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‘This is way worse than last year.’ How nurses are holding up during the latest COVID surge
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Northeast Georgia Medical Center critical care staff work Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, with COVID patients. - photo by Scott Rogers

“I already cry at work every day anyway.” 

“She does. She’s not lying.”

“I’m not well.”

“You’re well! You’re just a little emotionally overwhelmed.”

Two critical care nurses at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Amber Rampy and Kelly LaCerra, have seen the horrors of COVID-19 since the start in March 2020. Speaking Monday, Aug. 30, Rampy told The Times long shifts in the critical care unit can be nerve-wracking.

Rampy said there’s hardly time to get away to eat lunch during the day.

“It’s just hard,” Rampy said. “It’s very stressful, especially up in the Corona Kingdom. There’s just emergencies every five minutes. … There’s a lot of running, like every time I try to eat lunch (something comes up).”

Physicians and fellow nurses can get more terse and quick-tempered during stressful times too, but she knows that people don’t really mean to be harsh. 

“You have to have a little grace — nobody means it,” she said. “It’s months of exhaustion and buildup of stuff.”

That buildup has been long, and recently it has been aggravated by the worst wave of COVID-19 yet as the delta variant has fueled a rapid surge. Hospital officials have said that with delta, more young patients are getting sicker faster

On Monday, Aug. 30, there were 284 COVID-19 positive patients in the health system, which serves much of Northeast Georgia. One month ago there were 91, and on June 30 there were only 17 such patients. 

“This is way worse than last year, way worse,” LaCerra said. 

Though the health system has yet to hit January’s peak of 355 COVID-19 patients, their models suggest they will break that previous peak some time in September. 

To compound the COVID-19 problem, the emergency department is still seeing many non-COVID patients who are no longer as hesitant to come to the hospital like they were early in the pandemic, said Angela Gary, executive director of trauma and emergency nursing services. 

Amid the pressure, nurses are still able to find some levity in their daily lives. The health system regularly has guitarists and even harpists come to play. The musicians used to play primarily for patients, but they aren’t allowed to see patients anymore after changes in visitation policies, so now they play for nurses and other staff, LaCerra said. 

Snack breaks are cherished and even an hourlong commute can turn into welcomed down time. LaCerra rides to and from work listening to audiobooks, lately diving into the Harry Bosch thriller series by Michael Connelly. Audiobooks take her mind off of work more than music, she said.

Rampy said she’s also gotten much closer to her co-workers throughout the pandemic. 

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Ambulances fill the emergency entrance Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

“I know way more about the doctors and their personal lives than I ever knew,” Rampy said. “I know all their birthdays. I know all their kids’ names. … We all hang out together. We’re all stuck up there together; no one can leave; the hospital feeds us.”

And the nurses have some inside jokes that can lighten the mood in critical care units. For example, when a patient needs to be laid prone on their stomach, nurses call this “tummy time.” The animated movie star Boss Baby is posted with signs reminding the nurses to turn their patients.

Often, LaCerra said, laughter comes from something crude or silly. 

And, often there isn’t much to laugh about as nurses run to help patients and each other. LaCerra still feels guilty about a couple of months last fall and winter when she broke her leg on vacation and could not be on the floor to help. During the health system’s worst wave of COVID-19 to that point, she was sidelined to doing data collection for clinical care at home. 

“The guilt was pretty awful,” LaCerra said. “I knew just from … my co-workers, it was real bad. And just from the news, I knew the numbers were so high, and it was pretty hard for me to not be here. But it’s hard for me to be here on a scooter.”

She suffered the injury in October and couldn’t come back until late January, returning a little after the highest peak of 355 COVID-19 positive patients had crested.

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Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville capacity is being tested as COVID-19 cases surge in the region in late August 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

Despite her frontline experience with COVID-19, some of her extended family members will not get vaccinated, LaCerra said. 

“I’m like, ‘How can you say that to me when I’m dealing with this for the last year and a half?’” she said. “It’s very hard. You don’t want to judge. Everybody has the right to choose, but sometimes I don’t know if people are choosing intelligently or looking at the science of it. … 

I mean I’ve cried so many times in front of them and begged them to do it, and they kind of poopoo me, ‘We’re young and healthy and blah blah blah.’”

And during the latest wave, LaCerra has seen younger patients die at quicker rates. Last year, she said, some patients could be in the hospital for 11-12 weeks, but now their stay may only be a couple of weeks long before dying. 

“Everybody should get a chance to live that life that they were born to live, and I feel like this is just taking that away from so many people,” she said. “I don’t know if they don’t believe in the science of the vaccine. … I mean we know it works from the science, and that’s so incredibly frustrating.”

A previous version of this article misspelled Amber Rampy.

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