CHEYENNE – COVID unit charge nurse Kristen Hefenieder stood on a windowsill, placing heart-shaped window clings on the wall of glass facing toward the entrance of Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.
The hearts, a royal blue and red Wyoming flag design, were displayed to honor the COVID-19 patients who’d come through the hospital, as well as the health care providers and staff who cared for them. Some of the hearts featured a white cross in memory of the patients with who weren’t able to leave.
There were several patients who came to mind as she put up the window clings, Hefenieder said. Among them, two especially stuck out: a man who stayed at the hospital for a month, but was eventually discharged, and another who was often traded between the seventh floor COVID unit and the ICU.
“He fought so hard, and we tried so hard, but he still didn’t make it,” she said.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, 604 COVID-positive people have been admitted to the downtown Cheyenne hospital, said Tracy Garcia, CRMC’s chief nursing officer and vice president of clinical services. Sixty-one of those patients died. Countless others passed through the emergency room or one of the hospital’s clinics.
At its peak, Hefenieder estimated the hospital was caring for more than 70 COVID-positive patients. And though case numbers and hospitalizations are dropping across the state, as of Tuesday, six people were being treated for the virus at CRMC.
All of these patients, from Laramie County and beyond, were cared for by a team of doctors, nurses and other staff. As part of National Hospital Week, CRMC held a brief ceremony Tuesday to honor its workers.
In 2020, CRMC didn’t get to celebrate Hospital Week, said JJ Barley-Dunning, a medical imaging representative who also chairs the Hospital Week committee.
“It was right as everything was erupting in our world,” she said. “So, I feel like we’ve been able to do a little bit extra this year, which is so awesome, because I feel like everybody really deserves that.”
Other planned employee appreciation events include a food truck festival and pet therapy with adoptable animals Wednesday through Friday.
Hospital staff also collected food and toiletries Monday for the Laramie County Community College food pantry, and plans to clean up the site around the Davis Hospice Center and plant flowers Friday and Saturday.
“Our employees have been well prepared, but aren’t invincible, and times like these certainly challenge them,” Garcia said during the ceremony. “So, to our staff, we see you and know how hard you work. Words cannot express our gratitude.”
Dr. Sodienye Tetenta, a critical care physician and pulmonologist at the hospital, spoke about what he’d observed over the past 14 months: the struggle, the tenacity and the small moments of grace.
“I, firsthand, saw the tears that our staff shed for those patients – both collectively and individually – and after crying, they showed up the next day,” he said.
“There are many things that will remain in my mind about the pandemic, but the image I choose to take away was walking into an isolation room to see a patient who had severe COVID, paralyzed and sedated, and I stopped when I realized that a staff member that had been there that morning had taken the time to braid (the patient’s) hair,” Dr. Tetenta continued. “Even though our patients were in isolation, that simple fact, that little act of love, made me realize that they were never alone.”
Intensive care unit nurse Katey Kor said she remembers the first COVID-19 patient who died at the hospital, and many patients who came after that. Kor emphasized the importance of taking the time to connect with the people you care for as a nurse.
“Those experiences change you,” she said.
Chaplain Steven Tims started at the hospital in September 2019. Like most, he was wholly unprepared for what was to come about six months into the job.
“I didn’t have any idea how big it was going to be, I didn’t know how much heartbreak (there) was going to be, I didn’t know how much loss there was going to be,” he said.
Tims spent a lot of time in the ICU during the pandemic, he said, watching the ICU nurses work and being inspired by them.
“I can tell you this: there’s probably bigger hospitals in the world, but I can’t imagine anybody doing a better job than you all have,” he said of CRMC’s medical staff.
Since the beginning of May, hospital employees have also been collecting notes, stories and photos to place in a pandemic memory capsule, which will be displayed in the hospital and opened 25 years from now, Marketing and Communications Director Hillary Hardy said.
“Our community may not understand what’s going on inside these walls,” Hardy said. “I think that this is good healing for a lot of our staff.”