Lindsay Kissinger

Banner Casa Grande nurse Lindsay Kissinger, left, takes a photo with fellow nurse Zeffie Ware. Kissinger works in the ICU of the hospital's COVID-19 unit, treating the most critically ill patients.

Editor’s note: Interviews for articles in this issue of Pinal Ways were conducted in early or mid-May, and reflect the state of the industry at that time.

One of the scariest parts for patients inflicted with COVID-19 isn’t just how the insidious virus attacks the body, but the cruel isolation it brings with it.

Lindsay Kissinger, an intensive care unit nurse at Banner Casa Grande Medical Center, has seen it firsthand while working in the hospital’s COVID unit. Because the virus is highly contagious and deadly, family members are restricted from visiting sick patients.

“Sometimes you feel like you have PTSD because of what you see at the bedside,” said Kissinger, who works with the most critical patients in the ICU portion of the COVID unit. “We see people die without family present. We become their family ... it’s heartbreaking.”

In her 12 years as a nurse, Kissinger has never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic. She calls the virus “smart,” and so far, it has outsmarted and perplexed even the world's best scientists and medical professionals.

A patient’s condition can flip instantly, putting the medical staff on edge.

“This virus is so unpredictable,” Kissinger said. “They will be fine one minute and be coding the next.”

Kissinger volunteered to work in the COVID unit. She felt other nurses had children or family members at home who were more vulnerable, and she didn't want to put them at risk.

The hospital has two separate parts of the COVID unit — the ICU unit and what’s referred to as the “step-down” unit for patients who are not as critically ill. At any given time, the ICU has about seven or eight patients, while the step-down unit has another 10 to 15.

Data shows the virus is most dangerous for those over the age of 60 and people with underlying conditions. But Kissinger said it’s a mistake to think young people are somehow immune to the devastating effects of COVID-19.

She said some people in their 60s and 70s handle the virus very well, while she has seen patients in their 30s and 40s struggle with severe symptoms.

Kissinger added that younger patients seem to be more susceptible to having their condition quickly take a turn for the worse.

“It’s killing young people as well,” she said.

Kissinger said all the nurses who work in the COVID unit have concerns about bringing the virus home to their family members, even though they wear layers of protective gear and practice rigorous cleaning and sanitizing.

“It’s something in the back of all of our minds,” she said.

Because of that, the nurses lean on each other to get through the difficult times. The emotional and psychological toll can be overwhelming. And the fact that they need each other has brought them closer together than ever before.

With Gov. Doug Ducey announcing his stay-at-home order would expire May 15, along with a gradual reopening of businesses a few days earlier, Kissinger had the opinion that it would be too soon.

“We will definitely see a surge in the number of patients,” she said. “I think opening everything right now is not a good idea.”

Kissinger wants the public to know that, contrary to some opinions, COVID-19 is not like the flu or the common cold. She said some people are still not taking the virus seriously. She has seen the death and devastation it causes, the hurt and broken family members it leaves in its wake.

In late April, protesters descended on the state Capitol in Phoenix, demanding an end to Ducey’s stay-at-home order. While their motives for protesting varied, Kissinger said those people would feel differently if they had a chance to see what she has seen.

“If we could take the people protesting and bring them bedside with us, they would never want to protest again,” she said.

With all the sadness, pain and emotional trauma Kissinger has experienced since the COVID unit opened in March, she did have one heartwarming story that has helped her continue to move forward.

As of May 12, there was only one COVID patient who had been discharged from the ICU after being intubated and critically ill. That man was in the hospital for a month. He was intubated for 15 days. But he made a miraculous recovery.

“When he was discharged, the whole hospital (staff) came out. They all lined the hallways, all the way out,” Kissinger said, weeping.

Getting to see the man reunite with his wife was very emotional for Kissinger. She said it took everyone in the hospital to get him to that point.

That uplifting moment keeps Kissinger going. It is also symbolic of how, through all the struggle and emotional trauma, there is a silver lining for her and other front-line workers during this public health crisis.

“It has been both the most challenging thing I have ever done in my nursing career and also the most rewarding,” she said.

At Banner Ironwood Medical Center in Queen Creek, Matt Bower has also seen the COVID-19 pandemic in an up-close and personal way.

Bower is the charge nurse of the hospital’s COVID unit, which means he leads the team and makes sure the unit operates smoothly and efficiently. He has been a nurse for nine years, including the last five at Banner Ironwood.

Unlike Banner Casa Grande, which has two separate units with the ICU patients isolated, Ironwood has one combined unit. It’s also handling fewer patients.

While Casa Grande can have up to 25 COVID patients at any given time, Bower said Ironwood usually has about 10 total patients, with two to three of them needing ICU treatment.

Bower and Kissinger are confident their hospitals are prepared for a potential surge in patients inflicted with the virus.

Bower said the COVID unit at Ironwood has 36 in-patient rooms at max capacity. In anticipation of a surge, he said the hospital has prepared the unit for double occupancy.

What stands out to Bower during the battle against the virus is the isolation and anxiety patients experience. Family visitation is very limited, and that’s difficult for not just the patients, but also the nurses.

“We are seeing patients where we are their only support in that moment,” he said. “It’s definitely taken a toll on us emotionally as well.”

That isolation is also increased due to the abundance of caution being used to keep staff safe. It’s not just the mountains of protective gear; Bower said the hospital now has a dedicated employee entrance to decrease risk of exposure.

Bower wants the public to take COVID-19 seriously, adding that people of all ages are getting sick. He said too many people don’t appreciate the importance of wearing a mask in public. Others, he said, aren’t wearing the mask properly.

Wearing the mask around one’s neck or down at the chin isn’t doing anything, he said. It needs to be up over the bridge of the nose, and he added people should frequently wash their hands and also wash their masks.

As for opening up businesses and lifting the stay-at-home order, Bower said it’s a complex issue. He understands the financial distress and the unemployment crisis, but he also wants people to be safe.

Bower looks at it differently. While most people focus on the decisions governors and other leaders are making, he said it’s more about how the public responds. There has to be personal accountability.

Bower supports Ducey’s decision to let the stay-at-home order expire, but he said people can ruin the progress that has already been made if they rush out, gather in large groups and don’t practice social distancing and other guidelines. If people are irresponsible, there will be a spike in cases, and the curve will have to be flattened all over again.

“We have to be smart,” he said. “People have to be responsive and not underestimate the disease.”

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.

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