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'We're still fighting this fight' | Frontline workers witness sobering reality of COVID-19 as hospitalizations surge

Cone Health had its highest COVID-19 patient intake Monday, Jan. 11, and expects to be over capacity by Jan. 19.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Hospitalizations in North Carolina continue to surge, while healthcare workers do all they can to care for the many COVID-19 patients that come to the hospital to fight the virus.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, different departments in the hospital systems have made room for COVID-19 beds.

Dana Dark is a nurse on the telemetry and urology floor at Wesley Long Hospital in Greensboro. 

She said her department has been taking COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic, before the opening of the Green Valley Campus. 

"Back in the spring there were a lot of questions," said Dark, "There was fear from our patients. They would come in, they were scared. This is something none of us really knew anything about."

Dark said there are 24 beds equipped to care for COVID-19 patients on her floor. 

Since the beginning of December, she said anywhere from 18-24 beds have been full a majority of the time. 

"You don’t know if that patient is going to take their last breath, you don’t know at what moment that could turn and be a completely different scenario at a hospital stay," said Dark. 

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Dark said the patients they care for on her floor are stable. When their condition worsens, healthcare workers in her unit turn to the ICU.

Staff nurse Haley Romines works there. 

"Most of our patients in the ICU are not able to express what they need or if they're in pain," said Romines, "We're also the middle man for the doctors who come around once or a couple of times a day and we have to catch the little things if they're showing signs of pain if they're showing signs of discomfort if somethings going wrong that we need to catch before it’s a problem."

Romines has been working as a nurse for almost two years. When the pandemic started she was hardly a year into her job. 

She said she's seen misinformation spread about the virus herself and has a message to those who aren't taking it as seriously as they should. 

"I want to tell them how lucky they are to not know how real it is and that none of us signed up to do this job in a COVID pandemic. It was part of our job expectation and we all stepped up to the plate because that’s who we are," said Romines, "The privilege of not knowing what a ventilator sounds like when it's as high as it can go and not having to make that decision over the phone or over an iPad to no longer treat your patient, no longer treat your mom or dad or son or daughter."

RELATED: COVID-19 Blog: Cone Health reaches highest patient totals yet, expects to be over capacity next week

"Be mindful that it’s a scary thing to have," said Dark, "You don’t know if that patient is going to take their last breath, you don’t know at what moment that could turn and be a completely different scenario at a hospital stay."

Romines said as an ICU nurse, she spends most of her day with just one or two patients, and she's there for them through everything.

"Some of our COVID patients we get to know really really well because we've had them for a long time and we know everything about them," said Romines, "There's not many shifts that go by that if your patient is not doing well that you're not right there with them feeling it with them and crying with them and their families."

Romines said ICU nurses are there for every decision, medication, and everything the patient needs, even at the end. 

"We're also their voice and the families shoulder to lean on when that hard decision is made that we need to make that patient comfortable rather than progressing care," she said, "We’re not going to fight anymore, we're going to give dignity and comfort and peace and then we're that different type of caregiver. We're no longer the fighter and the cheerleader. We're going to keep you comfortable until the very end."

Romines said the pain of losing a patient is something they carry with them even after the nurses go home. 

"You’re expected to sometimes clock out and go home and live your life and I think that's a hard thing to do as well. We definitely carry our patients with us months after they’re gone or no longer in our unit," she said.

Some of the things these healthcare workers have seen during this pandemic are things they could have never imagined.

"The families that come in where mom and dad and both children are all on ventilators at the same time its something we never imagined and I think you really are removed from it if you’re not in the hospital," she said.

She hopes that those who don't believe in the power of the virus, become more trusting of the reality that is, and do what's right to protect themselves, their family, and others in the community. 

"I just hope people can be trusting of people who know more who have more experience and I hope they have it in their heart to look past what’s uncomfortable for them to save other people," she said. 

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