Inside of Alaska Native Medical Center’s ICU, doctors and nurses fight to keep COVID patients alive

Hospital workers at the Alaska Native Medical Center ICU on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Shirley Young/Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium)

On Monday morning at a wing of Alaska Native Medical Center’s ICU, workers in masks and scrubs darted in and out of hospital rooms. But it was relatively quiet except for the pings of medical machines and the ringing of telephones at the main desk. 

The morning before was different: a code blue.

Somebody’s heart had stopped beating. 

Workers rushed to the doors of a negative pressure room where the patient, suffering from COVID-19, was on a ventilator. But workers couldn’t just rush in to start CPR right away.

Instead, they had to put on fit-tested powered air purifying respirators, isolation gowns, gloves and goggles to protect them against the virus. 

“I think the hardest moments are when you have to take the time to gear up when people need you right away,” said nurse Kassandra Eyre. 

Only a few workers entered the patient’s room, while the others stood outside and passed  supplies through the doors or gave treatment advice. One of them had to position a medical cart outside the glass window with an iPad on top of it, so a loved one could catch a last glimpse of the patient. 

“It sucks the life out of your soul,” said Jorin Calt, a nurse on duty. “Day by day, somebody’s dying, everybody’s getting worse.”

Through pulled shades of glass, a worker in PPE treats a patient in a bed
A nurse in a negative pressure room at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Sept. 20, 2021. (Shirley Young/Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium)

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Nurses say they’re working overtime — often 18-hour days — to provide the care their patients need.

“We’re really tired,” said nurse Kirsten Larson. “But we keep making the choice to come back to work every day.”

And they’re also dealing with the emotional trauma of deaths, almost every days. It’s exhausting and frustrating, staff said, especially since most of the suffering is preventable through vaccination. 

“The last two months have been some of the toughest of my career,” said Mike Stauffer, the nurse in charge of the unit on Monday. Stauffer ducked into a quiet hallway to speak with Alaska Public Media over a video call. On the walls beside him were lockers covered with printed slogans like ‘I am important.’ 

Stauffer said COVID-19 patients take more time and staff than the usual ICU patients. 

Normally at this ICU, there’s one nurse for each patient. Now one nurse takes care of two patients because of an increase in patients and not enough staff. 

“I’ve never seen this volume with so many people in one unit requiring as much resources as they require,” said Stauffer.

RELATED: 1,251 new COVID-19 cases reported in Alaska, breaking daily record

Each time nurses need to enter a negative pressure room where a COVID patient is treated, they have to suit up in a fit-tested mask and other layers of other equipment, like firefighters preparing to run into a burning building. 

Respiratory Therapy manager Holly Polaski gave a different metaphor. 

“It’s almost like PTSD, like that war syndrome, PTSD,” she said, holding back tears. “And I can say that because I was in the military. And when you’re in a war zone, and you’re seeing all this stuff, it’s hard.”

For hospital staff, there’s another factor making things even harder: public hostility. 

It spilled over at an Anchorage Assembly meeting last week. Dozens of hospital workers showed up  to testify about the importance of vaccines and masking, and to warn that ICU beds were full. At times, they were booed by audience members who support Mayor Dave Bronson’s hands-off strategy for dealing with the pandemic.

A woman in a flowered mask and a greey sweater smilees in a medical hallway
Jacque Quantrille, director of nursing at ANMC on Sept. 20, 2021 (Shirley Young/Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium)

“We as nurses went from being the most respected career in the world, you know, in the nation, to being, ‘Oh, you’re just a naysayer, you’re just making this political,’” said Jacque Quantrille, the director of nursing at ANMC.

RELATED: 400 health care workers on their way to help fight Alaska’s COVID-19 surge

Quantrille said she hasn’t been verbally accosted, but she’s felt judgment online and at the grocery store. At the Assembly meeting, an Assembly person questioned whether doctors were doing everything they could to help patients get better.

Quantrille said hearing doubts like that tests the resolve of hospital workers. 

“That’s really hard on our morale,” she said. “I didn’t spend thousands of hours in nursing school so that someone could tell me I’m causing harm.”

With the current COVID surge expected to get worse before it gets better, Quantrille said she can only hope more people get their COVID-19 vaccine and start wearing a face mask in public.

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