Heart-Rending Experiences of a Lafayette Doctor & Nurse
When I arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital Wednesday afternoon to take a tour of the hospital's operations during COVID-19's latest surge due to the Delta variant, I wondered what I would see. I wanted to see the surge for myself, and I did.
Elisabeth Arnold, Senior Director of Communications at Our Lady of Lourdes, met me in the front office, where I sanitized, put on a new mask, and a full-body gown for my trip upstairs. One of the first things Arnold shared with me was that while the mood is always somber among staff, it was particularly acute that morning as word had come that a nurse in her twenties, that many of the staff knew, had died at an area hospital this past weekend. These are the real realities of the people who care for those who are sickest with COVID-19. It's not political. It's not a debate. It's not one person's facts against another person's facts; it's a reality every day that they face dealing with COVID patients.
You can debate every aspect of COVID ad nauseam, but the reality for nurses and doctors in Acadiana is that they face the people who then become statistics in someone's Exponent chart. But, it is very real for them; patients aren't just statistics, they are real people, with full lives and family and friends who love them. If this story bothers you, then please go read something else because it's not for you. I am not taking this story in a direction with a viewpoint; this is just the information gathered from ICU Director Dr. Frank Courmier and nurse, Katie Jennings. There is a surge of Delta variant of COVID in Lafayette and Acadiana.
I was asked to not take pictures, and I agreed because I wasn't going to put someone else's misery on display. So, what did I experience? Plenty. You take what you will from this article, but DO NOT politicize this post. This post is about the men and women you hopefully will NEVER have to see.
When I was taken into the emergency room, the board listing patients was full. I asked what the last six on the end of the second column were. Arnold explained that was the people who have spent the most time in the emergency department. There was no room upstairs or in a regular room or ICU. The person who had been down there the longest had already spent sixty-two hours in the emergency room. Several areas downstairs that are not normally used were also full with patients.
Just like many other areas of the country, Our Lady of Lourdes is struggling to get nurses to keep up with the number of people who are seeking all kinds of emergency help from the hospital. They are currently pursuing contract nurses with a set salary for thirteen weeks of work and a bonus; just like other areas of the state and country dealing with a surge.
As we head upstairs to one of the COVID floors, Arnold explained the various ways in which the hospital has worked to minimize prolonged contact with COVID patients, but still provide them with the best care. Actually, coverage with PPE is evident from head to toe on anyone that is coming into contact with the patients.
Next, I got to meet Dr. Frank Courmier, the head of the ICU at Lourdes. He's tall and slender with a boyish charm to his face, but very deep circles under his eyes. And those eyes, those are not the eyes of a boy. His eyes express wisdom, compassion, weariness, and sadness.
He works seven days a week now, and he is on call every other night in order to handle the many COVID patients they are treating, and the many that are on ventilators. He pointed out that no one in their ICU is on Medicare, meaning that everyone receiving treatment is sixty-five and under. Many of the patients do not have preexisting conditions. The Delta variant of COVID-19 is just different from what we've been experiencing. In addition to that, Dr. Courmier points out that one person's experience with COVID can be very different from another person's experience.
He was sitting on a couch, I was sitting in a chair, we were socially distanced, and I pointed to the couch, asking him, "You been sleeping on that couch?" He paused briefly, gave a sad smile, and said in an exhausted voice, "Yes". He says he doesn't care about that part of the job, but he does worry about his wife and his children who are nine and eleven. He says life has changed in so many ways. He says his son is very excited about his birthday coming up in January, not for an X-Box or anything like that. He says his child is excited because he can get the COVID vaccine. He says his children, just like all the rest, are not immune physically, spiritually, or emotionally. He says, "He shouldn't be excited by the shot."
When I asked Dr. Courmier about his wife, he called her "a hero". Courmier says she now handles all aspects of life for him, all the chores, paying bills, anything you can imagine that he did, she is the person who is there to handle it now. Always a team, she now handles everything at home, so that he can focus on patients. He says that she allows him to be able to spend the majority of every waking hour being intently focused on his patients in ICU. His pain? He says there is no end in sight. There will be new variations, and right now those variants are being observed by scientists so no one can say for certain what comes next in the evolution of this virus. Courmier says his wife has shared her fear for his safety and health, and as a mother, she worries about her children who will be going back to school soon.
Dr. Courmier has maintained his composure through his entire interview with me, and even let me push for a few more questions when he needed to go. He's tough. He's seen it all. So, what made him tear up? Talking about his children and his wife. He seems deflated, somewhat, when he tells me how painful it is for his wife to read social media, or even hear people, question his character and integrity. Have we fallen so far as a society that we have lost all common decency? That's a personal question for each one of us, and based on my beliefs, those are things we will have to answer for when the Maker calls us home. Until then, before people argue, berate, beleaguer, accuse or dismiss someone, maybe they should think about someone else's feelings. I think we are allowing this thing to tear us apart, and we are showing up as people, that when we reflect on it later, maybe we don't want to be? I include myself in that. Insults are so easy to hurl from a cellphone on a social media page.
