Nurses on the front lines paint picture of overwhelmed Arizona hospitals

Ben Gerkin works in an Intensive Care Unit designated for COVID-19 patients at a Tucson hospital. He said Arizona is being hit with a second wave of cases that are stretching thin trained medical staff, specialists and nurses. Photo courtesy of Ben Gerkin

As the spread of the coronavirus in Arizona reaches unprecedented levels, nurses and hospital workers have shared on social media how the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching them thin. While Gov. Doug Ducey has focused on increasing hospital beds and recently allowing for local mask-wearing regulations, hospital workers shared that their trained staff is already overworked.  

Tucson nurse Ben Gerkin wrote on Facebook on June 14 that he works at a COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit. What he has seen is unlike anything in nearly 10 years as a registered nurse. 

“I have never looked around my 100% full ICU and genuinely thought that there is the possibility of NO survivors,” Gerkin wrote. “Hospitals are at the point where we can’t accept all patients and are making decisions based on if they have the chance of survival. We are also not able to provide all treatment modalities such as dialysis on all patients based on futility of the situation.”

He said his ICU saw a surge in COVID hospitalizations around the end of May, and his unit has been operating nearly at capacity ever since. 

On Facebook, Debra Stokes, a nurse at a Phoenix hospital, also shared she works in a COVID ICU. She has been a licensed nurse in Arizona for almost 19 years. During her first shift working there in March, Stokes shared she became emotional when looking at the condition and type of treatment hospitalized COVID-19 patients require.  

“Back in March, my 32 bed unit was transitioned into COVID ICU. On the very first night there, we only had about 8 patients and by looking at how sick each of them were, I got teary/emotional and thought to myself, I can’t do this!!!!” she wrote. “The amount of tubes, machines and continuous IV meds attached to these patients was barbaric!!!” 

She described the physical labor that nurses have to do to keep patients on ventilators comfortable. But Stokes shared that there isn’t enough medical staff to keep up. 

“I have witnessed an amazing team of healthcare providers work relentlessly for each patient. But in a lot of cases, it was never enough. I have watched us try every concoction of ventilator settings and continuous IV infusions to help a patient let the ventilator do its work for them, but in many cases, it still didn’t work,” she wrote.

Stokes explained that, with COVID-19, a patient’s condition can quickly change, but overworked staff have to put on protective gear to prevent the spread of the virus.  

“If any of these patients go into cardiac arrest, they have to lay there dead while each staff member puts on an isolation gown, two pairs of gloves, a special mask and ensure it’s on correctly and then a face shield. This can take a good 1-2 minutes. That is precious precious time. Pre-Covid, we could have started CPR, shocked a patient and given life saving medications in that time period,” Stokes wrote. “If a patient is not yet on a ventilator and suddenly declines, the same thing happens. That patient has to lay there suffering and struggling to breathe while we are donning our protective gear. It is horrible to watch!!! (I cannot imagine what it feels like to experience that-it terrifies me).”

Stokes urged state residents to “be smart.” 

“Be a little more cautious and considerate. Be more mindful of how you interact and whether things can wait a bit longer,” she wrote. “Be safe! Be smart! It is so much easier than being a patient right now.”

In another social media post, Ben Tway — a registered nurse since 2010 — shared, “As I am leaving work tonight, I’m scared for the state of Arizona.”

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.