‘Not gonna make it out of this hospital’: What staffers see inside the Cleveland Clinic ICU

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CLEVELAND (WJW) – Every moment is uncertain for the hundreds of COVID patients inside the Cleveland Clinic’s intensive care units.

The Medical ICU at the main campus is at capacity this holiday season. 

“This last wave was very well timed … to Thanksgiving and so we saw several family members that got exposed,” said ICU Director Eduardo Mireles fighting back tears. “Families that lost several members at the same time.”

What is opaque about this virus outside of the clinic walls is crystal clear to these caregivers. 

“This bed is open right now, just to be filled. They already have a patient coming in from either our ED or one of our regional hospitals to take care of them in here,” said Mireles, passing a temporarily empty room.

For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, WJW was given access to the Cleveland Clinic on Wednesday to see those sickest with COVID and the people moving nonstop to try and save them.

“Three to four out of ten people who need a breathing tube in, they’re not gonna make it out of this hospital, you know, alive … But even overall, breathing tube or not breathing tube, it’s about 20%. 18 to 20% of patients who come throughout ICUs are not gonna make it,” said Dr. Hassan Khouli, chairman of Critical Care Medicine.

In this ICU, 43 of the 64 patients have COVID and about 80% of them, the clinic says, are unvaccinated, like Jennifer Rogowski’s husband Ed. 

“Yesterday morning he did have to go on a ventilator which is very, very scary, terrifying because it’s just so many variables with the ventilator and I know he was afraid to go on it. We really didn’t have a chance to say, you know, like, face to face, we had to FaceTime him and say, ‘It’s OK, God’s got your back,'” she said. 

Things were looking up for the 52-year-old — who also has diabetes — on Thursday, and Jennifer now thinks he would benefit from the shot.

“People that do have underlying conditions, I think it would be helpful to get the vaccine. I did have a long conversation with a respiratory therapist yesterday about the vaccines and he did say it would really help him or any of us to get it because hopefully, it would prevent something like this from happening ever again,” she said.

Caregivers say it’s a constant battle of education to try and encourage patients and their families to get the shot, especially when they may see breakthrough cases in people in the public eye.

“The number of patients that are healthy that get the vaccine, get COVID and on top of that end up here is very, very rare. They may get it but they don’t end up in the intensive care unit. The vaccine helps prevent you from ending in the ICU … and creates a series of changes in your body that don’t go away immediately,” said Mireles.

What scares these ICU workers is just how young many of the patients are. 

“Every day and their ages lately, I mean yes, you have them in your 70s and 80s, but they’re in their mid-30s. They’re like my age. There are people I went to high school with that pass on my time, on my unit,” said Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Colleen Mckeown.

To protect themselves, every time a nurse, doctor or respiratory therapist has to go in a patient’s room, they have to put on all-new PPE.

When one nurse was asked how many times she had changed that day. She said about 15 or 16 times since 8 a.m. It was around 11:30 a.m.

The emotions in the ICU are strong. 

“I’m exhausted of coming in and watching people get so sick and pass away that don’t need to. I’m sick of fighting with people, I’m sick of asking people to do the right thing when we know a lot of them aren’t. It’s just the whole thing is exhausting,” said Stephanie Dota, a respiratory therapist.

“We are tired. We are very, very tired,” said nurse Lynn Murray as she started to get emotional. “Um, I did not expect to do that, I’m not even that kind of a person to get choked up, but the turnover we’ve had here because you can only do this so long at the degree of, like I said, you come in and you hit the ground running and it’s the same thing over and over again.” 

Caregivers believe a relaxed mindset and COVID fatigue are driving numbers back up to what they were a year ago.

All of them said how angry it makes them to see people out at places like the grocery store not taking the right safety measures. 

“For them, I feel like, they’re rolling the dice, hope you don’t get sick, because that kind of behavior, in this type of climate, with these variants and all the numbers shooting back up, I hope you don’t get sick and that I’ll be seeing you on the flipside,” said Murray.

With each passing day, whatever hope they’re holding onto, Dota says it continues to dim. 

“Now, it doesn’t feel with everything else going on that there’s much of a reason to be hopeful anymore and that’s really sad to say but until we get, I think, more people on board with vaccination, we’re just going to feel like we’re fighting a losing battle,” Dota said.

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