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Inside a Grand Rapids hospital as COVID rages on: "I don't know how much our team has left."

Mercy Health Saint Marys 1
Courtesy Mercy Health
Mercy Health
A nurse at Mercy Health Saint Mary's hospital in Grand Rapids.

Rachel Edgett is trying to prepare for a wedding. Her wedding. It’s this weekend, she tells me. But earlier this week, she came in on her day off to show me where she works - a second-floor intensive care unit at Mercy Health’s Saint Mary’s hospital in Grand Rapids.

“You see the critical precaution signs are COVID patients,” she says, walking down the hallway, “with the pumps and everything outside the rooms.”

This is the first sign that things are very different now in this ICU. Nearly all the doors to the patient rooms are closed. Outside are carts, loaded up with IV bags, monitors - hospital rooms turned inside out. The patients in the rooms are alone.

Alongside Edgett is Dr. Matt Biersack, the hospital’s president.

President is an administrative job, a suit and tie job, but Biersack is wearing black scrubs, because he, like everyone else around this hospital, has been pitching in to take care of COVID patients.

Saint Mary’s is one of the two main hospitals in the city, and that makes it one of the bigger hospitals in this part of the state. Under different circumstances, it’s the kind of hospital that would be accepting transfer patients from smaller hospitals in smaller towns. Lately, though, it’s too full for that.

Edgett points the way down the hall, where three nurses sit at a desk.

“As you see down here, they just intubated somebody,” she says, “So it’s a little busy outside that room."

She introduces me to Tina Slabbekoorn, a nurse manager, and Amy Stein, the charge nurse on the floor. Next to them is a nurse anesthetist, named Eric Prichard.

Prichard has been redeployed here from a surgery team that is no longer doing surgeries because of the influx of COVID patients.

Dr. Biersack says a lot of people around here are doing jobs they haven’t done before.

Prichard stands, puts on a visor, and a plastic protective gown, and heads into the patient’s room.

“COVID in unvaccinated patients is relentless, it is fast, it is dramatic. Patients go from requiring just a few liters of oxygen to requiring intubation and being placed on a ventilator in a very short time frame. And it’s scary.”
Dr. Matt Biersack, president of Mercy Health Saint Mary's hospital

Standing behind him as the door closes, Dr. Biersack says this hospital is really seeing two kinds of COVID right now. One kind is not as common, or severe. That’s the COVID in fully-vaccinated patients. Then there’s the kind that is really swamping this hospital, and every other hospital in the state: that’s COVID in unvaccinated patients.

He says the difference is stark.

“COVID in unvaccinated patients is relentless, it is fast, it is dramatic,” Dr. Biersack says. “Patients go from requiring just a few liters of oxygen to requiring intubation and being placed on a ventilator in a very short time frame. And it’s scary.”

“Is this one of those patients?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. “This is a circumstance where someone pretty rapidly deteriorated. Someone who was comfortable just a couple days ago when I saw her.”

Now, the patient is on a ventilator.

This virus still has the ability to surprise, even for those who’ve seen it most.

Around a corner down the hallway, we run into Kelly Kelm, a respiratory therapist. She looks very tired. The influx, she says, has been the worst she’s seen.

“This surge has been a lot of younger people,” she says, “a lot of people my age, a lot of you know, your 40s and your 50 year olds, and your ... younger moms or dads and brothers and sisters that just still have so much life left to give.”

While a lot of them recover, she says too many don’t. And sometimes even the nurses here aren’t sure who will recover and who won’t.

Saint Mary's hallway
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
At Mercy Health's Saint Mary's hospital in Grand Rapids, furniture has been removed from patient rooms to make room for extra beds. Patients are now doubled up in rooms, separated by only a small partition.

Dr. Biersack leads me upstairs, where two other units have been converted to care for COVID patients. In one corner of the hallway, there’s a line of recliners and tables. These used to be in patient rooms.

“This is what happens when you clear out chairs and tables from rooms simply because we don’t have room for furniture anymore, because we need to fill that space with hospital beds,” Dr. Biersack says.

On this floor, patients are now doubled up in rooms with only a small partition of fabric to separate the beds.

Hospitals everywhere in Michigan are scrambling to add beds wherever they can staff them. There are no plans for outside field hospitals. The field hospitals are essentially being built inside, crammed into whatever space there is, treated by whatever staff hospitals can muster.

Dr. Biersack says, not surprisingly, his staff is overwhelmed.

“How much longer can this go on?” I ask.

“Boy I’m worried about that,” he says. “I don’t know. I don’t know how much our team has left.”

But this team is the last defense.

This past month the federal government deployed three military medical teams to help out in Michigan hospitals, one of those hospitals is just up the road from Saint Mary’s. But doctors and nurses here won’t be getting any further assistance, because no other federal teams are available, according to the state.

Whatever does come next with this surge, it appears that Michigan’s hospitals, like Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, are on their own.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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