KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Since the start of the pandemic, I've made three trips inside an intensive care unit dedicated for COVID-19 patients.
The first was in September 2020, when the world was still several months away from vaccines becoming widely available.
I went back nearly a year later in August 2021, a trip during which I met a 28-year-old man who survived his own journey inside a COVID-19 ICU.
My third trip came on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
Before leaving for the visit, I had glanced at the hospital's latest COVID-19 report: 217 active infections across the Saint Luke's Health System. Nearly all of them - 207 - were not vaccinated.
Nearly two years after the pandemic entered the minds of everyone in the United States, my third trip included a stop with healthcare workers on the front lines.
Those workers told me they are tired, frustrated and working around the clock to treat infected patients.
The nurses I spoke with - some of whom have yet to celebrate their 30th birthday - described this period as the hardest so far of their early professional careers.
Respiratory therapists - an integral part of the COVID-19 care teams caring for intubated patients - were all working with individual patients during my visit.
A doctor told me he is broken down by burnout, as well as mental and emotional fatigue.
My most recent visit also included a stop in the Saint Luke's Emergency Department, where newly-admitted patients were waiting for an available bed. The lack of beds was part of the strain on the system, and the trickle down effects were being felt by emergency patients needing care for heart attacks, strokes and other time-critical health needs.
During my visit in the emergency department, doctors and nurses quickly responded to a COVID-19 patient that had coded, a medical term indicating a patient in need of immediate life-saving emergency help.
Doctors were able to successfully place a tube into the patient's mouth and connect them to a ventilator, with the help of nurses and respiratory therapists.
An emergency department physician described the situation as the medical equivalent of groundhog day - each day presenting more and more challenges to an otherwise resilient healthcare team, with each challenge and each day wearing away at the physical and mental health of the team.
Much like the other health systems across the city, Saint Luke's staffers told me they are also dealing with colleagues who are infected or exposed.
My third visit was no less sobering of an assignment than the first two, but I'll remember the staff that were eager to share their stories with me and their reminder to the community that they still need support.
They're hopeful by sharing their stories, people who have had questions about the pandemic might have a better understanding of their challenges.
The questions and critiques from people aren't lost on physicians, who routinely face anti-vaccine rhetoric and misinformation.
"I would trade any of those concerns - which are unfounded - to not have had the last three years of my professional life," a physician told me as I neared the end of my visit.
Over the next several days, I'll be telling the stories of those who gave me their time. I hope you'll give some of your time to listen.
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