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Combating COVID-19: Nurses inside the coronavirus ICU tell all

HOUSTON – Like many local hospitals, Houston Methodist Hospital opened a special unit to treat critically ill coronavirus patients. They’re calling it the “Coronavirus ICU,” and right now there is a revolving door of 88 patients total in the Houston Methodist system, 24 patients at the Texas Medical Center campus.

Nurses working inside the unit said when they manage to discharge one, the next patient comes in.

Alexandra Carnahan and Carmina Anna Catalan have to be the caretakers and comforters to the patients who are so sick family can’t be by their side due to the risks that come with infection.

"Even if they're intubated, speak to them as if they're not, as if they're awake, let them know where they are and what you're doing around in the room and I think now, especially because family isn't there to hold their hand or be with them, I'm even more cognizant about it," Catalan said.

They said they do have the ability to help patients communicate with family members through computer screens that were originally installed for telemedicine and are now repurposed to use, like a FaceTime communication.

Carnahan and Catalan said after their 12-hour shifts, they go home alone, choosing to distance from their family at a time when they could use them.

“I have definitely had hard days where I felt very lonely,” Carnahan said. “I haven’t gone to the grocery store since the beginning of March... none of us have been with most of our families in a long time. FaceTime and Zoom are wonderful but it’s just not the same. Or just having a big hug is really something that I used to take for granted and I don’t now at all because having even a pat on the back is like... emotional.”

These nurses are only in their 20s. While many may say this is what they signed up for, they never could have predicted a pandemic like this would mark their career so early on.

“Right now, I feel like I’m personally doing okay. It’s hard, it is hard every day but knowing this is something to be done and that I am doing something for the greater good really helps me,” Catalan said.

They both agreed what helps keep their endurance going through this crisis has been the tremendous community support: meals and donated care packages are some of the kind gestures they’ve been given.

The Texas Nurses Association supports what Carnahan and Catalan said, the number of patients has remained relatively low considering the size of Houston. Houston Methodist Hospital says their ICUs across all eight campuses are at 70% capacity. Social distancing is credited for keeping the number of cases manageable for healthcare workers.

Now, some experts say social distancing efforts may continue into 2022 if a vaccine does not become available.