Caring for Alaska’s sickest COVID-19 patients, these nurses share teamwork and tears

SPONSORED: Last year, a team of Alaska Native Medical Center nurses volunteered to establish a COVID-19 unit. How have they persevered during the pandemic?

Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

One evening in late October, nurses on the floor of the COVID-19 unit at the Alaska Native Medical Center were racing to the aid of patients being admitted to the hospital at a record pace.

That night the patient count doubled. Twenty-eight people in dire need of medical care were now in the hands of the nursing staff. For six months, the COVID-19 team had been preparing for the worst -- now it had arrived at their doorstep.

“We were ready. We were waiting,” said Clinical Shift Supervisor Carol Greenway, who leads the COVID-19 unit at ANMC.

In the early days of the pandemic, Greenway’s staff at the Internal Medicine Telemetry Unit had transformed their space from its intended usage -- monitoring patient heart rhythms -- into the main unit treating patients with COVID-19. In a matter of weeks the floor was overhauled to create a safe environment for both patients and staff.

For Alaska nurses on the front lines of the pandemic, the past year has provided an opportunity to serve the community, but has also been fraught with extraordinary challenges. At ANMC, the entire hospital stepped up to serve the community and navigate a global health crisis together.

Volunteering for the job

When ANMC decided to transform one hospital unit into a COVID-19 ward, Greenway volunteered her team for the role. They were already trained in some of the necessary equipment and had the capability to monitor heart rate, rhythm and oxygenation from the nurse station, she said.

“We just knew we could do it,” Greenway said. “We had the support of the entire hospital and administration.”

In April 2020, the hospital reconfigured the entire floor, preparing for an influx of COVID-19 patients.

“The change was very quick,” Greenway said. Plastic barriers went up. Nurses were trained on respiratory equipment. Donning and doffing stations were added so nurses could get in and out of their PPE safely.

The hospital changed the air exchanges and made the entire floor “negative pressure.” That meant more air flowed out of the space than into it, making the air less likely to be contaminated by the virus.

“We all wanted to make it a very safe environment for our patients and our employees,” said Sadie Anderson, ANMC director of nursing for medical and surgical departments.

To protect employees’ families, the hospital opened up a floor of patient housing where staff could stay until they could safely return home.

“A lot of staff utilized it,” Greenway said.

While navigating new guidelines and logistics, nurses also faced new physical and emotional challenges.

“They had to get comfortable with patients getting really sick really fast,” Anderson said, as well as with helping patients who were severely ill.

Teamwork has been crucial. It takes four staff members simply to rotate a patient into a prone position, which is used to help improve oxygen levels in COVID-19 patients, Anderson said.

“The word ‘team’ probably never meant so much as it does now,” said Colby Shifflett, clinical nurse manager of the COVID-19 unit. The entire hospital stepped up to meet the moment and work together, Shifflett said.

“We cried at the sad moments, and the great moments when our patients went home,” Shifflett said.

Nurses have also found themselves serving as crucial connections for dying patients isolated from their families. Anderson said there are many stories from the past year of nurses caring for patients during their last moments.

“They knew the importance of that role and took honor in being that person for each of those patients who had to die on our floor,” Anderson said. “That is really hard. That is part of the fatigue, the emotional fatigue.”

“Seeing so many people die is just tiring,” Anderson said.

‘The basics’

Today, the nursing staff has developed a routine in regards to COVID-19.

“We know what works and we know what to expect,” Greenway said.

After a year of hardship and complexity, Greenway says the lessons she learned in the pandemic are simple.

“The basics: Wear your mask, wash your hands, love and support your family, friends, strangers, and neighbors,” Greenway said.

The nursing staff has “had each other’s backs,” Greenway said, and whatever she has needed from the hospital, she received.

The community has also stepped up, Greenway added, as many businesses and individuals provided meals, flowers, and messages of encouragement.

“It helped fuel us knowing that we have an entire community thinking about us and rooting for us,” Anderson said.

When ANMC recognized Greenway’s staff with 2020 Team of the Year for their tremendous efforts and teamwork, it all hit home.

“I broke down crying when I first heard,” Greenway said.

For Anderson, the past year has shone a light on the importance of communication among employees and leadership.

“Many people went above and beyond their normal job duties,” she said.

And while the vaccine rollout and physical distancing have helped hospital staff to recover somewhat from the pandemic, it’s not over yet -- and nurses are tired.

“We’re mentally and physically fatigued, and while the COVID-19 numbers are better, we are still caring for really sick patients,” Anderson said.

Looking forward, the hospital hopes to hire more nursing staff, Anderson said.

“We want to give everyone the time they deserve to recharge and take care of themselves after a year of giving their everything to our patients,” Anderson said. “We will remain prepared, diligent, and ready for what comes next.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ANTHC. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.