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The Critical Care Patient She will Never Forget: A Pandemic Nurse on the Front Lines

They were taped up all around Room 9. A slew of family photos and memories, staring back at a patient stricken with COVID-19. Loved ones couldn’t be present, so they asked nurses to tape messages of encouragement to the door.

“…But as I walked past…they were gone as quickly as they showed up,” said Wentworth-Douglass nurse Erin St. Gelais, BSN, RN, CPAN, RN-BC.

The incredible loss brought on by the pandemic has created challenging times for healthcare workers worldwide, including those at Wentworth-Douglass. St. Gelais is among those at Wentworth-Douglass who have seen the tragedy from the front lines.

“(This was) my personal COVID patient – it was a very personal experience,” she says.

St. Gelais has worked at Wentworth-Douglass for 16 years, joining the hospital directly out of school. When the COVID-19 crisis began, she was redeployed to care for the hospital’s sickest patients in the Critical Care Unit. She knew it would be a personal and professional challenge. 

“In critical care, the stakes are higher. Trust is huge. We want what’s best for our patients,” she explains.

The patient was a normally healthy, active person, she recalls. But when they arrived at Wentworth-Douglass in the early days of the pandemic, they were quickly admitted. The patient was struggling to breathe and was clearly fearful. “I could tell (they were) nervous, anxious, and desperately needed some support,” St. Gelais says.

It was then that the Wentworth-Douglass “well-oiled machine” went to work, St. Gelais says. Medications were given, oxygen was administered, and the patient was intubated. “I was amazed about how well everyone worked together. There were no barriers. No turf wars. No soap boxes. It was bouncing ideas off each other, sharing experiences, and brainstorming. They worked so well together, I could see how they earned their nickname ‘The Dream Team’,” St. Gelais says.

She says the size of Wentworth-Douglass Hospital’s staffing groups (there are just 10 in her unit), create tight-knit bonds that work well together in critical situations. “Their close relationships help expediate things. It comes full circle,” she says.

While the medical team saved the patient’s life, a complication ultimately took it away. “I know we saved their life, but I have never felt so bad about doing so,” St. Gelais says. “The heart of nursing is learning about your patient…instead I had to learn about their life, and precious recollections, from their obituary.”

The following week, St. Gelais returned to the post-anesthesia care unit full-time. Still, she says, she’s grateful she could contribute during such trying times. “The COVID pandemic has put every single nurse and healthcare professional in situations they never thought they could be in…. But it also forced us to troubleshoot, create solutions, learn new skills, and be flexible,” St. Gelais adds.

And she believes the memory of the patient she lost, will make her “come out a better person on the other side.” “Until the day I die, I will remember that patient’s name.”

Wentworth-Douglass Hospital salutes Erin, and all our staff, for your incredible service and sacrifice during this pandemic.

For more information about Covid-19 and how Wentworth-Douglass Hospital is supporting our community through these trying times please visit our Covid-19 Resources.

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