EAU CLAIRE — As nurses, doctors and medical workers hustled into Marshfield Medical Center in Eau Claire before sunrise Wednesday morning, about a dozen local firefighters, police officers and first responders greeted them enthusiastically.
Cheers, claps, the sound of bells ringing and shouts of “Thank you!” echoed in the parking lot.
Some nurses teared up, donning their face masks. Others quietly thanked the first responders and headed into the hospital.
All were gearing up for grueling 12-hour shifts caring for sick COVID-19 patients.
As firetrucks and squad cars lined up outside the hospital at 6:30 a.m., registered nurse Brent Hassemer of Bloomer watched from the hospital lobby, about to begin his shift.
“I’ve been in EMS for 31 years,” Hassemer said. “These people, to me, are the true heroes. Having them all here shows you the magnitude and seriousness of this pandemic. For them to do this for us — it’s amazing.”
As the fall coronavirus surge turned the Chippewa Valley into a national hot spot for the virus — 58 residents of Eau Claire County have died of the virus and almost 8,000 have been sickened — medical workers have been pushed onto the front line.
That’s why a group of first responders from the Eau Claire County area are visiting local hospitals this week, saluting staff as they change shifts at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.
“We’re seeing COVID patients … but they’re seeing 10 times as many,” said Jon Schultz, deputy chief at the Eau Claire Fire Department, as he clapped and greeted staffers entering the hospital Wednesday morning. “With what’s going on, they need to see that they’re appreciated.”
Schultz said hospital workers especially need support because as they care for people ill with COVID, they’re also facing people who deny the virus is dangerous or real.
“That’s really frustrating for health care personnel, because they’re putting their lives on the line,” Schultz said.
The first responders who saluted Marshfield Clinic workers early Wednesday morning were planning to return that night to show their support for the night shift, Schultz said. The group did the same at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital on Tuesday, and are planning a similar salute at Mayo Clinic Health System-Eau Claire on Thursday.
“I got a little teary-eyed seeing them here, because sometimes (we) feel like we go unnoticed at moments,” said registered nurse Kelly Dammerer, who works at Sacred Heart Hospital. “Especially when we are so busy and working long hours, and already feeling a little disconnected from our lives outside of work sometimes.”
This week, that group of first responders includes the Eau Claire fire and police departments, Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office, Mayo Clinic Ambulance, Altoona and Township fire departments, Emergicare and Fall Creek Fire and Rescue.
‘These patients are sick’
In the last two weeks, Chippewa Valley medical workers have opened up about the grief and strain of working in units crowded with COVID-19 patients.
Pam White, chief nursing officer for Mayo Clinic Health System’s northwest region, told the Leader-Telegram in late November that Mayo Clinic hospital staff are tired both emotionally and physically.
“We’re all human, and this is really heartbreaking, difficult work,” White said. “ … This is work we haven’t done before.”
Hospital staffers have watched the virus devastate families, White said.
“It’s not an infrequent occurrence that we’re seeing multiple family members not only be hospitalized, but multiple family members die,” White said, describing nurses holding the hands of patients as they hear the news that their family members are in the ICU or have died.
“That’s the challenging situation we’re experiencing,” White said. “That’s heartbreaking.”
Nurses and physicians say they’ve had to adapt to working in an environment where the threat of infectious disease is constant.
Families are communicating with their loved ones in the ICU using iPads, Hassemer said. Staffers have to don layers of protective equipment to even enter a room with COVID-19 patients.
“The thought of bringing this home to my family is on my mind every day,” Hassemer said.
He worked on Thanksgiving, and already knows he won’t see his parents over Christmas: “I just can’t risk my family getting sick. That makes our jobs harder.”
Andrew Torres, a paramedic with Mayo Clinic Ambulance in Rochester, Minnesota, said that it’s difficult to hear people deny COVID-19 is a serious threat to the public as he cares for sick patients.
“You just do your best and try to re-educate,” Torres said Tuesday in a phone call with reporters. “It’s tough to hear that.”
Critical care nurse Amy Spitzner works in the medical intensive care unit at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, the hospital’s primary COVID-19 unit.
Patients in her unit “are the sickest you’ve ever seen in your life,” Spitzner said Tuesday in a phone call with reporters. “They can be fine one day, then the next day they’re on a ventilator … we know that as the caretakers for a lot of these patients, we’re the last people they talk to. We hold that when we go home at night.”
White said she wishes people who doubt the virus’ impact could walk alongside nurses and doctors inside local hospitals.
“People drive by the hospital and it looks normal,” she said. “It’s far from normal inside.”
Hassemer urged the community to take the virus seriously and not to gather in large groups during the holidays.
“If we can slow this down, that will help the hospitals tremendously,” he said.