The pandemic becomes personal in the intensive care unit.

The global threat posed by COVID-19 comes down to a battle waged one day at a time, helping one life at a time to overcome the virus.

“You put your heart and soul into it,” said Patti DeLine, nurse manager for the medical ICU at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. “You take care of that person like they are your mom or dad—or your sister, brother, grandma or grandpa.”

The work can be exhausting. Physically and mentally challenging. And rewarding.

“We’ve had a lot of (really good things) come out of this. I continue to see it every day,” said respiratory therapist Darin Sheridan. “It’s been kind of uplifting to take care of them.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical ICU was the home for patients coping with a wide range of medical issues, including cancer, sepsis, gastrointestinal bleeding and high-risk pregnancies, DeLine said.

With such a diverse range of conditions and intense level of care required, the unit drew a highly skilled health care team that thrives in meeting and overcoming challenges.

“We have curious nurses who want to learn about new diagnoses, new therapies and new ways we can take care of our patients better,” she said.

When the first patients arrived at Butterworth Hospital with COVID-19, the unit became the ICU designated to care for the sickest patients.

The health care team drew on their expertise in treating acute respiratory disease syndrome while learning all they could about the disease caused by novel coronavirus.

“The teams that have been at the bedside have been phenomenal,” pulmonologist Stephen Fitch, MD, said. “They really dove into this work. They are asking questions and talking to each other about their experiences and doing all the high-functioning things that teams do when under pressure in unfamiliar situations.”

Supporting each other

A new role, the hot zone boss, helped team members care for patients while protecting against transmission of the contagious virus.

Nurses who serve as hot zone bosses make sure each team member dons personal protective equipment in the correct way before entering a patient’s room. They also hand supplies to the nurses in the room and ensure that equipment removed from a room is properly cleaned.

“That has been a great initiative,” nurse Amy Johnson said. Having a hot zone boss “has definitely helped people plan.”

Johnson, who became a nurse less than a year ago, finds it rewarding to learn new skills and help others during the pandemic.

“Never in my entire life did I think I was going to go through a pandemic in my first year of nursing,” she said. “But I have a great team behind me, and everyone is super supportive of each other.”

Because families cannot visit, she appreciates the ability to provide virtual visits for patients through iPads. One of her most rewarding moments came when she showed a patient a video of her daughter’s birthday celebration at home.

“The patient cried, and so did I,” she said.

Occupational therapist Rebecca Westfall helps prepare patients for recovery when they leave the hospital. After days or weeks in a hospital bed, it can be difficult for patients to sit up or hold up their heads.

“Within a week, we get them up to standing, into a chair, and able to comb their hair, brush their teeth and do all those things people take for granted,” she said.

Physical therapist Heather Diver finds their perseverance to be inspiring.

“It has been rewarding to see how willing and motivated these patients are,” she said.

When they recover enough to transfer out of the ICU to a regular hospital room, the entire unit shares a sense of victory. As the person is wheeled out, team members line the hallway and cheer, while the Rocky theme song “Eye of the Tiger” plays.

“It’s amazing,” DeLine said. “We are doing ICU graduations every day or two.”

Also energizing the ICU team is the support from the community.

“We’ve had a lot of food donations, which is amazing. That definitely keeps us going, keeps us filled and allows us to pour from our cup,” said nurse Heather Lewis.

“Today, we got a huge bag of cards that kids in the community have written for us, thanking us. That is really special. It is really nice to feel like we are being recognized.”

Nurse Julie Radford takes heart in the thank you signs she sees while walking into work, donations from individuals and businesses, and the messages and prayers from friends and family members.

“All those little things really do help to lift our spirits,” she said. “It’s very exciting to see all the camaraderie going on in our community.

“We are lucky to live in West Michigan and have the community supporting us during this very difficult time.”