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Hospitals have been struggling like never before during the omicron surge

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hospitals have been struggling during this omicron surge, and health care workers are simply ground down after nearly 700 days of the pandemic. Amelia Templeton at Oregon Public Broadcasting went inside one of the biggest hospitals in Oregon, Salem Hospital, to hear from health care workers on the front line,

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: Nurse Heather Gatchet is not a rookie. She's worked in the emergency department at Salem Hospital for eight years. But recently, she's been dealing with bouts of panic in the mornings before her shift.

HEATHER GATCHET: I drink my tea, pack my daughter's lunch. And then when I drive to work, I call my mom. My mom's like my cup of coffee on my way to work. She kind of just is like my cheerleader, tells me, you got this. You've been doing this a long time.

TEMPLETON: She walks into the hospital. There are 50 patients over capacity today. Upstairs, some patients are doubled or tripled up in rooms that are supposed to be singles. Downstairs, ambulances are lined up behind the emergency department, seven, eight, nine at a time. All this means Gatchet has to do her job faster with less help. But the panic goes away when she walks into the break room.

GATCHET: I look around the room. I see who's in blue. Those are the nurses. Who's in teal - those are the techs. And it's like, OK, let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

TEMPLETON: This is a large emergency department with 100 beds. But now it's not enough. So they've put patients on gurneys in every hallway. It's hard for Gatchet to work that way.

GATCHET: There's so much noise from people, from phones ringing, from overhead paging. I felt distracted and just overwhelmed at times.

TEMPLETON: Dr. Peter Hakim works alongside Gatchet. Some of what Hakim does is too sensitive to do in the hallway, like cutting off clothing to examine a broken hip. So he's had to take patients into the bathroom.

PETER HAKIM: We've had, you know, patients who couldn't wait. And they're critical, and I have to see what's going on. And that is the one private space we could find at the time.

TEMPLETON: Before the pandemic, smaller hospitals in the Willamette Valley could transfer their most critical patients to Salem. But now Salem has to turn a lot of patients away. A few weeks ago, Hakim got a call about his own mother-in-law. She'd had a heart attack and was in a small, rural hospital. She needed a transfer for specialty care.

HAKIM: And they could not find a bed for her anywhere in Washington or Oregon for 24 hours. So she was sitting in this small, six-bed emergency department and couldn't get transferred out.

TEMPLETON: Hakim couldn't help, either.

HAKIM: It made me feel a little bit helpless. But it was one of those times I was at work, and I still had to find a way to compartmentalize those feelings and care for the people that were here 'cause the people that are here are somebody else's family.

TEMPLETON: The entire health care system is clogged, and the patients are getting sicker. Some can't go back home because they need a wheelchair or a visiting nurse, and those are in short supply. Other patients need to go to a nursing home to get stronger, but many nursing homes aren't taking new patients. They're short-staffed. So patients who could leave are still here. And more arrive every day.

SARAH WEBBER: And unfortunately, the more patients we see, the less time I have, the less bandwidth I have.

TEMPLETON: That's Dr. Sarah Webber. Webber says the worst part is feeling like the reason she got into medicine, her relationship with her patients, is breaking down.

WEBBER: I've been starting to feel a lot more frustration and lack of trust from my patients.

TEMPLETON: Especially with unvaccinated patients. Most Oregonians have gotten two doses of the COVID shot, but most of the people hospitalized with it are unvaccinated.

WEBBER: It's been really hard to be at a patient's bedside who's really sick, and there was a potential way to prevent it. And it's really hard to over and over and over again feel helpless. Like, we had an answer, but people chose not to take it. And then they want me to fix it, and I can't.

TEMPLETON: Most COVID patients are treated here on a regular medical surgical floor.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE MANAGER: Has she been helped?

TEMPLETON: The man with COVID has just been settled into a room and put on oxygen. His wife wants to go into the room, too, but the nurse manager needs to see if that's safe.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE MANAGER: So when you say you've been with your husband for the last 10 days, did you go through screening and tell them that?

TEMPLETON: They realize the wife has been exposed to COVID. They tell her she can't see her husband, and she has to leave the hospital right away. She tearfully hands over his glasses.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE MANAGER: It's really difficult for us to do that. You saw that she was very upset that she had to leave. We've had some people that are very, very angry with us. And she actually handled it very well compared to some people.

TEMPLETON: The staff do what they can to make it less lonely. They hold up cell phones so patients can FaceTime. They hold their hands. Jackie Williams is a respiratory therapist who works all over Salem Hospital. She thought about quitting during the delta wave. We all did, she says. Now she's starting to feel more hopeful.

JACKIE WILLIAMS: I feel like I am seeing more patients live. And that has been really awesome. I was thinking about it yesterday, actually. I can think of, like, three patients that I know of that were very, very sick. And we all were pretty sure that they were going to die. And they were young. And they're better.

TEMPLETON: The worst might be over. Or, Williams says, it might be still ahead. Salem Hospital, the entire health system, is fragile. And the ambulances will keep coming.

WILLIAMS: It might not be breathing problems, but it's alcoholism. It's suicide. It's traumas. It's all these other things that are what the world is dealing with after coming out of two years of a pandemic. And those are critical illnesses, too.

TEMPLETON: And Williams says she'll be there for those patients, too. For NPR News, I'm Amelia Templeton in Salem, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MY ONLY SWERVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.