Inside UMMC’s COVID units, emotional toll weighs on health care workers as state’s hospital system struggles

Inside UMMC’s COVID units, emotional toll weighs on health care workers as state’s hospital system struggles

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Inside the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s COVID units, one can easily see the measures doctors and nurses take to stay safe, donning gowns, face shields, gloves and masks repeatedly to protect against the coronavirus.

What’s harder to spot are the physical and emotional tolls the pandemic has inflicted.

“These patients require a lot of care, and then a lot of them don’t do well, so by the time you work so hard on people and they continue to die, it’s emotionally exhausting,” said Dr. Andy Wilhelm, who serves as the director of UMMC’s Medical Intensive Care Unit.

The hospital’s MICU, which serves only COVID-19 patients now because of the sheer volume of cases, is one of three areas designated for those who have the virus.

Statewide, COVID-related hospitalizations have increased to all-time highs each day since July 8, with Thursday’s data showing 1,117 people suspected or confirmed to have the virus.

At UMMC, Mississippi’s only Level 1 Trauma Center, the hospital’s regular and ICU bed capacity continues to be pushed to the limit in part because smaller hospitals that don’t have the capacity for intensive care send their patients to Jackson.

“We have transfer requests daily from smaller, rural hospitals around the state. Those smaller hospitals need ICU beds, they need medsearch beds, and for the past two weeks, we really have not had those, so we’ve been trying to help those smaller hospitals find ICU beds elsewhere, sometimes out of state, sometimes four or five hours from their hospital,” said Dr. Risa Moriarity, the executive vice chair of emergency medicine for UMMC.

Right now, UMMC’s lack of available beds has caused both regular medical and ICU patients to instead wait in the emergency department hours and hours.

“We have had more patients boarding in the emergency department, sometimes as long as 24 to 36 hours because they can’t get beds upstairs,” Moriarity said. “That, of course, has a cascade effect and means our waiting room is full, sometimes two or three times as full as it would normally be.”

Wilhelm said what one might see when they walk into the MICU is nothing compared to what someone experiences as a COVID patient there.

“The best analogy I could come up with would be like going to a hotel and there not be walls between all the rooms. And you can hear buzzers, you can hear beepers, you can hear the TVs going, and then every once in a while, your neighbor who dies gets wheeled past you,” Wilhelm said. “You see that, it creates a high level of anxiety -- stress -- and potentially makes the situation worse.”

Further compounding the stress is the isolation, both for the patients and the health care professionals themselves, with doctors and nurses self-isolating because they, too, might be exposed to the coronavirus.

“They’re not staying with their families, so that’s difficult. When we leave work, we don’t have the same kind of emotional support that we would have if we could hug our friends and socialize, so that sort of social isolation contributes to the stress and the burnout at work,” said Dr. Risa Moriarity, the executive vice chair of emergency medicine for UMMC.

Intensive care work in general is very intense anyway, Moriarity said, but COVID-19 has stressed her staff and many at UMMC in a way that they haven’t experienced before.

“We’re tired. I’m not going to lie. We’re all tired,” Wilhelm said. “I think what makes us more tired is that this isn’t going to calm down anytime soon.”

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