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Reflections from the frontlines: health care workers look back at a year battling COVID-19

“During the highest acuity of COVID, I would walk in and hope half of my patients left the hospital,” said Dr. Chris Lowry, a hospitalist at Meriter.
Published: Mar. 11, 2021 at 10:19 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 11, 2021 at 10:28 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Over the past year, frontline health care workers have been battling coronavirus, working tirelessly to treat their patients in the face of constant and unexpected challenges. Now, three of these healthcare heroes are sharing their reflections and memories from the frontlines, as well as their hopes for the future.

Despite working at different hospitals, Vanessa Pierce, Tina Schubert, and Chris Lowry share similar experiences of their time treating patients with COVID-19. Together on a Zoom call, all three noted the challenges the past year has presented.

“I think the year kind of went off in stages,” said Pierce, a nurse in the COVID ICU at St. Mary’s - Madison. “I think we all felt a lot of fear and unknown, fear for ourselves and then fear for our families, going home to them. And then we all cared for our patients and felt a lot of loss as we lost a lot of patients. And then I think it became quite a political drama.”

“I agree with what Vanessa has said,” Schubert, a respiratory therapist in the COVID units at UW Hospital added. “I think for me it does go in stages, it’s been pretty long, it’s been difficult at times. But overall, I think we’re all working together and on the same page and we just take it day by day when we deal with these COVID patients.”

For Dr. Lowry, associate director of hospital medicine and hospitalist at Meriter, it was humbling to see people unite against COVID-19. He also said fighting the virus was initially filled with unknowns, including how to go about treating a virus people knew so little about.

“If I could describe this year in one word, it would be humbling,” said Lowry. “It was humbling to be at the mercy of the disease that we really didn’t have any knowledge about, any acute treatments for. Our staff was at mercy of working long hours and being understaffed and scared of lack of PPE and what was to come next.”

Dr. Chris Lowry, associate director of hospital medicine and hospitalist at Meriter, dons PPE.
Dr. Chris Lowry, associate director of hospital medicine and hospitalist at Meriter, dons PPE.(NBC15)

All of the health care heroes shared stories of concerns and fears as they faced the unknown early on in the pandemic. Pierce said she and a coworker contemplated quitting, but continued on, knowing there were not enough replacements to care for patients, and become an even stronger team.

Schubert said she had concerns about not bringing the virus home to family or friends. Ultimately, it was the need to care for patients that propelled her through the hard moments.

“Being a health care worker, just having compassion for these patients it’s almost like, no matter how you feel, they’re relying on you,” Schubert said. “They’re trusting you as a nurse, as an RT, as a doctor – help me. And you just can’t turn your back on that. No matter how scary it is, how much you’re worried about. Just help them get to that next level. Get them better. Do everything you can.”

Tina Schubert is a respiratory therapist in the COVID units at UW Hospital. She was also the...
Tina Schubert is a respiratory therapist in the COVID units at UW Hospital. She was also the first staffer there to receive the Pfizer vaccine.(NBC15)

That commitment to patient care meant the triumph of a patient recovering from the virus served as inspiration during hard times.

“We had people who would get extremely ill and ultimately didn’t get better,” Dr. Lowry said. “Seeing some early success and seeing patients able to discharge back home, even if it was just one every week at first because people were so sick, those little victories were sort of the catalyst for some of the motivation that we had moving forward and to keep fighting.”

While there have been success stories over the past year, there have also been heartbreaking losses. All three frontliners recalled those dark moments.

“During the highest acuity of COVID, I would walk in and hope half of my patients left the hospital,” Lowry said. “And that was one of the starkest realizations I think during this pandemic of how severe everything really was.”

“You get to know patients really well, you take care of them for weeks and weeks and you get really invested in their survival and hope that they make it and then the ones that didn’t, it was really hard,” Pierce said. “I had not cared for a lot of patients that had died previous to this, in the ICU we help most people survive. But with COVID there were a lot of people that died and that was very hard.”

Nurse Vanessa Pierce works in the COVID ICU at St. Mary's - Madison.
Nurse Vanessa Pierce works in the COVID ICU at St. Mary's - Madison.(NBC15)

Some of those losses, as well as the difficult conversations that came with them, are memories the health care workers said they would never forget.

“I remember specifically one patient who didn’t have a family,” said Pierce. “And as she was dying we didn’t even know what kind of music she liked or anything that would help her journey. And I remember the respiratory therapist was there with me, and the nurse I was training, and I was there. We just kind of sat there with her just to be there as she passed. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

“When a COVID patient, their family is saying goodbye to them over the phone, that part just - it just destroys you, it really does,” said Schubert. “That’s a hard part. Because they’re by themselves. They have no visitors. And if they are a visitor, they can’t actually come into the room, they’re from a distance behind a glass door and they still have their mask on. That part’s hard.”

In addition to the challenges they all faced at their respective hospitals, came the challenges they faced outside of work, in the form of misunderstandings from others about the virus. Pierce described family and friends disagreeing with her opinions about the disease.

“I felt kind of in the middle explaining some things to people who didn’t necessarily understand or maybe hadn’t even seen COVID or seen the things that I’ve seen,” Pierce said. “Maybe I started to understand their opinions are based on what they see, I can’t blame them for that. I think a lot about soldiers and their experiences with battle because I feel like it has been kind of a war against COVID.”

Schubert echoed that sentiment, and said a death from coronavirus is “a very violent death,” one she described as full of ups and downs.

“Seeing a patient struggle to breathe is horrible sight to see and they’re scared. To see the fear in their eyes is awful,” Schubert said. “If people would understand that this virus is vicious. What we see, there would be no argument at all. But they don’t see it or they don’t know anyone who has this virus or who recovered from this virus. That’s a battle.”

Lowry said he too has had friends and family, and even patients with COVID, claim the virus “doesn’t seem so bad” and telling him “this isn’t a big deal,” not understanding why the virus has caused changes to daily life.

“If we truly cared about each other and each other’s families and friends, the little things that we’re being asked to do are so miniscule in the grand scheme of things, it seems like our duty to each other,” Lowry said.

Despite the hardships, Pierce, Schubert, and Lowry all have hope for the future. One source of that optimism is the vaccine.

“A good thing is that we have a vaccine, and that’s what I’m going to remember. How we all rejoiced – yes, the vaccine is here. And that made us hopeful and excited for the future, get this thing turned around,” Schubert said. Schubert was the first UW Health employee to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

“You look at the history of vaccination and vaccine development and the speed and effectiveness with which this was developed, I think probably is going to be one of the biggest scientific achievements I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Lowry said. “That is just amazing.”

Something else to be grateful for – how the community rallied together.

“It’s also just been truly humbling again to watch people come together to fight for a common good,” Lowry said.

“I don’t think there is another situation that I can think of where the whole world came together like we did,” said Pierce.

At the end of the Zoom, Pierce, Schubert, and Lowry thanked each other for their work over the past year.

“You guys are amazing, and I know we don’t work side by side physically because we’re in different facilities, but I still think we all work together,” Schubert said. “Thank you for doing all that you both do in our field.”

“We’ve all come to rely on each other more than ever, it’s been awesome,” said Lowry.

After a year of unprecedented obstacles, hope is fueling these health care heroes to work for a better, healthier tomorrow.

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