Lilly Olson has been a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics floor nurse for 10 years. The past year has been one of the more challenging of those 10.

Olson is a floor nurse at the hospital’s medical intensive care unit, where patients with severe cases of COVID-19 have been sent. She’s seen and heard a lot at work.

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IowaWatch: Do you get a sense that the general public has an understanding of what it’s like for the patients and the healthcare workers on the floor?

Olson:  Unfortunately, I don’t. I wish they did. Even some of the nurses in our hospitals still aren’t quite fully grasping. I mean, they understand COVID is serious, but they don’t understand how serious until they’ve floated to us.

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Olson lives with her family in Fairfax, Iowa. She is a 35-year-old mother of three children – a 5-year-old girl, 3-year-old boy, and a baby girl born in summer 2020.

Olson was pregnant when dealing with patients suffering from COVID-19, and at a time when healthcare professionals were climbing a learning curve for treating the people with the virus.

She feared for what the virus could do to her family, including her unborn child.

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IowaWatch: When you found out you were pregnant, was COVID on the scene already by then?

Olson: No, not at all.

IowaWatch: Okay, and so then you moved into COVID. What were your thought as COVID became available? We didn’t have as much information as we have now, and here you are pregnant.

Olson: Right. I was very much panicked. Because, you know, we all thought it was just going to be something that’ll stay, kind of like SARS early on, when that was going on, and Ebola. None of that made it to us.

So, at first it was kind of like, okay, well, right now, I think it’s going stay that way. Well, then it didn’t. It ended up coming to our own hospital. I was panicked, as well as other coworkers because there were three of us girls and one of our male coworkers, his wife was pregnant as well at the time. But there were several of us pregnant obviously, and we kind of looked out, all of our coworkers looked out for each other. It was kind of a wonderful thing because a lot of our guys that we work with, the males that were, like, they would take the COVID patients before us. Or, a lot of the younger people just because they weren’t pregnant at the time, or they weren’t going to be pregnant anytime soon.

So, they kind of looked out for all of us. But the hardest part was, we actually did have a pregnant patient who came in with COVID. And, I was actually two weeks before my leave when she came in. And that was hard for me, because you don’t know if something’s going happen in the next few weeks before you give birth, that that could be you. And unfortunately, she was on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, to help get oxygen into the blood stream) but she made it out, thankfully. I found out during my maternity leave. I got to, kind of, watch the news, because it made the news. So it was kind of one of those wonderful success stories.

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There were a couple times that I left work just bawling, because I didn’t know if I could go home to my family at the time. Or if I should go home and isolate, what have you, just because I don’t want my kids at home sick either, But, let alone myself get sick and then it’s not just me. It’s my baby inside me as well. So I felt like I was not just taking myself to work. I was taking my baby.

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A lot had changed when Olson returned to work. Healthcare workers had more knowledge and a better grip on how to manage things like workflow. They also had more experience with individual patients’ needs.

Things continue to evolve at the medical intensive care unit.

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IowaWatch: You’ve been in this now for quite some time. How are how are you and staff holding up, especially when you know that each day you’re going to see a different level of, of suffering than you might otherwise have had.

Lilly Olson, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clincs nurse during a January 2020 Zoom call with IowaWatch. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch) Credit: Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Olson: Right. Certain days are harder than others. You know, it kind of depends on what’s going on. There’s been a couple rough days lately just because we have patients we’ve had for a while now, and you kind of get attached to those patients because, unfortunately, a lot of our patients aren’t just there for a couple days and leave anymore. Not that they always left before, but we’re getting a lot more patients who are actually staying with us a lot longer. So, you get a little more attached to that patient, because you kind of build a bond with them with their family. And, the hardest part is knowing that they’re not doing well, that their bodies are kind of slowly failing them. And, every little setback you look at them and you see that it’s getting worse, and it’s not getting better and the setbacks, they’re kind of just building, you know.

So it makes it hard. It’s mentally and physically draining, both. But like, it’s just, it’s hard.

At the beginning, we were all kind of more worried about ourselves getting sick because, you know, nobody knew exactly who was going to get sick, how sick you were going to get. I mean, we still don’t know all that stuff. But … we’ve all learned how to do our day to day work and how to protect ourselves the best. So, that part’s been easier. But in terms of the emotion, emotional toll with our patients is the hardest, I think that we’ve had to deal with.

IowaWatch: Do you get any kind of support for the mental side of it?

Olson: I personally have not recently, I know there are quite a few of my coworkers that have reached out. I get a lot of my support from fellow coworkers and the other staff. I have considered it just because it has been exceptionally draining lately just with what’s up everything that’s going on. And it’s not, you know, I have kids, too, and I feel bad for them because sometimes it’s just tiring at work. So, then you come home and then you’re tired. Actually, lately I’ve been feeling a little bit better. So I’ve been kind of, like, working on some self-stress relief techniques at home that have been working out for me…

IowaWatch: When you talk about patients staying there for a long period of time, what kind of length of stay are you talking about here?

Olson: Yeah, so it varies, you know. Months. Like, I’ve seen people there for a couple months at a time. Occasionally, we’ll have patients who are there just for a couple weeks, which is still a lot. But, the ones that are there for over a month, it just seems like it really is even harder, sometimes, with those ones, because you’ve worked and worked and worked and the outcomes. A lot of the times are the same that we end up ultimately losing them.

IowaWatch: And by that time, you’ve gotten to know the family pretty well.

Olson: Right. Even though we don’t get to see them face to face every day, you still get to talk to them, you know, you kind of get to know him a little bit. Not as well as we used to pre-COVID but, you know, you still get to know the family.



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