ICU nurses at an Anchorage hospital are worn down from the pandemic. For one afternoon, a crisis-response dog’s visit offered a brief respite.

In a small room down the hall from an overflowing Anchorage intensive-care unit, a dog named Cupid stretched out on the floor, paws in the air.

Visiting Cupid — a Keeshond certified for therapy and crisis response — were Alaska Native Medical Center staff members, mostly ICU nurses who described feeling burned out, frustrated, disappointed and, in many cases, unsure how long they could continue working under such stress.

Record numbers of their coworkers have retired early or left the field, and on their days off, they get texts from their managers pleading with them to pick up extra shifts.

“I don’t want to say I’ve been thinking about doing something else, but it’s really difficult to come to work,” said Alex Hailey, who has been a nurse for 12 years and currently works in the hospital’s ICU. The unit is short-staffed, and employees feel like there is no end in sight, she said.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Alaska have surged since July, driven by the delta variant. Now, emergency rooms and ICUs are full.

Cupid visited ANMC on Wednesday, a day when Alaska hit a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations and tallied its second-highest daily count of new virus cases since the start of the pandemic. Since then, hospital administrators across the state have described an unprecedented strain on the state’s health care system that shows no sign of letting up.

The visit was planned by Jacque Quantrille, director of critical care nursing at ANMC. She wiped away tears as she described the stress her team has been under and the toll it has taken on their mental health.

[‘I feel like we’re just being held hostage’: A Q&A with an Anchorage emergency room nurse]

On Wednesday, Cupid was calm and quiet. She’s so fluffy that some younger clients she saw recently left tiny braids in her fur.

“She knows who needs her,” said Anchorage police and fire chaplain Margaret Griffo, her handler. Cupid typically visits firefighters and other first-responders who experience trauma through their work.

“Everyone has been so excited” for Cupid’s visit, Hailey said.

“We were thinking about it all day,” added Erika Middleton, another ICU nurse. She had been on shift since 6:30 a.m.

ICU nurse Kacie Burks came in on her day off just to meet the dog. She had a Keeshond as a kid, and she said it felt therapeutic to momentarily have a chance to shut out everything else that is going on and “love on something that loves you back.”

There’s some science behind that response, Griffo said.

“All I have to do is look in (Cupid’s) eyes” to trigger a release of oxytocin, the stress-reducing hormone, she explained. “It isn’t just, people like fluffy dogs.”

Burks and others in the room described feeling deeply frustrated by a situation they described as preventable.

“It’s hard, especially hard knowing that there is an easy way to help prevent the spread,” Burks said. “The vaccine is out there, and there’s so much resistance to it.”

Anna Bott, also an ICU nurse, said she credits her 9-pound mutt for getting her through difficult times. She decompresses after work by going for hikes and taking daily walks with her dog, but that doesn’t always allow her to let go of what she witnessed during a shift.

[US hospitals hit with nurse staffing crisis amid COVID]

She loves being a nurse, she said, but over the last year and a half, that love has taken a hit.

“It just feels like we had the support of the community last time,” she said. “But it doesn’t feel that way now. ... I think people are tired, and I get that. I’m tired too. But who’s going to take care of those people that are sick with COVID?”

During the pandemic, nurses had to take on a different, more intense role than they’ve had to before, Quantrille said.

A hospital visitation policy that limits who’s allowed in the hospital to prevent virus transmission has meant that ICU nurses are often the ones sitting with dying COVID-19 patients the last time they take a breath.

The hospital’s policy does allow visitors in many end-of-life situations. But that excludes COVID-19 patients, who must say final goodbyes to their families using iPads and phones that nurses hold.

Hailey said the sickest patients can’t express for themselves what they’ve experienced. Once intubated and sedated, they may not have a chance to talk to their families again.

“Almost all our patients are unvaccinated, and that part is very frustrating because as far as I can tell, this could’ve been avoided,” Hailey said. “My faith in humanity took a huge nosedive, unfortunately, this past year and a half.”

[Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations hit yet another new record with no virus slowdown in sight]

Later, Hailey thought more about what she wanted people to understand about the reality in the ICU.

“We have no room. There is no extra staff,” she wrote in a note, underlined with emphasis. “It doesn’t matter how many vents or beds we have. If there is no staff to take care of you … it won’t matter.”

Daily News journalist Marc Lester contributed.

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.