MIAMI — Like the lungs of acute COVID-19 survivors, nurses, doctors and front-line health care workers remain scarred a year after the pandemic flooded South Florida hospitals with gasping patients sickened by an invisible, insidious virus.
While most people huddled at home, they stood at bedsides, knowing their own infected patients could kill them. The mental and emotional toll has been profound.
Through the first wave and succeeding, worsening surges, they worked grueling shifts, managing a complex, heavy and often hopeless caseload with the most critically ill patients hooked up to ventilators, dialysis machines, extra corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) life support and a web of IVs.
"My unit was the original ground zero," said Laura Rivas, a critical care nurse at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, who described the demands inside the COVID unit. "Our patients tend to be very unstable as far as heart rate and blood pressure, so you can be monitoring 13 pumps per patient and refilling meds with alarms and code blues going off around you. You have to put patients on their belly to improve oxygenation, so you've got an obese, 240-pound, sedated patient that several of us have to turn while making sure the breathing tube doesn't come out.
"Then, after 13 hours, you drive home — I would cry or scream or play loud music and belt out a song as my release. Strip in the garage, wash your clothes, fall into bed and do it all over again the next day."
Because of unprecedented prohibitions of visitors, nurses bore an additional and exhausting burden of connecting frightened patients with desperate loved ones, often comforting the dying with a compassionate touch in their final, lonely moments or positioning the phone as families wept final goodbyes.
"I'm holding their hand, watching it happen, and I say, 'It's OK, it's OK. Your family loves you,'" said Grace Meatley, a nurse assigned to Jackson's COVID unit. "I pray for the patient, and the family that can't be there. Each person has their own story and I try to be enriched by each life.
"You see them passing away right before your eyes."
Death comes with the calling of a medical career, but the random, rapid strike of COVID hit health care workers hard. Over and over, their patients described a feeling of drowning. They can't shake the memories. The elderly patients isolated from their children. A couple on a Coral Princess cruise vacation (the husband died shortly after he was belatedly evacuated from the ship, his wife survived hospitalization at Jackson). A family of three hospitalized at the same time (only one made it out). The poor farmworkers or housekeepers worried about how relatives in Central America would eat without the money they sent home.
There were more victories than tragedies, and hospital staff celebrated with recovered patients, wheeling them down hallways lined with balloons as "Rocky" played on speakers and out the sliding doors into the arms of family members. At the three hospitals in the Jackson Health System, 5,662 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were discharged while 1,032 died. Since the July 27 peak of 485 COVID-19 patients at Jackson, the number of cases had dropped to 107 as of this week.