Photo courtesy of Patrick O'Callaghan Photo courtesy of Patrick O'Callaghan

Frontline healthcare workers are doing their best to save others and themselves.

MICHIGAN—Patrick O’Callaghan has had a unique perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because he has witnessed the tears and the chaos with his own eyes.

The 26-year-old clinical assistant from Warren (who is currently a senior at Oakland University) has worked at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, since May 2017.

He describes his position as that of a unit clerk, ordering supplies and paging specialists. He often works on what is called the observation unit, but the pandemic led him into different territory.

“Through this (pandemic) it was a lot of calling and ordering supplies, but also, I was doing direct patient care with COVID patients,” he said.

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‘A Lot of Tears, a Lot of Shock’

The situation began to unravel right after St. Patrick’s Day, O’Callaghan said, recalling how he called to order gowns for nurses and times for delivery were consistently delayed.

He said “nobody was prepared for it at all.”

“First, it was kind of—nobody knew what to expect,” he said. “I guess I didn’t understand the magnitude of it. One day, they kind of started to turn the ER into a drive-thru COVID testing (unit). I remember that, it was surreal.

“There was a lot of tears, it was a lot of shock. You were worried about bringing it home to your family. … Our unit was kind of thrown into it.”

He said all employees were initially emailed and updated about safety parameters and the like being administered throughout the hospital. Epidemiologists were present “usually every day giving some direction,” O’Callaghan said, such as how to put on and take off gowns and properly wear N95 masks and face shields.

The Best Information Available

“It got to a point where it was short supply and they were recycling N95 masks,” he said.

Employees each had their own bags in which to place their personal N95 masks, inscribed with their personal information so nobody else used their personal protective equipment.

Masks at one point were used three days at a time, returned in paper bags. Gowns were initially being reused, drawing some complaints. Each staff member had a gown for each room, so one gown per one patient.

“In terms of receiving proper information, I didn’t feel like I was being left out necessarily,” he said. “I felt like the leadership—nobody really knew what was going on. I think they were trying to give us the best information they had. There was no hiding of anything.”

A One-Hour COVID Conversion

The observation unit where O’Callaghan routinely finds himself is a 54-bed unit, which was “kind of immediately” turned into a COVID-19 unit.

Hospital visits at the pandemic’s onset “dipped really, really low,” he recalled, with the change to pandemic mode occurring within an hour’s time. He worked on March 27 and March 28—a Saturday and Sunday where PPE shortages were experienced.

Things ebbed and flowed. COVID-only units went to 12 units at once, and then all the way down to two.

Employees were provided general updates on coronavirus cases within the eight-hospital Beaumont Health system. O’Callaghan said the most COVID patients within the health system at one time was about 1,300 within isolation, with about 1,100 confirmed positive cases.

As of Sept. 20, he said there were 61 patients throughout the eight hospitals.

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‘It’s So Real’

He was fortunate not to get sick, but he said he knew “a few people” who got sick and “you hear stories.”

“Personally, it was definitely overwhelming,” he said. “I feel like the whole thing is so surreal. Myself, I didn’t become immune to it but it didn’t surprise me necessarily because of everything else going on.”

In his approximate three years, he had never seen anyone die. He had conducted CPR once. During the pandemic, there were three or four people who died in one unit—which O’Callaghan acknowledged was “more on the rare side.”

“We chose healthcare but we didn’t necessarily choose to put our lives and the lives of our entire family on the line by bringing something home to them,” he added.

Sometimes, he set up iPads for patients to communicate. He was reminded of one instance when he held a phone up to a patient’s ear, listening to goodbyes being exchanged.

It was also a strange time because swaths of society were in quarantine, the majority locked in their homes, while healthcare workers worked relentlessly day in and day out.

Nurses had emotional breakdowns and still came in and did their jobs. Efforts at levity around the hospital only provided so much relief.

“It’s so real,” he continued. “You don’t know how many people this can impact until it comes into your family. It’s not over with; it’s something we worry about every day coming back. I wish there was a way to get it across to people. If you honestly believe it’s not real, you’re lucky you haven’t been impacted by it like other people.”

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