear the gear head to toe, and it’s really hot,” she said. “And you’re in the rooms, you know, taking care of these patients, and you come out just covered in sweat like head to toe.”
Once inside the rooms, healthcare workers are transported into a different world where patients are completely isolated — sometimes until their dying breath.
“I remember a patient wasn’t going to make it, and I had to hold the iPad for the family as they’re saying their last goodbyes to their mom, and that was very challenging,” Kolenc said. “And I remember I couldn’t even look out to see any of the other doctors, because I was just crying.”
Doctor Meghan Lewis also works in in the intensive care unit at County/USC Medical Center.
“I think I would have to agree with what Hannah described that a lot of these patients are facing this very much alone,” she said. “One of the things that sticks out in my head is the first patient who I met who we were taking care of with this disease and I remember asking him, ‘How do you feel?’ And his answer was, ‘scared.'”
During the surge in cases over the past couple of months, County/USC at one point was almost overrun with coronavirus patients. There were so many new admissions that the county requested military assistance, and the Department of Defense stepped in, sending in U.S. Air Force medical staff to help the hospital.
“I’m on the cardiology floor,” 2nd Lt. Laquedric Damar Powell-Davis said. “So we see anything cardiology related.”
Powell-Davis is among those who swooped in to help, along with Staff Stg. Minh Tran, an ICU Medical Technician. Both have spent the past few weeks in Los Angeles, on loan from Travis Air Force Base. And while all patients are unique, Powell-Davis said some have left bigger impressions.
“I get younger COVID patients,” he said. “I kind of see a lot of younger people saying it might not affect them, but when I get those younger COVID patients, those are the ones who typically stand out to me. Again, every patient stands out, but when I get the younger ones, those are the ones where I’m like, ‘OK, this is serious.'”
“There have been instances where the patient, as they are passing, we are in the room holding the iPad, you know to have their family speaking to them, talking to them, seeing them, and that might be the very last time,” Tran said.
Whether with the military or the hospital, the medical professionals risk their own health, and the health of their loved ones, on a daily basis in order to be there for those in need of care.
“My husband has been extremely supportive,” Lewis said. “We had a conversation early on where we talked about whether it made any sense to isolate myself from my family, and isolate them from that risk, and I think both of us just decided that it was important to keep our family together.”
And Dr. Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer for County/USC Medical Center, had a simple message for everyone: take the virus seriously.
“The narrative needs to become unified that if you think this is a hoax, if you think this isn’t real, you haven’t seen the pain and destruction to people and families that we see every day at this hospital,” he said.
The partnership between the county and the military has likely saved lives, and the Air Force personnel who came to help said they will stay as long as necessary.
“That’s the job,” Powell-Davis said. “When the American people need you, you know, we answer.”