Before the sun rises, ICU nurse Lauren Herpy is clocking in for her 12-hour shift at OhioHealth O'Bleness Hospital in Athens. She checks in with the exiting night shift nurse, walks around gathering updates on the patients under her care, gathering physical assessments and reviewing their medical charts.
Much of Herpy’s shift is also dedicated to fighting on Athens County’s COVID-19 frontline.
Anytime Herpy interacts with a COVID-19 patient, her uniform consists of head-to-toe personal protection equipment: the nurse must don a full protective gown, an N-95 mask, gloves and a face shield every time she tends to her patients with the virus.
Some health care professionals in her orbit, she said, feel that working under the oppressive conditions of a pandemic is not what they signed up for when working to complete their medical degrees. Herpy, however, can’t relate to that one bit.
“Helping people is exactly what we signed up for," she said. “And as terrible, heartbreaking and emotionally devastating it has been, I choose to take time to reflect on the transformation.”
The Ohio University graduate has worked with OhioHealth for several years, first in the Medical Surgical unit and then the hospital’s ICU unit. Her work days pre-pandemic were rather routine, but the day-to-day activities in an ICU require mental and physical flexibility.
Herpy said that when the pandemic began last year many health professionals nationwide were immediately anxious about their access to personal protective equipment. She and other employees at OhioHealth didn’t necessarily share that worry, as PPE was sufficiently available.
Staffing was also a concern, but nurses from other units in the hospital have transferred to the ICU in order to carry the local weight of the pandemic. And nurses have worked hard during the pandemic; in fact, ICU nurses at OhioHealth O'Bleness Hospital have voluntarily picked up more shifts, Herpy said.
Interactions with patients who are in recovery from COVID-19 require a lot of planning. Especially toward the beginning of the pandemic, Herpy quickly learned to cluster her tasks in order to swiftly and efficiently care for hospitalized people. For her, that meant accomplishing as much as she can while devoting time to caring for COVID-19 patients, taking out the trash in their room, helping them get to the bathroom and much more.
Tending to patients who are carrying an airborne virus of which little is known can be a daunting task for even a veteran ICU nurse. Herpy said that early last year she and her fellow nurses proceeded with an abundance of anxiety, operating with a fear of exposure even as they followed each public health protocol.
But more worried are the patients who test positive for the virus and whose health declines to the point where they requires hospitalization. The ICU nurse noted that her patients experiencing COVID-19 share an array of emotions: fear and nervousness, to start.
People who come into OhioHealth O'Bleness Hospital with COVID-19 have been watching and reading news about the highly contagious, airborne virus, and many also may know someone who struggled or failed to recover from it. Patients also report feelings of loneliness and isolation as they are set aside from others and are unable to welcome visitors.
As a result, Herpy oftentimes has to speak with a patient’s relatives on the phone in order to update them on the status of their loved one, to explain how she and other nurses are caring for the patient and to answer the many questions family members and spouses have when someone they care for is hospitalized.
Herpy told The NEWS that she has seen the virus wreak havoc on patients’ bodies, often causing pneumonia to set in, a frightening development for an older individual who may have pre-existing conditions. The recovery time from COVID-19, too, is alarming, with some patients reportedly taking weeks or months to recuperate following exposure.
The ICU nurse also said that the virus currently has no cure, and much of what can be done for patients is to support their immune systems fighting off the virus. One tactic nurses implement, though, that has been rather helpful during a person’s recovery is “prone positioning”: laying a patient on his or her stomach to encourage oxygenation.
“It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Herpy said. “This virus is unpredictable, and sometimes the results are not what we want.”
In Athens County, nine people have died in connection to the virus and 137 have been hospitalized as of Monday, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Herpy said that in her role as an ICU nurse, she often feels frustrated with how COVID-19 is perceived by the public, with some people in her own community calling it a hoax.
Also alarming are the attitudes and actions she witnesses from younger populations, who carry the lion’s share of confirmed cases in Athens County.
“I think the focus for our younger population should be on being a good citizen and doing what you can to prevent spread,” Herpy said. “For them, they should be more defensive rather than offensive.”
For Herpy and for other OhioHealth O'Bleness Hospital nurses, a beam of hope stretches ahead: vaccinations. Herpy has been vaccinated and advises others to consult their health care providers about immunizations.
She’s had some already voice concern about the potential of the vaccine causing more harm than good if they choose to receive it, but Herpy said many times people confuse a normal immune response to a vaccination with infection.
“(The vaccine is) really the only way out,” she said.