On The Frontline Of The Pandemic: Tracy Hill Cares For COVID-19 Patients At Mercy

Dec 15, 2020

Update:  Tracy Hill was one of two Mercy nurses to get the first coronavirus vaccines in Springfield on Monday.

Tracy Hill works in the COVID-19 unit at Mercy Springfield.  The 51-year-old fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse just 11 months ago after working at Mercy for more than three decades.

Why did you go into nursing?

"I've worked at Mercy for 33 years. I started when I was 18. I thought that I would work here for a couple of years while I went to school, and health care just kind of sucked me in. I loved taking care of people and loved the environment. And I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a nurse. I wrote it in my baby book when I was four years old, and it just took me a little longer to get here than some.

Where did you work before you worked in the COVID-19 unit?

"I worked a couple of different places. I worked in orthopedics and family medicine as a medical assistant. And then during nursing school, I was approached about a special project that Mercy had with training. They were developing a training program for medical assistants and asked if I would be interested in helping write the curriculum and then teach that program. So that's what I did for the two years while I was in nursing school."

When did you start working in the COVID-19 unit, and how did that come about?

"I started here in January prior to the pandemic, of course. And it was...a regular med-surg floor with a little bit higher acuity. And I thought that would prepare me to be able to work anywhere within Mercy. And then, you know, of course, the pandemic started, and we found out in, I think, late March of this year that we would become a COVID unit. And so I kind of took a step back and thought, ‘wow, is this really what I what I signed up for, what I want to do?’"

And how did you get to where you were comfortable jumping in and staying in that unit?

"It gave me, and I've said this many times, it brings me a lot of peace knowing that really that God knew what was in my future and...had prepared me for that. So that was part of it. And then, you know, you have to take into consideration all the things.  You know, I have a father who is older and has some health issues. And during the pandemic, I found out that my newly born granddaughter had liver cancer. And I had to take into consideration all of the things that I could possibly be taking home to my family. And I just thought, you know, God knew where I was going to be and he'll give me the provisions to continue my... regular life and all that. You know, it did take several months to be comfortable with that. But I've reached a point now to where I don't have to think about it as much. But it's always on your mind to some degree."

Nurse Tracy Hill and a colleague put on personal protective equipment before entering a patient's room
Credit Mercy

Describe what you see when you enter the COVID-19 unit at Mercy.

"Oh, it takes big swings. Sometimes you come in and it's really peaceful and other times you come in and lots of bells and buzzers and things going off and, you know, we have patients that are confused and...their oxygen is really low and it may be a full on run to their room or it's a patient who's confused and gotten out of bed and, you know, it's, again, a full on run to their room. And then we have to gown up, and you may be yelling for someone else to come and help you. And other times you come in and it's just very peaceful and serene."

How many patients do you typically care for at one time?

"We have three to four patients per nurse per day."

So your day is busy. Describe what a typical day for you looks like.

"It is a busy day. The mornings tend to start out a little crazy. We have lots of medications to pass. We have to assess each patient, you know, checking blood sugars, passing breakfast trays, that type of thing. It also tends to be when things go a little haywire sometimes. So mornings are a little bit crazy. Once we get every patient seen, you know, we sit down, we do our documentation for our assessments and things like that."

What kind of PPE do you wear to protect yourself?

"We are very lucky. We have had no issues with having enough PPE. We have gowns, masks, gloves and face shields. And those have to be in place before we ever step into a into a patient's room."

How worried are you about contracting the coronavirus?

"I'm--it's always on my mind...used to you never would have dreamed that you had a runny nose or a sore throat over the weekend that you would need to call your boss at home on a Sunday morning. But now that's the reality. You know, twice during the time that we've been a COVID unit, I've had to call my boss or message my boss and say, hey, I am not feeling well. And then you have to go through the steps of, you know, that Mercy requires of us to keep ourselves and our patients safe, which is follow up testing and staying in quarantine during that time. And it's it's always on your mind."

And you mentioned your granddaughter and your dad who's older. How concerned are you about taking the virus home to family members?

"I'm pretty concerned. Since February, I've seen my parents four times. And...I generally would see them every week or every two weeks, and I just I don't feel that safe. The times that I've seen them have been times when early on in the pandemic, when we would float to other floors and we wouldn't have contact with COVID patients. You know, I saw them a little bit more often. But now that this is our daily reality and it seems like it's becoming so widespread in the community, I just don't feel safe doing that. So, four times since February that I've seen them, it's--that part has been difficult."

Do you share a living space with anyone?

"I do and always concerned that the people in your household will contract it. I take everything that I wear at work. I take that off. I take a shower, I keep my clothing from work, if for any reason I have to have anything in the general laundry of the household, I keep that stuff separate. And, you know, you just--I don't know that there's anything that you do. You know, if you have a little bit of a sore throat, you think, wow, should I prepare this food for my family or should I handle these items? I mean, you just--there's never a minute that you're not thinking about it during the day."

Let's talk about about what you do at work again.  How long has the Mercy COVID-19 unit been open?

They closed down for about a week or ten days to...make us into a negative pressure unit and do the things that were necessary for the safety of our patients and the care of our patients. And, during that time, we floated to some different units. Then we came back. We didn't have enough patients to be open and fully staffed. But then, I want to say it was around Memorial Day, the case numbers went up in this area, and we reopened. And then it's just been--it's been full since then. So the end of May."

I was going to ask how has the situation changed in your unit since it first opened?

