In case you’ve heard that COVID-19 is “really not that bad”…
Both children’s hospitals in St. Louis, SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, are now taking adult patients because the internal medicine floors and the ICUs at the adult medical centers are at capacity.
Is everyone in an adult hospital a COVID patient? No. But COVID didn’t make heart attacks and strokes and pulmonary emboli and pancreatic cancer and breast cancer and Crohn’s disease and car accidents go away. People are still getting deathly ill with these things, and as chaotic as the “health care system” in a community may seem, the number of patient beds that are licensed in any given region is based on the expectation of disease in a community from experience compiled over years with an allowance for the occasional surge.
COVID is not turning out to an occasional surge. It is a full-fledged catastrophe.
In St. Louis, the Pandemic Task Force developed emergency surge plans last spring in partnership with an unprecedented alliance among SSM Health, BJC Healthcare, Mercy Hospital St. Louis, and St. Luke’s Hospital St. Louis. For the most part, our region got through the spring and early summer utilizing existing facilities and cutting back on elective surgeries. It was tough, but we felt — we hoped — that we had been though something we could tell our future students and our grandkids about as a cautionary tale of how bad things might have gotten. And we hoped that people would have learned from it.
Many did learn. Many did not.
And it’s not just buildings and beds and respirators. It’s people. It’s friends and colleagues, doctors and nurses and phlebotomists and food service workers and everyone who makes a hospital run. If worse comes to worst, you can put up a tent with space heaters and beds and monitors and oxygen.
But who’s going to take care of the people out in those tents? You can build a respirator a lot faster than you can build a nurse.
If you don’t like wearing a mask, I get it. I hate it. I hate that the kids I take care of can’t see my entire goofy smile. I hate that I can smell what I had for lunch for a couple of hours. I hate that after weaning a mask for 8 or 10 or 12 hours in a day, the skin creases between my ears and my scalp get so raw that I have to put Vaseline back there before I go to bed so the skin won’t break down and cause me to get an infection.
But I’d hate it more if, through my inaction, I got someone sick — or got myself sick. I’m 66. That puts me in a high risk group for this thing. In May I went to a lawyer and updated my will. Just in case.
Since March, four of my colleagues in my group have gotten COVID. At this point in my career, I had planned to be working part-time. Traveling. Performing. Writing. That sort of thing. But since I’m the part-time person, I’ve been able to flex up to help out when someone else gets COVID. So this part-time thing? Not so much.
And I’m a pediatrician. We are the specialty whose patients are least affected by COVID. Even so, it’s tough for us.
But it’s absolutely catastrophic for our colleagues who take care of adults. I know how exhausted I am, and I know that it is nothing compared to what they are going through.
So when certain people tell you that COVID is No Big Deal because only 20% of people in ICUs have COVID, they are dead wrong. Because hospitals and ICUs simply don’t have 20% capacity to spare.
And it is getting worse. We are rapidly getting a point where people who desperately need emergency hospitalization, not just for COVID but for emphysema or hemophilia or sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis or any number of other things that ICUs are experts at caring for, will be told either, “We have no beds” or “We have run out of people who can take care of you.”
Please wear your mask.
Please wash your hands.
Please keep your distance.
Please care for yourself and for those your love and for people you will never know.
Please show courage in ways you never imagined you would have to.
Please help yourself and others to survive so that we can all tell our great-grandchildren the tale of how we dug deep and found the strength and the love to care for one another through this time of darkness until we could once again stand together in the light.