When Stephanie Summers, a nurse at Alamance Regional Medical Center, gets home from working up to 14 hour shifts she thinks of her patients who are suffering with COVID-19.
“You start thinking about how alone these people are,” Summers said. “They’re scared enough to have this virus that nobody knows about and they’re alone. They can’t even talk on the phone because they can’t hear anybody. And it breaks your heart.”
Fewer than 10 Alamance County residents had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 22, 2020. Since then, there have been more than 16,000 positive cases in the county and 237 people have died, according to data from the state health department.
One year later, frontline staff at Alamance Regional said they are tired, anxious and traumatized.
“We’re still out there, we’re still taking care of your loved ones and that’s what we’re going to do,” Summers said. “Because this is our job and we love what we do. But just have a little compassion for us and remember what we’re doing every day.”
Serenity Kirkendall, also a nurse at Alamance Regional, described the fear she has seen in some patients’ eyes — especially those who previously lost a family member to COVID-19.
“They’re like, 'I’m scared for my life.' You just have to look at them and you can’t tell them like, ‘I know you’re not gonna die.”’ Kirkendall said. “But you can just be like, ‘I’m gonna do everything I can in my power to take the best possible care of you I can and I’ll be here for whatever you need.’”
Caring for patients with COVID-19 is a “different ball game” for Shannon Mabe, a respiratory therapist at Alamance Regional. Mabe, who has been doing the job for 20 years, said it’s hard to convey in words what she’s experienced during the pandemic.
“The hardest thing for me is seeing people that were young and were pretty much normal before COVID coming in and not being able to breathe and needing oxygen — an extreme amount of oxygen — and they just couldn’t breathe afterwards either,” Mabe said.
Witnessing patients die from the virus has left a permanent mark on Summers, Kirkendall and Mabe.
“I remember being in there for probably a good 45 minutes just drenched in sweat, couldn’t breathe through my N-95,” Summers said. “But you know what, I held that man’s hand right up until the end because I couldn’t bear to see him pass by himself.”
“For me, just trying to be there for them and trying to show them I’m not afraid to touch them, I’m not scared of them, that I’m here for them — that to me has been something I won’t forget,” Kirkendall said.
“One of the patients I saw he’ll always be in my heart,” Mabe said. “He faced COVID bravely but unfortunately he didn’t make it. I just hope I can remember him in my heart and he’ll live on.”
Leaning on each other
After working shifts at the hospital for as long as 14 hours, it can be difficult to decompress — and the pandemic creates an extra challenge.
“You can’t really go out, can’t really do much,” Summers said. “Our significant others don’t really get what we’ve been going through, so we just try to rely on each other.”
Summers and Kirkendall wanted to interview together because they felt more comfortable opening up about their experiences side by side.
“We’ve been through this together,” Kirkendall said. “Just leaning on people who understand what you’re going through and being able to talk to them, not keeping everything bottled up and opening up about it, that’s been a huge, huge help.”
When the pandemic first hit, Mabe said she and her co-workers had to figure out how to care for patients with COVID-19. In the beginning, many patients were put on ventilators, Mabe said. But as the pandemic progressed and more information became available, Mabe and her co-workers used ventilators less and found more effective treatments.
“We’ve worked together and we’ve learned a sense of teamwork to care for our patients,” she said. “It’s not something I would want to go through every year of my life. I don’t think any of us will probably go through anything like this ever again.”
Working through Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season, which brought a spike in positive cases, was the hardest time for Mabe.
“It was very depressing,” she said. “We didn’t get to see our families outside for Christmas and the holidays. And then patients in the hospital weren’t able to see their families either that had COVID. It made me sad because I wouldn’t want to be in the hospital like that.”
In the midst of devastation, Mabe said one thing has kept her going — hope.
“I always have hope. If we didn’t have hope what would we have,” Mabe said. “It would be even more depressing. I think that everything’s moving in a positive direction. We just have to be careful about how lax we get with stuff and still follow guidelines because we could always come back.”
Glimmer of hope
On March 5, 2021, Cone Health, the hospital system Alamance Regional is a part of, closed its COVID-19-only hospital after almost a year of treating patients, citing the pandemic entering “a new phase.” Since the end of February, hospitalizations in the region have decreased by nearly 50%, according to data from the state health department.
Data from the health department also shows that 12.7% of Alamance County residents are fully vaccinated as of March 19. Summers, Kirkendall and Mabe urge everyone to get vaccinated when they’re eligible.
“It’s the only way I think this is going to truly end,” Summers said. “Because once the majority of us are vaccinated these masks can come off. I’m done not seeing everybody’s faces and I want to be able to go home and see my family.”
Summers, Kirkendall and Mabe also stressed the importance of continuing to follow public health guidance, including wearing a mask and staying physically distanced.
“We don’t know what we face tomorrow,” Mabe said. “But if we have a possibility that it could curve everything and keep it down, why not take it? Just like wearing a mask. It’s just a little strip of fabric. It’s not like they’re asking us to turn cartwheels down the road or something.”