Fighting an unseen enemy: Inside the Saint Luke's COVID-19 Emergency Room, Intensive Care Unit

St. Luke's Emergency Department
Posted at 2:41 PM, Jan 27, 2022

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The COVID-19 pandemic continues to put a significant stress on our local healthcare system and front line workers.

KSHB 41 News was granted behind the scenes access to the Saint Luke's emergency department and one of their intensive care unit's, where they treat COVID-19 patients.

On the emergency floor, intubations are routine, where patients are placed on ventilators to breathe.

In these rooms, you can see things in an hour that you hope to never see in a lifetime, but this is the life for those in the battle against an enemy they cannot see.

At the time of our visit, the health system’s numbers were the highest they’ve ever been, with more than 200 COVID-19 patients and only 10 of them fully vaccinated.

The first floor is a scene of non-stop movement of staff, new patient arrivals and new challenges to fight.

"Every single one of the ER’s, the St Luke's health system for the last one to two weeks has been boarding patients," Dr. Marc Larsen, an emergency physician at Saint Luke's said. "By boarding patients I mean that a patient gets admitted to the hospital. There's not a bed available for the patient and therefore they have to sit in their ER bed for extended periods of time."

Larsen pointed out that long stay times in an ICU impacts the amount of available beds.

"They stay in that ICU for 27 days on average right now," he said. "So every time I admit a patient to the ICU with COVID-19, I lose an ICU bed for 27 days."

Those rooms upstairs in the ICU, they’re full. The nurses on the floor work long shift, after long shift.

"So we do three 12’s [hour shifts] a week," Laura Myrick, a nurse at Saint Luke's said. "[Those hours] is our base, a lot of us are working more than that, we say seven to seven, but it’s usually 6:30 to whenever we get out. If I get home by 8 p.m., it’s usually a good night."

Another nurse shared a patient's experience.

"We have a guy in his early 20’s here, he was fortunately extubated, but he had no past medical history and he lifted weights and stuff," they said. "I can barely get him into the chair and he has a baby on the way, so that’s a lot to take away from a healthy, young, 20-year-old."

Still, these front-line workers continue to fight, for those whose bodies cannot fight for themselves.

"We'll take care of anybody, in any room that we can, in any place that we can, especially if those patients need us," Larsen said.

These nurses, respiratory therapists and all of their other front line brothers and sisters are all in arms, as their battle continues.

"This has been the worst phase, because this I believe, has been the most preventable phase of all of our phases," Dr. Andrew Schlachter, a St. Luke's pulmonologists said.

Schlachter weighed in on vaccine hesitancy.

"The overwhelming data is so robust that it is safe and both effective in eliminating severe coronavirus," Schlachter said. "It will help mitigate the current onslaught that the entirety of our country and in particular our community is seeing right now."

At the same time, Larsen reflected on how fighting the virus seems to have no end in sight at times.

"Every day is the same as the previous day," Larsen said. "It’s Groundhog Day in the emergency department. Every time we come to work, we think maybe we're going to you know, be passed it. Maybe today. It'll be a slower day. And everyday seems to be kind of the same. It's so frustrating."

This was KSHB 41 News' third trip to the front line over the past year and a half and much has changed.

Still, here inside Saint Luke’s, there’s frustration over what hasn’t. Healthcare workers says it's a real-life roller coaster.

"It’s gone up and down and back and forth a lot over the two years," Myrick said. "We've had moments of great joy, when we do see some of the successes and unfortunately this unit, especially the successes, are the exception not the rule."

Conversations were heavy, steps away from patients hooked up to ventilators and other life-saving machines and treatments.

"I’m a broken doctor. So many of us are disillusioned," Schlachter said. "So many of us are at our wits and we are so fatigued. And we worry that we don't see the end of this in sight."

"This is the worst day of their life everyday, and this is just a Tuesday for me," another nurse said.

"Finding coping mechanisms and really diving into both the emotional and physical state of everything through the last few years has been important, we get told how important it is to take care of yourself and check in with yourself while you keep doing this and I can't stress it enough," Myrick said.

They check on each other when they can, fighting together, fighting for their patients, and fighting misinformation and doubt.

"I would trade any of those concerns, which are unfounded, to not have had the last three years of my professional life," Schlachter said. "No one that I have ever talked to or shared medical care with has ever voiced anything positive of any variety out of this pandemic."

Almost two years to the day since the first case of COVID-19 was identified, this staff, and their fellow fighters, have not forsaken the front line.

"We have exceedingly resilient nursing staff, medical staff and then all the other ancillary workers," Larsen said. "All those people continue to come to work every day."

"Our goal is to do the best care for everyone, no matter what, everyday," Myrick said.

We want to hear from you on what resources Kansas City families might benefit from to help us all through the pandemic. If you have five minutes, feel free to fill out this survey to help guide our coverage: KSHB COVID Survey.