HELENA — While most people in Helena are asleep, medical care at St. Peter’s Health has to go on. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. everyday, the nursing staff on the night shift has the responsibility for monitoring patients.
“We’re here all night,” said registered nurse Kailee Nelson. “There’s always somebody here, waking you up, taking your vitals.”
Nelson and Victoria Fowler work on the medical floor and in the Advanced Medical Unit. In recent weeks, much of their time has been spent caring for patients with COVID-related illnesses.
Both Nelson and Fowler are travel nurses, brought in from hospitals in Billings to help cover staffing needs at St. Peter’s.
“If I can go to different places and help other people through the things that our floor was having problems with, then it feels like I’m making more of a difference,” Fowler said.
COVID patients are currently housed in units throughout the hospital. Those with less serious cases are on the medical floor. The Advanced Medical Unit holds those needing additional monitoring, but who don’t have severe enough symptoms to go to intensive care.
Nurses are constantly monitoring patients with more severe cases – especially their oxygen levels.
“There are some people that, they take their mask off or their nasal cannula off and they drop immediately,” said Fowler. “And then when that happens, they can go into funky heart rhythms, and sometimes it takes them a long time to recover.”
Fowler said a number of patients have remained in the hospital for an extended period, moving back and forth between the ICU and the AMU.
“It’s not a quick process getting out of the hospital when you have COVID,” she said.
Nelson and Fowler both say they’ve seen distinct differences based on whether patients have been vaccinated. Those without the vaccine have been more likely to stay longer and need more extensive care.
Nurses caring for COVID patients are using extensive personal protective equipment, putting on gowns, gloves, N95 masks and sometimes face shields before going into rooms.
Burnout has been a very real issue for nurses over the last 18 months.
“It gets exhausting seeing people who are in their 30s or 40s with 1- and 2-year-old kids at home that end up being hospitalized,” said Fowler.
“A lot of nurses, I think, are leaving the bedside position or retiring,” Nelson said. “I think it’s been a big transition trying to fill those holes.”
St. Peter’s Health has several hundred nurses, and administrators say they have multiple nursing positions open in every unit in the hospital. They say they are trying to fill the jobs, but it’s becoming difficult to find and retain nurses.
Nelson arrived at St. Peter’s about nine months ago. She saw the latest spike in COVID patients really begin in the last few weeks.
“At one point when I was here, there were no COVID patients at all – no isolation carts, no gowning up, we didn’t even have to worry about it,” she said. “At one point, they even let us take our masks off while we were sitting at the desk.”
Now, people with COVID-related illnesses are again taking up a significant portion of St. Peter’s beds. Nelson said they’ve seen patients transferred in from around Montana – and even from outside the state – because closer hospitals don’t have room.
“I think it’s important that people don’t forget we’re still in COVID times,” she said.
Fowler echoed that, asking people in the Helena community to continue to take the virus seriously.
“I just think that there’s a lot of disconnect,” she said. “When you’re not seeing it every day that you work, it kind of goes to the back burner – until you get COVID.”