They work in a Charlotte ICU as COVID rages on, and have a plea for the community
In January, Novant ICU manager Cindy Little will welcome her second grandchild, born during the coronavirus pandemic.
Little is originally from Charleston and moved to Charlotte a few years ago to be closer to the family. Your new grandson will be your fourth grandchild.
But she won't see her family this Christmas. Instead, she works in intensive care both during the holidays and on New Year's Day. She also missed Thanksgiving gatherings. In the intensive care unit, she sees Novant's sickest patients, often with COVID-19.
Many health officials expect coronavirus cases to spike due to gatherings over Christmas. Local hospitals are already grappling with a surge in Thanksgiving cases.
Prior to this potential spike, Little and another Novant ICU provider gave the Observer a glimpse into their lives during the pandemic.
Dr. Alexis Smith is a pulmonologist and intensive care physician in the intensive care unit at Novant Health's Presbyterian Medical Center.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Smith spent half of her time caring for patients in the intensive care unit. Now she spends most of her time in intensive care.
During the pandemic, Smith took two showers a day, one in the morning and one when she comes back from the hospital.
When she comes back from work, she puts on a bathrobe that she keeps in the garage and goes straight to the shower to wash off any germs that she could have brought home. Then she puts her work clothes straight into the laundry.
Like Little, Smith plans to skip Christmas parties with her family. She usually flies to Chicago to see her family, including her nieces. Not this year.
"I recognize the fact that the community is really tired (COVID-19 restrictions) and as a person experiencing this it is absolutely very stressful," said Smith. "But as a doctor, it makes me very sad that (meetings) immediately lead to people who are so sick."
Dr. Alexis Smith
COVID-19 cases are increasing
In the past few weeks, local coronavirus levels have shattered previous records and skyrocketed above the previous highs in the Mecklenburg district.
Some of that spike comes from people who gather during Thanksgiving, health officials have said. Typically, COVID-19 hospital stays increase two weeks after the vacation.
The average daily COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg have increased by around 81% in the weeks since Thanksgiving. And on Tuesday, Mecklenburg joined all of the other neighboring countries in the NC known as the "red zone," which shows the severest spread of the virus based on case rates, percent of positive tests, and current stress on hospital beds and staff.
"Our hospital beds are pretty full," said Smith. "... It seems we have to work harder to meet the needs of a very sick community."
In a glimmer of hope, two new coronavirus vaccines arrived in Charlotte last week. Healthcare providers like Smith and Little have been prioritized by the state to receive shots in the first wave of vaccinations.
"We are very excited about (the vaccines), both for ourselves and for the community," said Little. "Because we hope that this will be the answer to contain this as much as possible."
However, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two injections spaced weeks apart. And the general public may not see vaccinations until the spring of next year.
In the meantime, Mecklenburgers must continue to be socially distant and follow mask guidelines, Smith said. "It would be helpful if we could all get involved again just on the home track," she said.
The mental burden
As Smith and Little prepare for a potentially bigger surge in COVID-19 patients in January, they are grappling with the psychological distress associated with tackling a pandemic up close.
“It was my dream to study medicine and work right here (in an intensive care unit) - this is where I wanted to be. And it took us nearly 15 years to get here, ”said Smith. “I never thought I'd be on the front lines of a pandemic.
"I am proud to serve my community," she added. "But I can see with certainty that there will be some processing when you get out of this trauma."
In her spare time, Smith tries to take a break from her job: "I try to exercise, do creative things, and talk to my dog - he is very helpful."
As the nurse manager in the intensive care unit, Little sees every patient in the unit.
Part of her job involves calling families to talk about loved ones who are sick. Due to the pandemic, COVID-19 patients cannot have visitors.
"Our hearts break for her," she said. "Because we know that it's good for patients to have families, to have loved ones to support them - and it's too dangerous."
But hospital workers have used Zoom and FaceTime to connect patients with loved ones.
Cindy Little, RN.
For months, Little has seen that COVID-19 can impose the toll on patients and their family members. Now the coronavirus vaccines are giving her hope that an end to the pandemic may be near.
In the meantime, she and Smith hope others will consider staying home for Christmas.
"We all miss our families and these big social events that we enjoy," said Little. "But we say if you can hold out just a little longer ... We think we can see the light at the end of the tunnel - it will only be a few more months."
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