HaysMed caregiver series: ‘I went into nursing to help people get better,’ but reality of COVID much different

Linn Ann Huntington, Special to The Hays Daily News
Kelsey Belzer, an RN at HaysMed, prepares to input material on one of her patients into the computer as she works in the COVID unit at the hospital.

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 3 of a three-part series in which a physician and two RN’s share with the community what it has been like.

Registered nurse Kelsey Belzer said that when she decided to be a nurse she was very aware that she would have hard days.

“But I went into nursing to help people get better, not to watch people die.”

That has been the heartbreaking reality for Belzer and other medical professionals at HaysMed who have been on the front line treating patients with COVID-19 over the past several months.

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.

Belzer has worked at HaysMed for seven years. She worked as a personal care technician, telemetry technician, and phlebotomist before finishing nursing school 2

½ years ago. At that point she began working in the intensive care unit. In June 2020 she transferred to the Medical Care (COVID) Unit.

In a recent e-mail interview, Belzer related her experiences working in the COVID Unit at HaysMed.

“Physically, the nurses are constantly running, just trying to keep patients alive and taken care of. We have had a lot of days we don’t eat or drink just because we don’t have time.”

Belzer usually works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. three to four days a week. “We are normally scheduled to work 72 hours in a two-week period. I’ve had a two-week period where I’ve had 110 hours . . . when things got really busy. The days can be long, and we can work multiple extra days a week, but it’s just important to have the staff available to take care of patients.”

Belzer said most of the COVID patients she has treated have been age 50 and older, although some have been in the 20 to 40-year-old age range.

She said the hardest thing she has had to deal with is getting close to so many patients and helplessly watching them die.

“Emotionally, I’m not sure it has really hit me yet how bad it’s been. I think a lot of nurses and health care workers have just had to be in survival mode and not register wheat is really happening because if we really let it sink in, we won’t be OK.

“I think we will have to deal with it later. We watch our patients struggle, and we get to know them and their families and the names of their grandkids, and then we have to put them on ventilators and watch them die. It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s a helpless feeling.”

Still, Belzer said that although some of the worst days of her nursing career have occurred during the COVID pandemic, she has also experienced some of the best days of her career.

“I’ve sent some patients home, and it is the absolute best feeling in the world. When you have a patient you really care about, and they give you that big hug and tell you, ‘Thank you,’ it makes everything worth it.”

Belzer said another challenging aspect of the COVID pandemic has been the fact many patients have been isolated from their families.

The hospital’s current policy allows one person per day to visit an in-patient. That visitor must wear a mask at all times and not have a fever of 100 or more or have other cold or flu-like symptoms.

Belzer said the hospital staff encourages the family to have one spokesperson the staff can communicate with. “If we are on the phone with multiple family members all day, we can’t be with our patients, who are our main priority.” She said the staff also uses apps such as Zoom so patients can see their family members who can’t visit.

“It’s heartbreaking when you have to tell a patient, who is completely isolated from their family, alone and sick, that they aren’t doing any better, even when they’ve been doing everything you’ve asked them to do and they still have so much to live for. Sometimes it seems like they are searching for and begging for you to tell them some good news, and you have to be completely honest with them.

“Some patients are there for weeks or longer. They cannot see their families. The only human interaction they have are the health care providers taking care of them.”

Belzer and her husband have young children, bus she says she has been more worried about bringing the virus home to her parents, in-laws and older family members.

She said after work, she and the other health care providers clean up when they get home before they do anything else.

She said the best way the community can support the health care workers at HaysMed is “wear your mask, wash your hands, and get vaccinated if your doctor recommends it. We love and are thankful we are able to take care of our community, but we are tired, and we want COVID to be over just as much as everyone else.”

Wichman in the Marketing Department said that HaysMed 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 of encouragement 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.