The final thing I wanted to ask Dr. Courmier about is what routine he follows when he goes home. He says when he gets out of his garage at home, he wipes down everything, except for his clothes, with a bleach wipe. He takes it all out and puts it in a bucket. The next thing, he strips in the utility room and puts his clothes directly into the washing machine. He washes them immediately. I did that too when I went home.
One side of the third floor, all the way down, is full of people on ventilators. Courmier says it used to just be older patients who ended up on ventilators or those that were immunocompromised, but that's not what's happened now. He says there are some people in their 20's and 30's. That one side of the hall was people between 30 and 60. He says it's heartbreaking and depressing as he says many people are parents, and their children are at home waiting for them to come home. He says that's not what's happening. He says often people are lingering. He says it's surreal because many of these people will not make it home to their children. He says he feels helpless.
Courmier understands viruses. He bioengineered viruses to fight cancer at MD Anderson, trying to figure out how to cure those types of cancer. He says that's one area dealing with social media that does frustrate him, or any media for that matter. He knows what can and can't go into the nucleus of DNA. He says mRNA gets translated into a protein that the immune system responds to by making antibodies. He noted that mRNA doesn't go into DNA. mRNA doesn't interact with DNA.
And for all the people asking about herd immunity; forget it. Courmier says for the first round of COVID that was circulating we needed 75-80% vaccination/cases. With that version of COVID, for every one person that was infected, they would infect four others. Now with the Delta variant, it's an 8 to1 ratio, meaning for every person that is infected with Delta, eight more are going to get it.
The next person I was able to interview was nurse, Katie Jennings. She has a beautiful face with shoulder-length blond hair. She smiles and her eyes light up, but behind that, I can see what she doesn't want others to see. She's exhausted, and she's terrified. For herself, her husband, her kids, and her community. Trust me when I tell you, I know a little bit about taking care of someone whose illness will take them away in the end, no matter what you do. This woman wears shadows around her halo. She's a fighter. I can tell.
I first asked Katie to compare July 2021 to July 2020. She says it took three months for a crisis to happen with overrun hospitals in Acadiana in July 2020. This year, it only took three weeks. She says the patients that are getting put on ventilators are younger and younger, and now they have multiple cases of people in their thirties that had no comorbidities. She says it's heartbreaking.
Then she spoke to me about proning. At first, I didn't think I knew what that was. Once she started to explain, I remembered from about ten years ago before my mom died. These nurses, and other staff (because there are not enough nurses), need to change a patient's position so they can get the best airflow. They need to do this as much as possible to prevent severe issues including atrophy of muscles, including the muscles you need to breathe. They had already been through several proning rounds with patients before I got there at 1:30 on Wednesday afternoon.
She has a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old child along with her husband. He's a teacher. School starts soon. "It's terrifying", she says. She worries about her children and her husband.
I asked her how she personally handles the stress. She replied, "Crying and humor". She plainly admits that you need to go into the bathroom to cry it all out. The stress, the death, the anguish of families. And they are working all the time, but she also said, "I love my job!". She wasn't placating me. Her passion was obvious. She loves what she does. What she hates is a preventable death. And there as so many lately. She says it crushes her that there are "not enough wins". She then added, "the unvaccinated are dying".
When I asked Katie about what happens when you survive COVID, she says it's a mixed bag. Some people recover slowly over a few weeks at home, some people come to the hospital, and they will make it home. Some of those patients though are in for months of issues. Those issues can range from being on oxygen for months, having the breathing tube with you wherever you go and because of the lack of oxygen, they may need walking aids or assistance in their homes.
I asked her what she wanted people to know, and she says people dismiss descriptions of what they explain is happening. She says that's got to stop. People need to wake up to the fact that they are overworked and exhausted. She says it's going to become their problem when they show up to a hospital that doesn't have a bed for them.
She says despite what happens each day, and the many patients that are hooked up to ventilators all over the third floor (which I saw), she will never quit because nursing is her passion.
And that's it. At least, that's my part in Frank and Katie's lives. It's a small portion of their world. Could you spend twelve hours a day, seven days a week watching people die as is the case for Dr. Courmier? Could you be the nurse that works a twelve-hour shift who silently is praying that COVID doesn't kill a thirty-something father in their ICU who has two kids that will never see him walk through the door again?
You take away from this post what you want, but don't ever call anyone in the medical profession in Acadiana a liar, a boaster, exaggerating the truth, or inflating the truth ever again. Don't say it, don't post it, don't spew it because these people are living in their own private hell you don't know anything about unless you have walked that road.
Our Lady of Lourdes, where they believe in life, superior care, and leaps of faith. A special thank you to Elisabeth, Dr. Cormier, and Katie and to all of our first responders who keep the faith in Acadiana.