Perhaps no one better understands how hard the pandemic has hit the metro area than healthcare workers. When the first wave of patients entered SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles, nothing could prepare caregivers for what was ahead. But as hope faded in the hospital’s designated COVID-19 ICU, one man, Nathan Walker, entered near death – but left as an inspiration to all.
“I see nurses at the end of their shifts, after wearing masks all day long, and their nose bridges are raw, their faces bruised,” critical care nurse manager Jessica Smith says. “It physically hurts them on top of emotionally exhausting them.”
“We saw many patients who weren’t improving,” ICU nurse Kyle Ebert remembers. “It was a helpless feeling. To have someone go from as bad as it can get to going home, it gave us hope that we can help.”
Walker travels full-time for his career as a safety manager in construction and can visit his family – including four children – only every three weeks. Once notified that he had been in contact with a coronavirus carrier, he went into the recommended two-week self-quarantine. The 41-year-old had no comorbidities – but the virus hit hard.
“On Day 12, I noticed a jump in my temperature,” Walker says. “On Day 14, I was only [at the ER] a few hours when they told me I was going on a ventilator.”
The ICU team proved pivotal not only in caring for Walker but also in providing comfort to his family from afar. “Every time I called the hospital, the doctors were kind and compassionate and told me the truth when I needed to hear it,” Walker’s sister, Kimberly Monzon, says. “It was so hard to be separated from [Walker, but] the nurses made it feel like we were in the room with him.”
The nurses turned on pay television channel CMT after Monzon shared Walker’s interests. They shared video of Monzon and her husband, both opera singers, singing a gospel song from Walker’s youth. One nurse sat and prayed with him after Monzon asked about chaplain services.
At his worst, Walker lay on his stomach in order to provide more circulation to his lungs. The day the breathing tube was finally removed, Walker immediately had something to communicate.
“I kept thinking he wants this tube out, he’s got to be so angry,” Ebert says, recognizing that patients often feel confused from sedation. “Most patients don’t understand what is happening or why they can’t do stuff on their own. [Walker pointed at the letters on an alphabet board], and he spelled out ‘thank you.’ The way I felt about that … I teared up.”
The hospital’s caregivers make diaries for patients to help them with memory loss and temporary delirium resulting from time spent in critical care. Inspired by this, Ebert suggested the team make Walker a scrapbook to provide him with a visual aid of those who took care of him. The team greeted him and Monzon on a Zoom teleconference call, allowing Walker for the first time to match faces to the voices he remembered.
SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital – St. Charles, 300 First Capitol Drive, St. Charles, 636-947-5000, ssmhealth.com
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