The way we treat COVID-19 has constantly evolved during the pandemic as we apply the latest knowledge and newest medical advances to quickly save more lives. Now, as we approach the end of 2020, how we respond and save lives has evolved again.
In November, our COVID-19 care center moved from M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital to M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Campus in downtown St. Paul. We have leased Bethesda Hospital to Ramsey County so that it can become a shelter for hundreds of Minnesotans experiencing homelessness this winter. This move will help us slow the spread of the virus among the unsheltered and provide them with a place to rebuild their lives.
Bethesda Hospital was home to many of our initial advances, including a new care model, new medical innovations, and new safety procedures. At Bethesda, our incredible doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and staff – each of whom volunteered to care for COVID-19 patients – fought side by side against the disease’s rising tide and treated hundreds of patients. Along the way, they became experts in treating this new disease.
Now, many of the same people and innovations are in place at St. Joseph’s Campus, in our newly opened COVID-19 care center. Meet four care providers who followed their calling during the early days of the pandemic and are continuing to serve at St. Joseph’s.
When COVID-19 hit, Angie Whitley was ready to do her part.
“I wanted to step up,” said Whitley, who volunteered to treat COVID-19 patients and was quickly tapped to be a nurse manager in a COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at Bethesda Hospital. Since March, her ICU team has treated more than 300 patients at that location. Now, she and her fellow care providers – many of whom also volunteered to serve on the frontlines of the pandemic – are carrying that experience forward to their work at St. Joseph’s Campus.
Three factors make their group so successful, Whitley said.
“First, we have a broad team of physicians who have studied this disease carefully, who listen to each other, follow each other’s progress, and learn from each other. Second, the nurses are so in tune with their patients. They notice subtle changes and learn quickly. Third, we are able to implement new treatment ideas quickly because we have a constant team of the same people.”
Whitley remembers when her ICU staff came together to deliver hundreds of flowers to the bedside of a dying patient who loved them. “No one talked about it beforehand. But on that day, everyone brought something for her,” Whitley remembered.
“I’ve been a nurse for 20 years, and I have never worked with a better group of providers,” Whitley said.
Pulmonologist and Critical Care Physician Erica Kuhlmann, DO, served as Bethesda Hospital’s chief of staff for several years. At the beginning of the pandemic, her team oversaw the creation of three new ICUs to complement three new medical/surgical units at Bethesda as the hospital shifted to COVID-only care. Now, she has moved with many of her staff to the even larger COVID-19 unit at St. Joseph’s Campus.
“We became experts at the kind of supportive care these patients need,” Kuhlmann said. “The nurses and respiratory therapists in our COVID-19 unit only take care of people with COVID, so they have all become specialists.”
The team relies on their deep knowledge to recognize patterns and act quickly to keep COVID-19 from progressing in patients. The care providers in the COVID unit at St. Joseph’s are supported by other doctors and staff across the M Health Fairview system. They also have access to the latest University of Minnesota-led research and findings. Researchers have set up a permanent presence within M Health Fairview’s COVID-19 care unit to screen patients and enroll them in promising clinical trials.
That expertise and daily teamwork across the system has been a silver lining during a tragic time, according to Kuhlmann. “People came out of the woodwork. We didn’t have to beg at all. It was incredibly generous,” Kuhlman said.
For Danyel Downs, who recently graduated from nursing school, the opportunity to care for COVID-19 patients was a chance to follow her calling. “This is why I became a nurse,” she said.
“So many nurses from across the country have come together to staff this unit, and everyone shared their talents,” Downs said. “As healthcare providers, we need to be ever-learning, ever-changing, and prepared for anything. We have to band together and be there for each other.
“We are on the cutting edge of a new disease. It is so important that we have up-to-date knowledge, that we are mindful, and that we can notice trends and collect data to quantify them, so that we can tailor care to give people the best chance of survival.”
ICU nursing is a calling for Emily Allen, RN. For her, the decision to go to Bethesda – and then to St. Joseph’s – was simple.
“I became a nurse to help people, and this is where I am supposed to be. These are the people who needed the most help,” said Allen, who went to work in the COVID-19 ICUs in March and has focused on COVID-19 care ever since.
“Being part of a collaborative team trying to put this puzzle together – helping find new ways to treat this disease – has been one of the highlights of my nursing career,” she said. “The kindness and compassion in everyone’s hearts for each and every patient – that’s what makes our work successful.”
Allen’s defining moment came when a patient took a surprising turn. “I had a patient who was so sick, on and off the ventilator, and I never thought he would walk out. But he began to improve. One day, he was well enough to talk with his family (via an iPad) for the first time in 30 days, and I got to be in the room for that moment. He improved, and he went home.”