As hospitals and health care workers battle the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to grasp the magnitude and complexity of the fight over the last nine months without getting an up-close look.
St. Peter's Health in Helena recently granted me exclusive access to the front lines, where workers confront the virusday and night. Resources and space are in short supply, and patients struggle to breathe and sometimes die.
The number of cases added daily in Lewis and Clark County is consistently in the double digits. That recently pushed the hospital to implement a surge plan and expand its COVID-19 efforts.
Since Thanksgiving, the hospital's roster has had 20-30 people every day who are being treated for COVID-19. That number was in the teens in September and November and in the low single digits over the summer.
Up until last month, the hospital's ambulance service was responding to one or two COVID-19-related emergencies a day. Now it's a dozen.
Over the last three months, the hospital’s intensive care unit has been consistently full, with well over half of those patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
From the ICU to the outdoor testing site, St. Peter’s Health has built an incident response framework across the organization to fight the pandemic in the community.
Along with constant testing and lab work, personal protective equipment is routine, as nurses now don and doff PPE every time they enter and exit a room.
Although providers have learned a lot about how the virus spreads and affects people, that's often not enough to save a patient from death.
As a photographer, I worried that my writing skills wouldn't be enough to capture the true essence of what I have seen in the hospital during the last few weeks.
But I hope this photo series helps the community better understand the challenges and triumphs faced by the health care workers who are fighting on the front lines and our neighbors who are fighting for their lives amid this once-in-a-lifetime crisis.
Thom Bridge is a photojournalist at the Independent Record.
The bill passed with more than two thirds of the vote, 68-32, in its initial hearing on the House floor.
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Respiratory therapist Craig Turk, left, and registered nurse Heather Greil suit up in PPE before entering COVID-19 patients’ rooms on the medical floor. The requirement for nurses to wear PPE has affected nurses’ ability to quickly respond to patients in need.
Respiratory therapist Craig Turk checks Martha Cayko's breathing as she is hospitalized with COVID-19. When Cayko first fell ill, she laid around her house unable to eat for nearly a week because of her symptoms. “I didn’t have the energy to do anything,” Cayko said on Dec. 4. “I didn’t even have the energy to go to the hospital.” At the urging of her granddaughter, she was later admitted to the hospital, where she got oxygen treatment and was eventually discharged.
Registered nurse Sarah Tomaske cleans a COVID-19 patient’s bed on the medical floor. While in COVID-19 patients’ rooms, nurses try to do as much as possible as quickly as possible to prevent contagion while providing the best care without the burden of re-dressing in PPE.
Intensive care unit nurse Brooke O’Neil takes a moment to herself after caring for a COVID-19 patient. The ICU sees the most deaths related to COVID-19, which has a profound emotional impact on those who care for those patients.
Intensive care unit nurse Brooke O’Neil flushes the IV connected to Stacey Wallach, who is in the ICU with COVID-19 on Dec. 4. The hospital’s intensive care unit sees the most critically ill COVID-19 patients and provides the most critical care for those patients. The unit consists of eight beds and employs a team of the hospital’s most advanced critical care nurses. These nurses are skilled in the use of intensive care equipment and complex medication schedules.
Intensive care unit nurse Paul Lee talks to a COVID-19 patient hospitalized in the ICU. The hood Lee is wearing is a powered air purifying respirator, which provides the same amount of protection as an N95 mask but is available to care providers who can’t fit in an N95 mask or have facial hair that prevents a seal.
Intensive care unit nurses and physician prepare for an incoming Covid-19 patient from the emergency room of the hospital. The intensive care unit employs critical care nurses, some of the most advanced nurses in the hospital. These nurses have become in short supply as hospitals across the region and country see more and more critically ill Covid-19 patients.
Emergency room nurse Sarah Diaz moves an empty patient bed back to the emergency room after delivering a patient to the intensive care unit. The need to shift Covid-19 patients throughout the hospital as their conditions change rapidly has been difficult for care providers and hospital administrators to manage as hospitalizations increase.
Dr. Andrew Mitchell shuffles an ultrasound machine across the emergency room on Dec. 4. COVID-19 has made the time-sensitive work of the ER more time sensitive as care providers work to get COVID-19-positive and symptomatic patients moved to more secure parts of the hospital to prevent contagion.
Emergency room doctors and nurses huddle as patients are brought in on Dec. 4. The emergency room acts as the front door to the hospital for patients of all kinds with immediate care needs. Their most important role is stabilizing and triaging patients so they can be moved to other parts of the hospital for the care they require.
Lab scientist Emily Heittmann prepares a COVID-19 swab for testing in the diagnostic lab at St. Peter’s Health. The lab takes all the testing swabs from the testing site, triages them, and sends them where they need to go. Preoperative and pre-surgical tests are done in house with the quickest turnaround using the most reliable PCR testing versus the more unreliable rapid antigen testing. The rest of the tests are sent to the state lab and national labs. The results from the lab testing provides physicians and nurses the information they need to build a care plan for each patient.
Phlebotomist Jaclyn Cooks, left, and lab technician Paige McClure file Covid-19 tests inside the diagnostic lab at St. Peter's Health. Information for each test must be manually inputted into the system each days. This becomes very time consuming for lab staff as more and more daily test are conducted.
Physician assistant Andrea Hedbloom and other urgent care providers chart patient information at the end of the day in the hospital’s urgent care clinic. Since the start of the pandemic, the urgent care clinic attached to the hospital has shifted to only accept patients with COVID-19 and flu-like symptoms in an attempt to keep those patients together. This is where patients who have symptoms that are concerning, but not concerning enough for in-patient care, go to have their lungs checked or get chest X-rays.
Daniell Ratto swabs a person at the drive-up testing facility outside the hospital. It all starts with a swab taken by a team of nurses working outdoors in all elements at the hospital’s testing site. When the virus peaks in the community, the testing site will run over 200 tests a day. Testing continues to be the best way to identify the virus so those affected can be isolated.
Shea Russell, left, and Kyrie Craven spend their entire day on the phone coordinating with people waiting in line at the drive-up testing facility outside the hospital. When the virus peaks in the community, the testing site will run over 200 tests a day.
Registered nurse Sarah Tomaske checks on Martha Cayko, who is hospitalized on the medical floor with COVID-19. The medical floor, which sees the bulk of COVID-19 patients, is broken into two wings. One wing is for COVID-19 patients and the other is for non-COVID-19 patients. The floor consists of 18 beds for COVID-19 patients, with six advanced medical units.