This story was published in the May 8 final print issue. Read the full issue here.
In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, hospitals like The Medical Center in Bowling Green are dealing with unprecedented times. Restricted access, face masks, merging units and newfound precautions have all become part of the new normal healthcare workers and patients have found themselves in.
The Med Center is just one of the hospitals in Bowling Green to be affected by coronavirus, and it has put in place a list of guidelines and recommendations for the public. The hospital has also changed the way it operates, which has affected the services available and has put in place visitation restrictions.
Becky Ubelhor, a registered nurse and former WKU student, has been working at The Med Center since her graduation in May 2019. She said before the outbreak hit, starting last summer she orientated in the pediatrics/urology department where she worked her way up from doing small tasks to doing bigger tasks such as calling rapid response when someone’s blood pressure drops quickly.
Since March, however, Ubelhor’s responsibilities changed as her focus became protecting herself, coworkers and other patients from the spread of the virus. She said before the virus, she had to learn about basic droplet precautions such as wearing a mask and contact gown, but when COVID-19 showed up in Bowling Green, protocols changed drastically.
“And then after that hit, a lot of things changed in the hospital,” Ubelhor said. “Starting with everyone had to start wearing a mask, even if they weren't showing signs of sickness.”
The Med Center implemented a designated tower specifically for COVID-19 patients, which Ubelhor said helps contain the virus. She said COVID patients are only allowed one visitor, and the visitor has to get their temperature taken at the door.
Ubelhor said the screening process is similar for hospital staff as well, including nurses and doctors. They have to get their temperature taken at the door and are given a mask for each day and night. Once they are in the hospital, they have to keep their masks on, especially when they’re talking to other people a few feet away from them.
In March, WKU’s nursing program announced changes regarding nursing students’ curriculum and stated no WKU nursing student will be assigned to known or suspected cases of COVID-19. Nursing students were instead assigned duties such as being runners, answering phones, collecting supplies and monitoring waiting areas.
Nursing students who elected not to finish the semester were able to take an incomplete, which can later be changed to an actual grade.
As of May 5, Gov. Andy Beshear had announced 5,822 cases of coronavirus in Kentucky. Warren County had 439 of these cases.
“Warren has had just a significant growth in cases,” Beshear said. “It’s from a lot of different reasons. We’re gonna work with them to make sure that we have some form of continued testing at least regionally … We gotta look on how to work with that community to continue to provide support.”
Beshear noted that not all of the cases in Warren County come from residents of the county, but since this is where major hospitals are located, they’re likely to be servicing a broader region.
As of May 5, there had been a total of 1,603 Kentuckians hospitalized due to the virus.
Outside of the COVID unit in The Med Center, changes were seen in other areas of the hospital as less patients were admitted and units had to merge because there weren’t enough patients to fill beds. Ubelhor said her unit had to join another unit temporarily.
Ubelhor said these changes took place from late March to early April, and young, healthy nurses were asked to volunteer in the COVID unit. Around that time, the hospital also had to cut costs by decreasing the number of staff.
“A lot of the nursing home patients that got COVID and spread it all around the nursing home, they had nowhere to go,” Ubelhor said. “So they all just kind of swarmed in and took over one of our floors. We actually had to add another floor just because of what I heard was the nursing home patients that couldn't be placed anywhere else, so they had to be cleared of the COVID first.”
COVID-19 isn’t just confined within The Med Center, as the emotional impacts weigh heavy on hospital staff such as Ubelhor. She said at first there was a lot of denial, since nurses and doctors are used to outbreaks such as H1N1 and the seasonal flu. She also said it was emotionally draining trying to keep up with daily policy changes as well as not knowing what to expect when she walks into work.
“Through nursing I have learned to adapt a lot quicker and be more flexible,” Ubelhor said. “If I get anxious I kind of stop and rationalize it and say, you know, what can I do in this moment? And that kind of helps to keep my head on straight.”
She said something else that affects her emotionally is having to tell patients they have to go through things alone as they can’t risk having family nearby.
“... A lot of us have cried with our patients — a lot of us have listened to their stories and felt their hurt as well,” Ubelhor said. “And then we also are feeling the hurt and the sting by not being able to fully protect ourselves sometimes and not knowing when this is going to end.”
Ubelhor also mentioned the stigma that comes with being a healthcare worker during the pandemic. She said people look down upon wearing scrubs in public, and while she hasn’t personally had a negative experience, she has heard from those who have. She said now hospital staff members usually wear street clothes before coming into work.
She also said while she lives alone, she knows of other workers who come home to their families and strip in the garage before heading straight to the shower in an effort to protect their families from the potential spread of the virus. She said people need to take this virus seriously to overcome it faster since everyone wants to get this over with.
“There's no use in being anxious and fearful all the time, but it's a good thing to be healthfully aware,” Ubelhor said. “... We have to all stick together or not at all because there can't be one person going around and spreading, you know, this virus just because they want to. There has to be some kind of mercy in that, you know — solidarity with everyone in society, really.”
Liceth Rodriguez, a 38-year-old nurse at The Med Center and a single mom of three, currently works in the COVID-19 unit with Ubelhor and was one of the first nurses to volunteer in the unit.
Rodriguez said one of the hardest things about being a nurse during this pandemic is how people treat her differently in public as if they’re scared of her, even though nurses are the ones following strict CDC guidelines.
She said she understands their discomfort and tries not to let it get to her personally because they’re likely misinformed, but said what hurts the most is not being able to be close to her own family.
“But what breaks our hearts and our mental state in our, our will, is being rejected by our own family, being separated by our loved ones,” Rodriguez said. “...I'm a lone wolf. I always have been isolated from the world, but not from my children. They are who I live for, they are who I work for.”
Rodriguez said although she is struggling personally with how COVID-19 is affecting her life, she still tries to uplift her coworkers and makes sure they give each other pep talks during breaks or when they pass each other in the halls. She even made them t-shirts with an encouraging quote to remind them that they can get through this.
She also said she regularly initiates conversations with them to make sure they’re coping mentally, physically and emotionally.
“The way I cope with my fears, anxieties and stressors, is by hearing somebody else's story too for me to realize hey, it's not that bad,” Rodriguez said. “I'm not going through a lot. Everybody else is going through this.”
While Rodriguez continues to work through this pandemic, she said she wants to remind people that all they have to do is stay at home and they need to be taking this virus seriously. She said her first priority, however, will always be to care for people no matter how they end up in the hospital with COVID-19.
“So, whenever they're there in that point, we will take care of them with all the love and respect they deserve,” Rodriguez said. “...But don't risk the lives of the general public. That’s the only one thing that as nurses we ask of the rest of the people. Don't be selfish, because we're not being selfish. We're distancing from our moms, our dads, our children, to see that they're taking it lightly. We're watching people die.”
News Editor Natasha Breu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nnbreu.