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Munson nurses struggle after latest COVID surge — “I’ve never cried so much in my career.”

Outside Munson Medical Center's emergency department in Traverse City.
Taylor Wizner
Outside Munson Medical Center's emergency department in Traverse City.

COVID hospitalizations in northern Michigan have begun to dip.

It’s welcome news to nurses at Traverse City’s Munson Medical Center, who for more than a year now, have been in crisis mode.

Last week and the week before that, the hospital had been full.

Nurses say it’s been a mix as those with COVID-19, post-COVID complications—including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or blood clotting issues—and those who delayed procedures during the pandemic and are sicker.

It’s a stressful time, says Sarah Curran, who works the night shift in the intensive care unit and started as a nurse during the first COVID wave last spring.

She’s struggled to cope as she cares for the large number of very ill patients. Munson Healthcare reports a cumulative total of 39,638 COVID-19 cases in the northern Michigan region, with 738 deaths, as of May 1.

“That is not something they can prepare you for in nursing school. And they especially can’t prepare you to see it day after day,” Curran says.

While she’s mostly numb to the effects of the transmissible disease, Curran’s disturbed by some patients who struggle to fight the illness, including young people in their 20s and 30s.

“You’re like, ‘they've barely even lived and here they are on a ventilator and we’re trying to keep them alive,’” she says. “You’re constantly thinking that could be me in this bed.”

Nikia Parker, an emergency room nurse and a paramedic, says only recently has she seen many younger individuals in their 50s and 60s who are so seriously ill.

In a two week period, she transported five people who had extremely low oxygen levels.

“By day five, seven [over the course of the illness] they fall off a cliff and they just get much much worse, much quicker,” Parker says.

She, too, struggles to deal with the onslaught of sick patients.

“We see death and destruction in the ER on a regular basis, but it’s not so much of the same thing,” Parker says. “The number of people we’re seeing super super sick with COVID is higher than the number of people that I saw super sick with influenza in the entire 15 years I’ve been a nurse.”

Stacy Prokos has seen a lot in her 23 years as a nurse, but even she gets overwhelmed.

“I say I’ve never cried so much in my career,” she says.

Nurses in her unit are giving up bedside care for office work and some are retiring early.

Prokos is managing through it by leaning on her colleagues, but she’s also needed to find new ways to deal with stress and the pain of losing patients.

“I think in a smaller box, more manageable pieces — things I can control in my own life,” she says. “I can’t let it eat me up, I won’t.”

Public backlash is an added challenge of being a nurse during the pandemic.

The Munson nurses say relatives of sick patients are angry about restrictive visitor policies.

The nurses report attitudes about health care workers have also changed. They aren’t hailed as heroes anymore. Friends and neighbors have turned nasty when conversations about vaccinations come up.

But it’s the new apathy that hurts the nurses most. Prokos says people don’t seem to care any longer that hospitals are hanging on.

“There’s this bar that we’re never going to meet,” she says. “It keeps moving, their expectations for what they think their hometown hospital can provide.”

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.