Special Report: Fighting COVID-19: The Human Element

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) – The pandemic has caused many issues in our daily lives – everything from job loss to feelings of isolation in quarantine.

However, the virus has had different and even more challenging effects on many healthcare workers.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my nursing career so far.”

That is the sentiment from nurses nationwide, echoed in Sioux City by healthcare workers fighting COVID-19.

“We’re used to seeing death in the ICU. We’re used to seeing hard cases. We’re not used to seeing this at this amount, and for this long,” says Lacey Friis, a registered nurse at UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s. “These people are ventilated for four, five, six weeks at a time and then if they make it out, they’ve got a long road ahead of them.”

Melissa De Kok is a registered respiratory therapist at UnityPoint Health. She has seven children at home and like so many working in her industry, she’s had to develop new ways of leaving her work at work, literally.

“My main stress was … am I gonna bring it back to them? So I’d be very careful about wearing my N-95 mask all the time … face shield, gown, how I took it off … gloves, sanitizing everything,” says De Kok. “I would shower here. My shoes would never hit my car. I always had crocs sitting in my driver’s seat. So I would hang my feet out, and put them in little totes, spray them with Lysol, and then put my crocs on, and that’s what I’d wear into the house.”

She is not alone. Dr. Mark Abraham, a general surgeon at Midland’s clinic and Medical Staff President at Mercy One Siouxland, took extreme measures to protect his wife and children.

“I did go through a period of self-exclusion from my family. So I spent a few weeks in my basement … family had the run of the rest of my house … had some meals delivered to the stairs every once in a while,” says Dr. Abraham. “It was really out of a sense of being overly protective of my family … not knowing what could happen, not knowing how sick this could make my children or my wife.”

So with the stress of an influx of critically ill patients at work, and the struggle to keep their family safe, how do these healthcare workers cope?

“I’ve started walking a lot more. And I guess, just more focusing on my family. Before, you kind of take things for granted, you know … your kids are there every day. You’re doing the same thing,” says De Kok. “But now it’s like, ‘what if they’re not there one day? Or what if I’m not there one day because of this?’ So I’ve taken more time to appreciate the little things, like gardening with my kids. I’ve started a garden with them so that’s something that we’ve been kind of working on or building a playground outside our house. Stuff like that, that I wouldn’t have done because I thought I was too busy.”

“My only new coping mechanism is like everybody else, “Oh, this is a good time for home improvement projects!” says Dr. Abraham. “We’ve done a lot of tearing things up, but not a lot of putting things back together … that’s the next step.”

Sometimes, there’s just a need to decompress.

“You’re a nurse, you know the things to healthy things to do … exercise, meditate, journal, vent, talk to a loved one,” says Friis. “But you are so exhausted that in your personal time, you’re just kind of a blob when you get home. Thank god for Netflix. Everybody’s got their own thing.”

It’s one thing for adults to understand the risk factors that come with working in close contact with COVID-19 positive patients. It’s another to try explaining the pandemic to kindergarteners.

“I have 5-year-old twins. They are like, don’t touch mommy, she’s got ‘rona!’ So they know if I’m wearing my red scrubs, not to touch me until I get in the shower,” De Kok says. “And then after I get out of the shower, they’re like ‘are you ‘rona free now?'”

“As a general surgeon and a trauma surgeon, I take quite a bit of call,” says Dr. Abraham. “My family understands that sometimes, I’m just gone. This was a little bit weird because I would come home and go in the basement. My older two very much understood. My younger one did not understand. She just came up with the phrase, ‘daddy working’.”

Although the number of cases is starting to go down in some areas, doctors and nurses are still at a high risk of potentially spreading the disease after contact with coronavirus patients.

So they cannot do everyday activities with loved ones, like eating dinner or watching television – things some might take for granted.

“You’re surviving. On a personal note, how we deal with it … a lot of people were at home and going through their own issues in quarantine and that’s hard on your mental health too. But nurses, we’re in go-survive mode so a lot of our feelings are just now happening, after that surge. I feel like a lot of our families suffered because they didn’t have the normal, mom, dad, sister brother there to support them.”

But fortunately, Friis said, the community has stepped up to the plate and supported healthcare workers by donating meals and making them feel appreciated.

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