Inside a COVID unit at University Hospital

NOW: Inside a COVID unit at University Hospital

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – Hospitals and their staff are being pushed to their limits and they need the public’s help to prevent a bad situation from becoming catastrophic. That is the message from health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic at one Wisconsin hospital.

CBS 58 visited a COVID unit at UW Health University Hospital in Madison. Like many hospitals in the state, it is facing difficult decisions in how to maintain quality care as the COVID-19 surge impacts resources like staff and space.

“It’s one giant ball of anxiety trying to figure out where the next patient’s going to go, can we even take the next patient?,” Donovan Boetcher told CBS 58. Boetcher is a respiratory therapist who works overnights at one of the COVID units in the hospital. “On top of that we’re just pushing staff to their maximum, we have people working 50, 60 hours a week for weeks on end; doctors nurses, NAs, RTs, everyone is just pushed to the max right now.”

Boetcher said it is disheartening when he drives around outside of work and sees people at restaurants, bars or large gatherings.

“It’s a slap in the face to be honest,” Boetcher said. “There are so many people here putting in so many hours in, sacrificing time away from family, sacrificing time away from home to try to help people be safe and quite frankly, alive.”

The current situation is also pushing the hospital in a potentially dangerous direction for the quality of its care.

“We’re breaking the record for number of patients every day,” Scott Wilson, a staff physician said. “Because of the stress and the large number of patients, it’s possible we might have to triage like a battlefield triage and that resources could be limited.”

One of the resources that is being stretched thin is the hospital's nurses.

“It is difficult,” Mavic Tjardes, a charge nurse said. “The nurses are the first person that our patients see and nurses are the last person that they will see at their last breath and so we are a family to them.”

Tjardes also works overnights and has been at University Hospital for 18 years. She said she is proud of the nurses she oversees, but they too are reaching their limits and hope the community can help slow the spread of the virus.

“That will help us too as nurses,” Tjardes said. “Because we’ve been working more […] overtimes, extended shifts, long days, long hours, not seeing our family, just to be here to take care of the sick, so I’m asking it just to give us a little break too.”

The hospital's leadership recognizes the toll the pandemic is having on its staff.

“It’s exhausting both physically and emotionally to keep doing this day after day, for months on end,” UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer Jeff Pothof told CBS 58.

Pothof is concerned about a worsening situation in the winter months. He said there is anguish among hospital staff because they know if the public steps up to slow the spread of the virus, they can prevent the hospital from slipping further into a worsening crisis level of care.

“We know that simple behavioral changes could change the trajectory of this,” Pothof said. “When we go through the units and see the people that probably aren’t going to make it, we know it didn’t have to be that way.”

Pothof noted there is good news with vaccine distribution on the horizon. However, he does not want the public to become complacent.

“I think the problem we run into with that good news is that a lot of people start to think that the game is over, we’re at the two-minute warning, all we got to do is let the clock run out for the last two minutes and we’re good,” Pothof said. “The truth of the matter is, we’re still in the middle of the third quarter, there’s a lot of football left to play and if we just rest on our laurels right now and think that the game is over, we’re going to get beat badly.”

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