VCU Health workers describe ‘heartbreak’ in ICU as COVID-19 cases mount

With coronavirus cases surging ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, medical workers at Virginia Commonwealth University are offering a behind-the-scenes look at the frontline fight against the pandemic.

In a five-minute video released Monday as part of a VCU public service campaign, doctors and nurses describe the burden of a pandemic that is still shattering records more than eight months since it began.

“It just breaks my heart that some of these people might die alone in their rooms,” said Joy Wolf, a registered nurse at the university’s COVID-19 care ward in downtown Richmond. “My biggest fear is that I would hate to be the one that spreads it to all the people I love.”

November case counts have soared to new heights in Virginia. What had been a promising summer decline in the number of patients being treated in the state’s ICU facilities has reversed, with hospitalizations hitting levels not seen since the initial coronavirus wave last spring.

Virginia set a record for daily COVID-19 cases on Monday, with over 3,200 new cases reported to the Virginia Department of Health.

Wolf and her colleagues at VCU Health describe profound heartbreak, loneliness and fatigue among patients and medical professionals alike. With visitation curtailed on safety grounds, families are turning to phone calls or video chats to hear from their loved ones — even in their final moments.

“I’m used to practicing in the intensive care unit with the patient’s family at the bedside, sitting down in a chair, talking to them about what’s happening to their loved ones,” Dr. Lisa Brath said. “I’m calling them on the phone, we’re FaceTime-ing from the room when delivering bad news — that’s heartbreaking.”

The video depicts nurses sheathed in face shields, masks, gloves, hairnets and shoe covers moving through glum hallways, past door monitors who ensure all workers are wearing and disposing of their personal protective equipment properly.

“I was talking to my team about how sad I would be if I was in the hospital for a month, and that month happened to be the holiday season and I had to miss hanging decorations with my husband or seeing my family members,” said Jade Jones, a nurse at VCU Health’s ICU, fighting back tears. “So naturally, we’re going to buy decorations for (the patients) in case they want to decorate their room.”

The campaign comes as experts fear holiday travel could transport the virus nationwide and deepen the crisis this winter. About one million Americans packed into planes and airports over the weekend despite official advice to stay put. Thousands are flocking to Virginia, Maryland and D.C. testing sites for screening before visiting friends and family members later this week.

Brath, who serves as VCU Health’s director of respiratory care service, implored Virginians to be cautious and responsible.

“We need the community to be a part of (our) team,” Brath said. “There are a lot of families who are going to have an empty chair at the table this holiday season. We can’t do this without a lot of help. Wear a mask.”

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital reporter and editor in June 2018. He is a writer and photojournalist focusing on politics, political activism and national affairs, with recent multimedia contributions to Reuters, MSNBC and PBS.

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