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Healthcare worker shares experience working with COVID patients as full hospitals put strain on healthcare system

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Sarah Schroder works with a patient at Aspirus Wausau Hospital.

For weeks now, WXPR has reported to you the rising number of COVID cases and the hospitals in our region and state at or near capacity.

It’s taking a toll on healthcare workers.

“To be honest, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. My career, my job right now is really difficult,” said Sarah Schroeder. Schroder is a respiratory therapist at Aspirus Wausau Hospital.

For more than a year and half she’s worked with COVID patients as they struggle to get enough oxygen.

Some of them can get through with a BiPAP machine supplying them with oxygen through a face mask. The more severe cases require a breathing tube into their lungs.

“It’s not a comfortable way to breath. Those patients deeply sedated and a lot of times, they are paralyzed. We fully take over control of everything for them,” said Schroder.

Schroder and her co-workers are not only giving physical care to these patients that need around the clock attention, but also emotional support as they are sometimes the last people the patients will ever interact with.

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“Sadly, a lot of times, families are not able to come and visit their loved ones until we’re looking at possible withdrawal of care or death has occurred in a patients. That makes it hard for families and it also makes it hard for us as healthcare workers because we truly become the only people that are there with them during those times,” she said.

Schroder told me seeing patients this sick takes an emotional toll on her.

It’s an emotional toll that rose even higher when her own father contracted COVID and later died.

“Personally, I’ve lived through the nightmare of having a loved one in the facility and knowing what that’s like. I’ve lived on both side of it. It’s a really hard world that were living in right now. It’s scary,” said Schroder. “The one thing I do know though is that I’m proud to work with the team of people that I do. I know the level of care we give to those patients. I know what level of care my father was given, when I even couldn’t be there with him and I’m thankful for that.”

Preventable Deaths

Schroder’s job and that of her co-workers is made that much harder when they know there’s a tool readily available that can stop majority of these deaths and hospitalizations.

Schroder will be honest and tell you the COVID-19 vaccines are not foolproof.

There are still people who get sick and die from COVID, even when they’re fully vaccinated. But that number is so few compared to what she sees day in, and day out at the hospital.

“There’s obviously a lot of opinions out there about vaccinations, myself alone I have my own opinions about it. It’s hard for me when I know there’s something out there that can help our patients. Hearing them say, ‘I wish I would have done that. Why didn’t I do that?’ and all I can do is help them at the point they’re at where they are,” said Schroder.

As of Friday, the Aspirus Health System had 137 COVID positive patients. 43 of them were in the ICU. 77% of all the COVID patients were not fully vaccinated.

Department of Health Services Data for the month of November shows unvaccinated individuals were five times more likely to contract COVID, 11 times more likely to be hospitalized because of it, and 12 times more likely to die from COVID as when compared to vaccinated people.

The patients sick with the Delta variant tend to be younger and sicker longer than seen in previous surges.

The time-intensive and high-level care these patients need is impacting other aspects of healthcare in our communities, according to Robin Rudie, the Aspirus Wausau Hospital Emergency Department Director.

“Patients are facing longer wait times for non-emergent needs. We’re having longer wait times in our emergency departments because we’re having a harder time getting our emergency patients who need to be admitted into an inpatients bed, because those inpatient beds are full,” said Rudie. “We’re delaying non-emergent surgeries that require an inpatient bed because the demand for those beds is so high right now.”

It's a similar story at Marshfield Clinic Healthcare System where entire floors have been converted to inpatient units.

Healthcare workers have been pushing vaccinations because they know they work and can make a difference.

In addition to vaccines

On top of the vaccinations, Schroder says there are some other things you can do to give yourself the best chance of survival should you contract the virus.

If you test positive, Schroder encourages you to buy a pulse oximeter.

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A pulse oximeter.

It’s a simple tool that monitors your oxygen levels and can be found at most drug stores.

“Knowing that and being able to come in sooner when they can see that they’re oxygen levels are low and we can start treating them sooner is helpful,” said Schroder.

Schroder also urges patients to advocate for themselves when it comes to early treatment options.

Aspirus has seen a lot of success with anti-body therapy. But it needs to be done sooner than later after diagnosis of COVID.

“Making that call to their PCP office and seeing they would be somebody that would be eligible for that. We are starting to learn about how to treat COVID and how to get patients sooner better,” she said.

Of course, avoiding getting COVID is the best way keep you and your family safe and ease the burden on our healthcare system right now.

It’s the things that have been ground into us by now like wearing a mask, social distancing, getting testing, and washing your hands.

Things, that unfortunately Schroder doesn’t see much of these days.

“These patients are so sick, and I know how prevalent COVID is in our community right now. Then I leave the doors of the hospital and I feel like I walk out into a different world. I don’t see people taking precautions. That’s really discouraging to me as a healthcare worker,” said Schroder.

These messages to take as many precautions have been renewed with urgency now that the Omicron variant has shown itself to spread rapidly in parts of the U.S.

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