‘I’ve seen more death,’ COVID charge nurse shares

Linn Ann Huntington, Special to The Hays Daily
Brittany Engelhardt, charge nurse on the COVID Unit at HaysMed, assists one of her patients.

Editor’s Note: Health care professionals at HaysMed recently shared with the Hays Daily News some of their experiences treating COVID-19 patients over the past few months. This is Part 2 of a three-part series in which a physician and two RN’s share with the community what it has been like.

“I have seen more death in the last four months than I have seen in my eight years as a nurse.”

That’s the heartbreaking truth that Brittany Engelhardt, an RN, shared recently about her work on the critical care COVID Unit at HaysMed. She has been a nurse at the hospital for eight and a half years and is currently the charge nurse on the Medical Care Unit, also known as the COVID Unit.

At her own request, she transferred to the COVID Unit in August 2020. She normally works 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., but said she has been working extra hours the past few weeks to fill some staffing holes.

“Treating COVID patients has been a lot harder than I ever imagined,” Engelhardt said in an email interview. “You can’t truly prepare yourself to lose so many patients. . . It’s hard when patients get to the point that there isn’t really anything else you can do to help them. It’s heartbreaking when you have worked so hard to save someone to lose them.”

According to information provided by HaysMed, the regional health center admitted 475 patients with COVID between April 1, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021. Of those, 75 patients died of the disease.

These statistics do not correspond to the numbers provided by the Ellis County Health Department during that same period because the county only reports infections and deaths of county residents. HaysMed’s figures represent all patients admitted, many of whom come to HaysMed from other counties, said Gayla Wichman, HaysMed marketing director.

Wichman said the average age of those COVID patients who have died is 74.

Engelhardt said the patients she has treated have ranged in age from 55 to 85.

“I think the most difficult challenge has been not being able to help a lot of people. They get so sick that they are asking you to help them, but as a nurse there just isn’t much else we can do but to help make them comfortable,” she said.

Even though HaysMed policy says families may have only one person per day visit an in-patient, Engelhardt said, “The families of our COVID patients have been great. I cannot imagine how hard it has to be for them to not be at the bedside of their loved ones, but they have all been so supportive and great to work with.”

In terms of her own family, Engelhardt said that at the beginning of the pandemic she was very nervous about taking the virus home.

“But everything was just so unknown in the beginning. Currently, I wear scrubs provided by the hospital and make sure to follow all of the PPE requirements for caring for COVID patients. I clean my shoes and supplies before going home and make sure to shower right away when getting home.”

Engelhardt encouraged community members to “continue to support and acknowledge health care workers.

“There is enough hate in the world right now. I think everyone just needs to be kind and support one another. People in the community should continue to practice proper hand hygiene, social distance and wear their masks. I would also highly encourage those in the community to get their vaccines, if able.”

Wichman said that HaysMed also has a procedure in place whereby members of the community may send heartfelt messages of appreciation and encouragement to hospital staff.

Cards and letters may be sent to HaysMed Volunteer Services, P.O. Box 8100, Hays, KS 67601. Email messages may go to nmihm@kumc.edu. Well-wishers may specify that their message go to a specific or general type of department or unit, or just say it’s for anyone who needs a word of encouragement.