KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The middle-aged man lay dying of COVID-19 in the intensive care unit, only moments from his last, shallow breath. The ventilator was removed. His brain had already been hit by blood clots caused by the coronavirus during respiratory failure.
Sarah Kiehl stood at his bedside, her face and head beneath a plastic hood, her hands and entire body shrouded in protective gear.
In her six years at Truman Medical Center, three in the ICU, the 28-year-old nurse has witnessed deaths from shootings, stabbings, car accidents, end-stage cancers. In all those cases, relatives were in the room.
On this day, in a surreal moment, she held up an iPad, livestreaming a grid of the man's loved ones. Tiny, weeping, praying little faces appeared in boxes, saying goodbye. She moved the iPad at their request, so they could see his hands and his face, unable to kiss or touch him in comfort.
"The first time I did it, it knocked me out," Kiehl said of the video farewell. "It was something that hit me. I was like, we're doing this now. And we're going to have to keep doing this."
She has, one, two, five more times since then, and as many for her nurse colleagues. Since March 20, the hospital has seen dozens of COVID-19 patients.
Kiehl has seen the tributes to health care workers on television, the nightly applause as shifts change in places like New York. People call them heroes for their sacrifice, willingly putting themselves in danger to help strangers.
She bristles at the accolade. "Very kind, very nice," she said. "But it always makes me feel weird."
Weird, because by one view, heroes are supposed to defeat their enemies.
The Blue Springs nurse knows firsthand that for those hardest hit by the illness, "we've lost the battle in a lot of ways" -- at least so far. There is no effective medication. There is no vaccine. Patients who go on ventilators are often so ill that they are not coming off.