Chicago Coronavirus

‘The Patients Do Seem Sicker': A Look Inside a Chicago COVID Unit

Northwestern Memorial Hospital is nearing its peak coronavirus patient levels, as more people seek care daily

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As a second coronavirus surge escalates, there’s no quiet day on the COVID-19 unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“The second surge was really hard to watch happen because it came out of the blue. Our numbers just went up really quickly,” Zoe Gardziola, a clinical nurse in the COVID Medicine Unit, said.

Nurses like Gardziola and Manny Vargas are in demand.

“The whole hospital has like incentives to pick up right now, to pick up additional shifts. We are definitely needed,” Gardziola said.

“It kind of gets overwhelming if you're picking up too much, if you’re being overworked, which is why we kind of want to keep those (virus) numbers down. Like I said, the fear of overwhelming the healthcare system,” Vargas said.

Julia Utendahl has worked at Northwestern for 41 years.

“Yes, we do get overwhelmed, but we also bounce back,” Utendahl said.

As unit secretary for the COVID Medicine Unit, Utendahl’s main role is communication with patients’ families, who can’t visit their sick loved one. She said the second wave of cases has been more challenging because she "hears more families crying."

Patient care technician Nadine Wilson helped a patient in his 90s say goodbye to his family.

“He just wanted them to hang on to each other. And I had to be in the room for that because he wasn't able to do activities with his hands, so I had to hold the phone. And it was very heartbreaking to watch that,” Wilson said.

Vargas has noticed something different about the second surge of coronavirus cases.

“The patients are sicker compared to the first wave I would say,” Vargas said.

Layers of personal protective equipment help keep staff safe, but can’t shield them from the heartache they witness each day.

“I get a call from my patient, crying saying, you know, my, my brother just died and to think of losing a loved one, and being sick yourself in the hospital and unable to be with anyone, like, I'm the only one that can support them through that. Just please take it seriously. We don't want that situation for you,” Gardziola said.

A spokesperson for Northwestern Memorial Hospital said surge plans are in place that can be activated rapidly, as the number of coronavirus patients nears the peak levels of hospitalized patients that were treated earlier in the year.

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