IMH emergency room sign

A sign displays directions to take for the emergency room at Ivinson Memorial Hospital as viewed from South 30th Street.

Several reports showing a rise in positive COVID-19 cases have circulated throughout all of Wyoming.

As of Tuesday, the Wyoming Department of Health reported a statewide total of 60,364 lab-confirmed cases and 720 COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020.

Currently, Albany County is in the “orange zone,” with 29 active cases and 15 total COVID-related deaths — three of which occurred within the last week, Nicole Rooney, chief nursing officer at Ivinson Medical Group, confirmed.

There are six levels of color-coded indicators used by the Wyoming Department of Health to measure statewide and county COVID-19 transmission in accordance with national guidelines. They are, starting from the lowest transmission levels: dark green, light green, yellow, orange, red and dark red. The orange zone represents high transmission levels during the previous 14 days.

Two nurses in the Ivinson Memorial Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and the Emergency Department recently revealed a dire reality that is disconcerting and largely unseen by the Laramie community.

“Every day, I get to work, and (I) look at the numbers … and I get this feeling of overwhelming anxiety,” said Emily Sanders, a registered nurse in the Emergency Department.

For the past month, Sanders has seen an undeniable increase in the number of COVID-symptomatic patients who need emergency care and/or require hospitalization. Her fear, she said, is they will run out of room if the numbers continue to grow.

The patients testing positive are unvaccinated, Sanders said, who added anyone wary of getting a vaccine can look to her and others working closely with COVID-positive patients as living testaments to its efficacy.

“I’ve been around COVID since the beginning. I got my vaccine back in December … and have yet to get COVID,” Sanders said.

Kizzy Ledesma works in the ICU, and said there was a lull period, during which positive inpatient cases were nearly nonexistent. But for the last month, she has only cared for COVID patients.

“(Nurses) see COVID. It’s in our faces,” she said through tears, adding, “(We) are literally in the fight of their lives with these patients, and, sadly, we have had some not make it.”

Ledesma explained how emotionally taxing and heartbreaking it is for her personally when she cares for patients who are in a state of helpless isolation and experience severe symptoms.

During a patient’s stay, nurses — who are the primary caretakers and informants for both the patient and the family — form a bond and come to know them as pseudo family members. Ledesma said she knows their preferences for food and drink, and even forms close relationships with the families, whom she updates daily. When that patient dies, it’s like losing a family member.

“When you’re with them while they’re taking their last breaths, it’s a great grief that we know as nurses … it’s hard to process that a life literally could still be on this Earth if they would have just gotten a vaccine,” she said.

When a patient is admitted, there isn’t a clear time frame for how long they will stay, nor is it guaranteed that they will survive. Ledesma emphasized that the coronavirus presents itself differently in each case, and the illnesses vary from patient to patient.

But Rooney made a clear distinction between non-COVID patients and COVID patients’ length of stay, stating on average the former are hospitalized for about three days.

“The overwhelmingly common thing with COVID patients is their length of stay is longer,” Rooney said, “We have many who are on day 22, 25 and 35.”

She added such a lengthy stay is substantial and affects every facet of the individual’s life, especially their finances. Long hospital stays tend to result in big medical bills, and, for some, losing a few weeks of income can be dire.

Additionally, patients are completely isolated from visitors or other patients and essentially lose their autonomy.

“It can become very weary for patients and their families,” Ledesma said.

Mike Gonzalez attested to this and more as he shared his experience as a COVID patient at Ivinson Memorial Hospital. Shortly after Mother’s Day, his eyes were watery and nose runny.

“I thought it was allergies,” Gonzalez said.

A few days later, however, he started experiencing more severe symptoms and broke out in a high fever, low oxygen level and a worsening cough.

“It attacked my lungs and crystallized my lungs, [which] is why I was having such a hard time breathing,” he said.

During his weeklong stay, he was put in isolation and placed on a BiPAP machine (bi-level positive airway pressure) which forced air into his lungs, allowing them to expand and maintain a consistent breathing pattern. He was also given steroids — which he still takes, despite his discharge from the hospital.

He explained the sensation of breathing with crystallized lungs, stating even something “as silly as a hiccup” would put enough pressure on his chest to cause pain. During his interview with the Boomerang, Gonzalez frequently cleared his lungs and said although he felt much better, when he was first discharged, he could only talk in 60-second intervals before developing a pain in his chest.

Gonzalez said the hardest part about his hospitalization was being alone in his room for long periods of time, as well as his inability to be active and exercise. Before contracting coronavirus, Gonzalez frequented the gym five times a week and has always been a sales rep for Pepsi.

“I think that helped (with COVID),” he said, adding he has always had a strong lung capacity. But if it weren’t for his daily routine physical activities, Gonzalez’ symptoms likely would have been a lot worse.

“It’s not going to be a quick recovery,” he said, noting it could be months before his lungs return to any amount of normal function. For now, he has been instructed to practice breathing exercises to strengthen his lungs. He’s also on supplemental oxygen.

“I was one of those who didn’t really believe. … It was a wake-up call that (the pandemic) is still here,” Gonzalez said. “I really appreciate what they did for me in the hospital.”

Ledesma hopes to encourage people with vaccine hesitancy to immunize, stating, “It is unknown how COVID will affect you, but it is known that the vaccine will prevent severe cases and death, [which] is the worst side effect.”

It does make a difference, Sanders and Rooney agreed, not only for the individual, but for the people surrounding them, too.

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