Healthcare Workers Describe Reality Inside Overwhelmed Duluth Hospitals

Medical Professionals From St. Luke's, Essentia Health Paint Picture of a Grim Reality

DULUTH, Minn. – Frontline workers from St. Luke’s and Essentia Health are speaking out, sharing what they experience during a routine shift amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Critical care doctors and ICU nurses want residents to know the surge is here, and it’s going to take all of us working together to help limit the spread, and save our most valuable resources.

“This is something I hope to never see again in my career,” said Heather Swanson, St. Luke’s ICU nurse.

For nearly 10 years, Swanson has worked to help save lives and provide care to those experiencing some of the worst times in their life.

“People are incredibly sick, and seeing these grieving families is sad,” said Swanson.

As prepared as she tries to be, Swanson never predicted she’d be using her skills to save dozens of patients diagnosed with the same uncontrollable virus.

“As I’ve been talking to my coworkers and physicians and people we work with, I think this is a time we’re going to remember for our entire career,” said Swanson.

She spoke with FOX 21’s Brett Scott after working a double shift, taking time from her day off to share an important message for members of the community.

“The volume of patients has increased and that requires us to have a greater number of nurses and staff on. That’s stretching our physicians, respiratory therapists, and other staff,” said Swanson.

Swanson says they’re well equipped with personal protective equipment, but the hospital is running low on other critical resources.

“I do feel fortunate we’ve got respirators we wear, they do take a toll on our faces and the bridges of our noses get quite sore by the end of our shift,” said Swanson.

She and her colleagues are some of the most at-risk for contracting the virus. Recent data shows community spread has spiraled out of control within counties across northern Minnesota.

“I think all of us at the end of our stretches of work are slightly depressed and frankly a little anxious about what is to come,” said Swanson.

Full of anxiety and frankly burnt out, Swanson knows the battle will continue until we all follow mitigation efforts as the wait for a successful vaccine continues.

“I think because this surge has been delayed to reach our region, people have maybe thought of this as the flu or this isn’t that serious or it’s overblown by the media – that’s not the case,” said Swanson.

Just up the block, the campus of Essentia Health is also seeing a chaotic scene unfold.

“I’ll say personally, this is the only time in my career that I’ve felt anxiety,” said Dr. AJ Hegg who works in critical care and the ER at Essentia Health in Duluth.

He described what it’s like when he clocks in for each shift and begins making rounds.

“The COVID patients take a long time to round on because they tend to be really sick, especially when they get into the ICU and they end up on a ventilator,” said Dr. Hegg. “I spend a lot of time calling the families and talking to them and giving updates.”

Due to visitor restrictions, doctors and nurses are also becoming messengers for family members who anxiously some sign of good news.

“Patients are scared. Patients know what the risks are when they get COVID. They know that there’s a high chance when they get to the ICU, they might not make it through,” said Dr. Hegg.

Essentia is currently seeing the largest number of patients requiring ventilators since the start of the pandemic.

“Our numbers are increasing and we are running out of resources, and our biggest resource issue right now is staff,” said Dr. Hegg.

Similar to the staff at St. Luke’s community transmission of the virus is taking a toll on staffing numbers at Essentia.

“It’s not easy to find more nurses because they’re being pulled in every direction, everyone is looking for them,” said Dr. Hegg.

This nationwide shortage of nurses and doctors is now hitting close to home as the elderly and those with underlying conditions continue to be hardest hit by the disease.

“It’s straining. These patients are sick, there are a lot of them and it’s going to get worse, we can feel that at the bedside,” said Dr. Hegg.

He believes if everyone were to follow new restrictions put in place by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, it would help alleviate the strain on healthcare systems. As hopeful as he is, the reality is proving different.

“If we continue on this same trajectory, what I’m really worried about is we’re going to get to a point where just about everyone knows someone who has died from COVID,” said Dr. Hegg.

Both medical professionals agree masking is a simple way to do your part in helping save not only your life but the life of someone else in our community.

“Every one of these people has a life and they have a husband, wife, or children that are grieving,” said Swanson.

As the days drag on, Swanson and Dr. Hegg will continue to do all they can to save those who end up in their facilities but ask you to do your part to help limit the spread of this vicious virus.

“I don’t think that this is going to be our forever. I honestly think we will see better days ahead and that’s why we all need to be patient and just wear our masks so we can try to end this quicker,” said Swanson.

Dr. Hegg says patients who do recover are reporting long-lasting effects on the lungs, heart, kidneys, and brain.

He says if we can change what is happening locally by improving our behaviors, we can dramatically decrease cases of COVID-19 in the Northland.

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