Fairbanks

‘Watching themselves die’: Fairbanks nurse describes panic and ‘air hunger’ among COVID patients in video encouraging vaccination

Amanda Frey, a nurse at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, sat down after a long day at work recently and made a brief video describing what it’s like to die with COVID-19: gasping for breath, terrified and beyond comfort.

She paints a grim and immediate picture of deaths occurring almost daily at the hospital, largely among unvaccinated people.

“COVID-19 patients that die transition from being OK to actively dying very suddenly, and often without warning. They start to experience a state of panic and air hunger that is very difficult to manage and causes severe anxiety,” Frey says. “The medications that we usually use for patients at the end of life don’t help as much with COVID-19 patients when they’re dying. So what we’re seeing are deaths that are not only isolated but they’re also very traumatic.”

She made the video at the request of a doctor she works with on the medical unit, where the 44-year-old nurse has spent 12 years caring for the dying.

It’s never been like this, Frey and fellow nurse Don Lee said in an interview Thursday.

COVID-19 patients at the hospital are dying at an extraordinary rate, beset by anxiety because they’re acutely aware of their impending deaths.

“These people literally are just watching themselves die,” said Lee, who’s been a nurse for 22 years. “They have monitors on. ... They’re measuring their oxygen levels and they’re sitting there watching the numbers, day after day, and watching those numbers go down. I mean, they’re watching themselves die.”

It feels like there is always someone dying on the floor these days, Frey said. A coworker told Lee on Thursday she’s put someone in a body bag every day she’s worked recently.

These are community members, people the nurses know. Both grew up in Interior Alaska.

They see patients so sick from the virus who deny it’s real, then eventually come around. More often, Frey said, she sees people who change their minds about getting the vaccine.

“Many patients, I’ve gone into the room, and I’m there to deliver the last dose of medicine they’ll get in their life, and I pull up the computer and it shows they wanted a COVID vaccine,” she said. “It’s so sadly ironic. And it’s too late.”

Fairbanks is experiencing the consequences of a statewide surge from the infectious delta variant that’s given Alaska the worst new-case rate in the country. The state’s new infections are continuing on a steep trajectory even as they appear to be peaking and declining in the Lower 48. More than 1,000 new COVID-19 infections were reported Wednesday and more than 1,200 on Thursday as well as 14 recent deaths.

Seven Fairbanks North Star Borough residents have died with COVID-19 in the past week.

Fairbanks Memorial reported another death Thursday involving a 70-year-old patient. About a third of the 77 patients at the hospital were COVID-positive by Friday, ranging in age from an infant and a teenager to adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

Citing “a critical shortage of resources,” the hospital shifted to crisis standards of care Friday afternoon.

In her video, Frey describes a “severe state of breathlessness” that’s very distressing and also common in people who are very sick with the virus.

Nurses trying to ease the tremendous anxiety of patients who know they can’t breathe administer morphine earlier than is customary in end-of-life care — and it doesn’t seem to work as well as it usually does, both nurses say. They’re having to find other options to ease discomfort.

“We’ll have patients that will tell us ... ‘I can only breathe in to here,’ and they can literally point on their chest, like, how far in they feel they can get breath, and it’s ... it’s slowly suffocating, basically,” Lee said.

Frey said making the video was hard, and took several tries because she kept getting too emotional.

At one point her voice breaks as she describes families “layered with feelings of anger, sadness and guilt and regret,” nurses taking children up to say goodbye to dying patients, and spouses sick with the virus together in a room — until one goes home to recover and the other doesn’t make it out of the hospital.

“What I want you to know about what’s going on in the hospital with COVID-19 is this is not an experience that you want for anyone that you love,” she says on the video, before pausing to look at the camera. “Thank you for listening.”

Frey said she made the video so people who see it take notice and “don’t take the decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate lightly.”

“It’s my hope that people really consider, and examine their hearts about their motivations for their choice, and understand that the reality of what we’re seeing in the hospital is very ugly and preventable,” she said Thursday. “I think 90% of our hospitalizations right now are unvaccinated patients. The fact that that could have been prevented is terrible.”

The video was played for the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and posted this week on the hospital’s Facebook page, according to Meghan Festa, a spokesperson for Foundation Health Partners, which operates Fairbanks Memorial. It’s also been featured by blogger Dermot Cole and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Frey said she got a text Wednesday from a former colleague she hadn’t heard from in years.

“She told me that her mother-in-law watched the video that I made and she has a vaccine appointment,” Frey said. “So, that’s everything. That’s my hope.”

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