Nothing that Dani (Cichon) Stone ‘11 had experienced in her nursing career could have prepared her for what she saw working in the COVID-19 intensive care unit in Chicago this spring. Not even working in the COVID-19 ICU at Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital in Nashville for the previous couple of months. When Stone left for Chicago, the outbreak in Nashville had been mild, although Tennessee’s numbers are now rising. But the hospital where she served in Chicago was in the thick of the pandemic, with beds full and more patients dying than living.
“In the three weeks I was there, working in a 16-bed ICU unit, I saw two patients live,” Cichon said. “One of those who lived was a 45-year-old man who came into the hospital walking and talking, and was discharged to a skilled nursing facility with a tracheostomy.”
At the inner city hospital in Chicago, Stone said most of the COVID-19 patients were between the ages of 40 and 60, but even patients in their 20s and 30s with no past medical history were dying from the virus. ICU nurses typically care for one or two patients per shift. While ICU patients are critically ill, Stone said she had never experienced nearly losing both patients during her shift until working in the COVID unit in Chicago.
“I had one of my patients pass away during my shift, and I almost lost the other one too. He died two hours after my shift was over,” she said. “What they were experiencing in Chicago was definitely different from Nashville. Just the sheer numbers were overwhelming, and it had been like that for four months already.”
Now back in Nashville, Stone is watching the number of those infected rise in what is now her home state. She has concerns about the nation’s hospital system’s ability to handle the increasing numbers. Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital currently has 100 nurses and doctors furloughed because they have been exposed to the virus. The loss is taxing a staff already working stressful shifts under difficult circumstances.
“Before I left for Chicago I could almost understand Nashville not taking the precautions against COVID as seriously, since our numbers were low,” Stone said. “But after what I experienced in Chicago, and now that Tennesee’s case numbers are going up, I’m more frustrated with the anti-mask culture. Sometimes I wish people could see what the hospitals see – it can truly be like a war zone.”
While working in the ICU is never not stressful, Stone said working in the ICU now is a different level of stress. That stress is partially brought on by the vast number of critically ill patients being admitted, combined with the dwindling number of healthcare workers – many of whom are either leaving bedside nursing permanently, or are becoming infected themselves.
“When people talk about the low mortality rate of this virus, they also aren’t taking into account the lasting difficulties that can remain after recovery,” Stone said. “Nurses I know who are in their 20s and recovered more than a month ago are still exhausted. The low mortality numbers also don’t account for the people who are moved to nursing facilities with tracheotomies, or those who require home care afterwards. They don’t include the permanent damage on the lungs that this virus might leave for some. We just don’t yet know how this may affect people long-term.”
This year has certainly not been what Stone expected 2020 to be for her and her husband, Nick. Early this year, she had started working part time at the hospital so she could dedicate more time to South for Winter, the musical trio she started with Nick and cellist Alex Stradal. They had booked a European tour for the summer, were working on a full album set for release later this year, and were looking forward to promoting their music.
“It’s been weird to be between worlds,” she said. “My musician friends are nervous and frustrated, since their livelihood is on hold as tours have been postponed or canceled. And I understand that, because I feel that too. But as a nurse I understand the need to flatten the curve. So when I’m upset our plans have been canceled, I remind myself that we’re just lucky to be healthy. It helps to have that perspective.”
Stone said that the earliest she could see South for Winter getting back out on the road would be next summer, but she’s not even sure she should expect it then. In the meantime, she stays connected to her family, which includes two doctors, her musician friends, and her St. Mary’s friends, many of whom are also on the COVID-19 frontlines, as a way to manage the stress.
“The St. Mary’s connection continues past high school, definitely. What St. Mary’s has is really incredible,” Stone said. “It’s an extended family. It’s something St. Mary’s is best at.”
Nursing full time was not what Stone had planned for this year, but she will be full time in the COVID ICU for the foreseeable future. With numbers rising, Stone said she hopes that those in the US will practice the precautions that have been recommended–wearing masks, social distancing, and using hand sanitizer–so our country can experience the decline in cases that other countries, such as New Zealand, Italy and South Korea, have seen.
“I think people need to know that this virus is not affecting just older or immunocompromised people—many younger people are also getting really sick from COVID-19,” she said. “Waiting for immunity to build up paints a grim picture. But other countries who have shut down and followed the precautions, are now back open. It’s possible; we just all have to do our part.”
By Amy G. Pertain
Director of Communications
St. Mary’s High School