Inside a Stormont Vail ICU floor as COVID cases surge: Patients are younger, 80% are unvaccinated

A pink sign signifying airborne precautions need to be taken before entering mark rooms where COVID-19 patients are held in the intensive care unit at Stormont Vail Health, 1500 S.W. 10th Ave.
Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

COVID-19 patients in Stormont Vail's medical intensive care unit are denoted with a pink sign, warning nurses of the need to take appropriate precautions — not that anyone on the unit's staff needs to be reminded.

Walking around the unit, each one hits like a gut punch.

Patients in the rooms lie prone in an effort to improve oxygen flow, a position that would likely be uncomfortable if it were not for the fact they are heavily sedated, with various tubes wedged in to help them breath in an attempt to keep them alive — efforts that often are unsuccessful.

The individuals behind the glass windows are younger than they used to be, brought to their knees by a virus many pretend doesn't exist.

There is more pink on Stormont Vail's second floor these days.

Resting her head on her hands, Julie Snyder, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Stormont Vail Health, on Thursday recalls the deaths of patients from COVID-19.

Julie Snyder, a registered nurse on the floor, points out a small room off to the side where nurses can relax, dubbed the "Zen room." There is mood lighting, comfortable seating and small photographs of the three dozen staff members who each represent one platoon in a statewide battle.

With the ICU maxed out and the hospital at times rejecting patients from other facilities, the moments of Zen are few and far between.

"If we have to take a break we just say so," Snyder said.

She paused.

"But not for very long."

As hospitals see COVID-19 surge, staff soldiers ahead

Melissa Mitchell, a registered nurse at Stormont Vail, on Thursday peers in on a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit.

Stormont Vail leadership has issued public pleas about their hospital filling up in recent days, although the situation has ebbed and flowed as beds open up and are promptly filled.

As of Thursday, 50 COVID-19 positive individuals were in the hospital, down from 64 earlier this week but still well above where the facility was weeks earlier. The overwhelming majority — 80% — of those patients were unvaccinated.

The trend is mirrored across the state of Kansas.

ICUs throughout Wichita, the state's largest city, have been at or near capacity in recent days and southeast Kansas hospitals have stepped up their pleas to residents to take the virus seriously. The number of new cases is still less than what was being reported in November and December of 2020, but staff, run ragged by the nonstop work, are not as well-positioned to cope.

'Our hospital is full':Stormont Vail CEO warns of 'dire situation' amid Kansas COVID surge

"It's hard taking care of those patients," Snyder said. "And I don't know, I think if I had to do this every single day, for the rest of my career, I don't know if I could do it."

Each nurse in the ICU cares for two patients at a time. Much of the care is labor intensive, with a handful of nurses required to turn an individual on their stomach — respiratory therapists can spend chunks of time moving around from room to room, performing only that task.

Bailey Schmidt, a registered nurse at Stormont Vail, helps a patient in the ICU.

Individuals are staying in the hospital for a longer period of time than they did earlier in the pandemic, meaning bonds can form with the staff, who are the only faces a person will see in-person each day. 

"The ones that I think about the families that have called me repeatedly throughout the day tearful, trying to pray and hold on to one glimpse of something positive, and I haven't been able to give them something," Snyder said. "Or I feel like 'Gosh, did I give them too much hope because I know that they probably won't make it tomorrow?'

"I think about that over and over in my head. Like before I go to sleep at night like, did I help the families out to understand enough about what was happening? I think that's the hardest. I know that we're doing everything physically down here for those patients that we can, but it's just tiring."

COVID info:

The mood on the floor isn't as dark as one might expect, given the undercurrents of pain that have lingered throughout the pandemic. A joke is made. Nurses encourage each other, covering for each other's meal breaks, as staff slip off to the break room for a brief respite and a bite of Chick-Fil-A, donated by a community member.

But workers don't hold back in describing the mental toll, which has only ramped up in recent weeks.

Jana Tenbrink, a nurse manager at Stormont Vail Health, describes what it's like working in the intensive care unit.

Snyder and nurse manager Jana Tenbrick recalled the recent case of a young man who died from the virus. While staff knew the odds were against his recovery, the patient's age and his lack of health problems gave the nurses — and his family — hope he could be one of the stories of recovery, rather than heartbreak.

"You can hear them and you can hear them sobbing on the other line," Snyder said." And you can hear the kids talking to him ... and that's what's heartbreaking, because then it just makes it so much more real." 

‘I don't want to end up behind one of these doors’

Janelle Williamson, a palliative care advanced practice registered nurse, opens the door to enter a COVID-19 patient Thursday in the intensive care unit of Stormont Vail.

Despite protests in other states where health care personnel have objected to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Kelly Sommers, president of the Kansas State Nurses Association, insists that most have gotten the shots and have no problem with a requirement.

The eyebrow-raising images of health care workers rallying against vaccine requirements — a move that is seemingly working against their own interests — are the exception, rather than the norm, Sommers said.

"I think it's wrong messaging, because nurses are the educators and the advocates," she said. "I think that's a wrong statement to make that it's the nurses (who aren't getting vaccinated)."

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Snyder was one of the first Stormont Vail employees to be vaccinated, the sense of palpable relief permeating the Stormont Vail Events Center as she and her colleagues were jabbed now seeming like a dream.

Now workers are waiting for the green light to get their booster shots, which could come as early as next month, with the pandemic slowing no signs of halting. Many continue to plead with those who haven't even gotten their first shot to quickly do so.

Snyder said she is anxious to get a third dose to ensure she is protected against the virus, fully understanding the ramifications of not having that line of defense.

"I don't want to end up behind one of these doors," she said.

Mackenzie Morrison, a registered nurse at Stormont Vail, helps treat a patient in the intensive care unit.