SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Lauren Debroeck slowly leans in closer to her husband’s face, hoping this might be the day he wakes up after nearly a month.
Debroeck does her hair and makeup impeccably each morning because she wants him to look at her and know that, despite the maze of wires and tubes around his hospital bed, everything is OK.
“I love you so much,” she whispers while stroking the 36-year-old's forehead.
Debroeck herself was hospitalized three doors down from her husband in her own battle with COVID-19 earlier this month, and every time she heard alarms from medical machines or someone gasping for breath echoing down the hall, nurses ran in to assure her it wasn’t her beloved Michael.
“I want him to look at us and see we’re making it,” Debroeck said. “Even if we’re falling apart.”
The bedside vigil is playing out in a Shreveport hospital that is packed with patients from across Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas and overwhelming medical staff, who describe crying on the way to work and becoming numb to the sound of zipping up body bags and sending dead patients off to funeral homes. About 120 of Willis-Knighton Medical Center's 138 coronavirus patients are unvaccinated, including the Debroecks.
Michael was against the COVID-19 vaccine. Lauren simply never found the time.
“I made the appointment three times and canceled it because I was too busy,” she said.
Nursing Coordinator Beth Springer recalls how, a month ago, the ICU hallways were nearly clear. Now the pandemic seems worse than ever before.
“I see a lot of sadness. I see a lot that I never thought I’d see in my career,” said Springer, who has been a nurse nearly 20 years.
Early in the pandemic, nursing staff at Willis-Knighton would hang a paper angel on the wall every time they lost a patient to the virus. But as the months progressed and the death toll rose from one surge after another, the visual became a brutal sight for providers to look at hour after hour.
Willis-Knighton's Chief Nursing Officer, Denise Jones, breaks down in tears when she explains how they replaced the angels with colorful paper streamers hanging above the hallway — anything to give solace to a staff that has zipped patients who didn’t make it into body bags and held up phones so families could talk to their sick loved ones.
“We’re looking for anything we can do for the staff to find some joy in their every day because there’s very little in it right now,” said Jones.
Registered nurse Melinda Hunt is working six or seven days a week, waking up before dawn. She turns on a Disney movie while she gets ready.
But the escape is fleeting. Her eyes fill with tears as she drives to work on a rainy morning. Hunt, 24, decided to become a nurse when she was 6 and she watched the compassionate and skilled professionals help her younger sister who had leukemia.
Hunt used to be upbeat and peppy. But now she feels exhausted and drained. Co-workers have noticed the change and sometimes ask her if she is OK or if she needs a break.
“I don’t feel like I can take a break because we already don’t have nurses,” she said.
By the time Hunt gets to the Infectious Disease Critical Care Unit around 6:30 a.m., she pushes away the tears and the exhaustion. There are COVID-19 patients who need her honesty and compassion.
“These patients ask me, ‘Am I going to die?’ And I don’t want to tell anybody they’re going to die,” Hunt said. “But I’m not going to give them false reassurance either.”
Inside Willis-Knighton, plastic sheeting separates the lobby so potential COVID-19 patients can be isolated as they are examined.
The halls are filled with medical equipment and nurses and doctors in head-to-toe protective gear shuffling from one room to the next.
But those busy hallways are a stark reminder that just when it seems things might get back to normal, the pandemic roared back.
In July, the hospital’s number of COVID-19 patients were in the single digits. Now, they are over 100.
“It’s more chaotic. It’s just the rate at which it’s grown and spread is way faster,” said Springer, the nursing coordinator for the hospital.
Jones, the hospital's chief nursing officer, has burned-out nurses come into her office every day.
“Imagine the pressure of knowing I don’t know if I can do this another day, another hour, but if I don’t show up tomorrow there’s nobody there to care for this patient. There’s nobody here to hold this phone and let them talk to their family the last time before we put a tube in them,” Jones said.
“I feel very powerless and defeated as a leader that I can’t help them more.”
ICU Charge Nurse Cheryl Thomas feels duty-bound to be there to comfort patients who are on the verge of death.
“I’m not ever going to let someone die alone," she said, lamenting how virus-related restrictions mean many family members are unable to visit in-person.
She admits that’s a heavy burden to carry day after day. But it’s why she chose this profession. “Because I do care.”
Under those streamers that replaced the paper angels, Hunt hugs a woman whose 70-year-old sister died moments ago, four days after showing up with COVID-19 symptoms.
After the hug, Hunt joins a second nurse who had called the funeral home and they quietly zip up the white body bag with the deceased woman inside. A green blanket is spread over the stretcher and the nurses hope to go unnoticed as they wheel the body onto an elevator and to the first floor of the hospital.
“I don’t think anyone ever told me I’d be taking bodies down to the loading dock,” nurse Kristen Smith said as they head to a loading dock to meet an employee of the funeral home again.
“I feel like I’ve become numb to it,” Hunt said.
Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.