The Transylvania Times -

Denver Nurse Tells ER Stories


Last updated 4/27/2020 at 2:51pm

John and Sue Heath both work in hospitals in Denver, Colo. (Courtesy photo)

Editor's Note: Last week Transylvania Times reporter Alex Perri reported on the experiences of her aunt, a nurse in New York City. In the following article, Perri shares what an uncle, who is a nurse a Denver, Colo., has been experiencing in an emergency department in a level one trauma center during the pandemic.

John Heath has been nursing for 32 years and said his hospital has seen a plateau in the number of new patients arriving in the emergency room with COVID-19 symptoms, with around 20-30 coming in per-day, but the patients who are coming in, are much sicker than usual.

Heath said at the pandemic's beginning his hospital cut staffing because the patient volume decreased by about 50 percent due to the cancelation of elective surgeries and the decreasing in non-essential visits. But now, the volume has picked up, while staffing has not.

"(Now) the volume of our patients is increasing, yet our staffing is still very minimal... and then the patients we're seeing, both the COVID patients and then the regular ER patients, are even sicker than normal because a lot of them are trying to avoid coming to the ER," he said. "So, they don't come until they're really sick. Our acuity is really high, too. So, that makes it even tougher."

Heath said working in cumbersome personal protective equipment all day is one of the biggest challenges.

"Using the PPE all day is exhausting," he said. "It makes it hard to communicate with people, especially older people whose hearing isn't too well. It makes it difficult to recognize your coworkers sometimes."

Heath wears a mask and goggles all day, and will wear extra PPE when treating COVID-19 patients, such as gowns and a face shield, which make the wearer prone to overheating.

On average, before the pandemic, Heath said his ER would see around 150 to 170 patients a day. Now with measures hospitals have been taking to prepare for the virus, he estimates about 120 are coming in a day, but the staffing is still reduced. Working with fewer staff, but, more acutely ill patients, has been tough, Heath said.

However, he said, his hospital "hasn't gotten anything we can't handle."

When comparing working in the ER during a really bad flu year, Heath says, treating COVID-19 is much different.

"This is just much more infections than the flu, and plus, you can get vaccinated for the flu," he said. "Or, if you get the flu, you know you've had the flu, and you know if you really need to worry about getting it again. Probably...a large portion of people who have had this virus aren't even aware of it. So, a lot of the ER staff, we've probably been exposed and not aware of it. Without the proper testing, we don't know if we could be passing this on to patients or not. We're trying to be very cautious about that."

Heath and his wife, Sue, work in hospitals (Sue is an occupational therapist), and they are careful not to pass the virus on to their children or their community members. Both wear masks when around other people and will shower first thing when they get home before greeting anyone.

"I don't go to work paranoid. I mean we wear masks all day," Sue said. "If we're going to see a COVID patient, we have the PPE that we need, but... because were still learning about it, you don't want to bring it home to your family."

Heath said treating the pandemic reminds him of treating AIDs in the 1980s and 1990s.

"When I first started nursing, that's when the AIDs came out," he said. "And there was so much we didn't know about it. We didn't know if you're going to get it from a mosquito...and we were getting these AIDs patients, and you didn't know what to do to protect yourself. But over time, you realized, OK, just don't touch their blood.

Both Heath and his wife say that though many of the critically ill patients are elderly, younger people have been coming into the hospital sick.

However, usually the younger patients will be OK if their chest X-rays look good, Heath said.

Many may have seen photos of Denver nurses blocking traffic in anti-stay-at-home protests, and John said the mentality of the protestors is frustrating for him.

"It's just frustrating that they want to pull this card that their rights are being stamped upon when you know if your actions are going to make your parents sick or your neighbors sick or whoever," he said. "It's just not affecting you. It's affecting everybody. And it would be nice if they kind of looked at that, and it would be nice if they kind of used all that energy to try and get their government to ramp up the testing more, so that things can open up quicker. I think the ball was dropped so many times as far as our preparation."

Sue said she's frustrated by the mentality of people saying they're not concerned about the virus if it's only impacting elderly people or people with pre-existing health conditions.

"I've got to tell you that one of the things (you hear) is, 'Well you know it's mostly going to be elder people or people who are really overweight, have cardiac or lung issues,'" she said. "They're human beings, and they deserve to live. And I don't think that we should just say, 'OK, well, whew, its only the elderly.' It's not only the elderly, and they do count...It's hard when you walk in the ICU and you see people struggling for their life on the ventilators. It just kind of puts it in a new perspective."

Both are say that if anything, they hope this pandemic will be a lesson for the country to be more prepared next time, while hoping there is no next time.


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