"It has changed. When we first became a COVID unit, we were taking care just of the same types of patients that we had taken care of in the past. And then just because the patients are so sick, there became a need to--the patients coming out of the ICU, they were too sick for lack of a better word, I'm just going to say it--a regular medical unit, they needed a little bit of extra care with breathing machines that require special training. And so we became that floor because we had been using that equipment prior to COVID. But, you know, it's used to you’d have five patients, but two perhaps might be on this type of breathing equipment. But now you have three or four and the odds are great that all three or all four will be on this special type of equipment. And and they're very sick. You know, this is not just someone who has a cold or even someone who has the flu. These are people that are...they're here for two and three and four weeks, you know, on end continuously. They're sick people."

What's it like to work with patients who are so sick? I know you worked before with with sick patients, but these are people who have an illness for which there is no cure right now.

"Right. And, oh, that that can be hard...when you're a nurse taking care of patients in health care, you feel like you can tell a patient, 'you're going to be OK, you're going to get better, you're going to go home.'  And we can never give that assurance. And even just a patient, a specific patient that came to mind that I've taken care of, is someone who is doing really well. And in my mind, I thought, 'this person's headed towards home in two or three days.' And then just very suddenly they became critically ill and passed away later that day. And you don't want to give someone false hopes, but yet you also know that patients need to hear, 'hey, you're doing great, you know, you're doing well. We're going to get you home.' And then you just catch yourself and you think, 'wow, this person may not go home.'"

That's got to be so hard for you to not be able to reassure them because you don't know.

"Right, and as caregivers, as nurses, that's what we do.  We take care of people, we make people better, we help. You know, we can minister to their emotional needs as well as their medical needs. And that's a--it's a full time job here now. I mean, it's 12 hours of trying to meet those patients’ needs every day. And sometimes it's draining. You live for those times when you have a couple of patients that are discharged home on the same day, and those small victories. But then in the back of your mind, you wonder, too, what's happened once they've gone home...I took a patient out one day and this patient's spouse said 'this is not the same person that was admitted here three weeks ago.' And the reality of that, I mean, that's a pretty difficult reality to know that even this patient's spouse, you know, has concerns about home versus...when they came in for admission, and COVID steals that from them.

Nurse Tracy Hill is consoled by a colleague after finding out a patient has died
Credit Mercy

Can you tell me--I know you mentioned one patient--but do you have any particular stories of a patient or patients who especially stand out in your mind?

"Oh, I do.  (pauses)  I'm sorry."

It's OK.

"There was a particular day I had four patients.  They were all from the same church, and one of them had been here for several weeks, and he was so sweet.  He would sing old hymns to me and he kept saying, ‘I'm not done, God's not done with me. I know that God has plans for me.’ And he was extremely sick, and he did not make it. And, you know, you just think all these people who went to church. No one was wearing masks, you know, you feel safe, and that's what we find, is that people feel safe in a certain environment, whether it be church or with family. But you go to these functions or, you know, and you don't wear a mask. And now there were, I don't remember I did hear on the news how many people were exposed through that one function, but it was like 50 or 60 people who turned out to have COVID. And I--it just seems so unnecessary to me sometimes, and I just think about this man and his life and his family that I talked to every day, twice a day, you know, and the stories that these patients tell you when they're in there. And you just think about the long reaching effects."

Are family members ever allowed in and if not, are they able to connect with their friends and family members virtually or somehow?

"Yeah, we have an iPad so they can Face Time with their families.  A lot of the staff will use their personal phones to allow patients to Face Time with their families. If a patient comes in, maybe that doesn't have a phone or a way of connecting with family, then staff will assist with their own phones. And then we also, unfortunately, just because of the nature of COVID, we don't allow families in until or unless the patient goes on to comfort care or hospice. And then we do allow their families in. You know, of course, they have to wear full PPE as well.  But yeah, that's it's--so many patients who are sick, a lot of them have come from a nursing home or some type of a long term care facility and so their families already have not seen them for two or three months. And now you may be the nurse making the call to say, ‘hey, you know, your mother, your sister, your dad, your brother, your parent is being placed onto comfort care. And now we will allow you in to see them.’ And sometimes this is families who haven't seen their family member for months. And I think that they don't realize the effect that COVID has had on their loved one until they actually come in and see, really, the devastation that's involved with it."

And it's got to be so heartbreaking to see.  How does working in the COVID-19 unit affect you both emotionally, and it's got to be physically draining too?

"Honestly, I'm thankful for good health and good energy. I guess. I, you know, of course, it's physically draining, especially when you've worked multiple shifts back to back. But the emotional and spiritual toll is far greater...I'll take a couple of days off and rest. My sore feet will recover. But I especially worry--I'm older. I've had grandparents pass away and family members pass away. But I have some grave concerns for our younger nurses and staff especially and just how this is going to affect them long term. And, you know, maybe it's a year, maybe that looks like 10 years. I don't know how long COVID’s going to continue to have this type of impact, but I definitely worry. You know, I try to check up on those staff, that staff, on a very regular basis, because for many of them, this may be the first encounter they've had with death. And, you know, this is not a--I don't know, I just seems like it puts them maybe in a--I don't want them to become immune to death. But you also can't go home every night and cry.  That's not healthy either. And thankfully, Mercy's done a great job of providing us--we have the employee assistance program, and their counselors have done some visits with us, some WebEx meetings, where we've had a chance to just talk about how that's impacting us individually and as a group, because very much so we're a team. And I...would not have survived the last year if it not been for that team, those teammates."

I bet you guys have grown a lot closer through this haven’t you?

"We have.  We support one another. And, you know, you look for the little things, the little successes and and joys throughout the day. You don't take the small things for granted anymore, for sure."

What do you do to decompress when you go home?

"I am very good at being able to leave work behind. That's always a gift that I've had. But I will say COVID  has made that more difficult. You leave--just recently in the last few days I left and had a patient that I knew would pass away quickly after I left. And so I thought about that person all night and thankfully found out the next day that their family member had been able to stay with them until their time of passing. But it's--you definitely take that home with you. And, you know, you talk to family members on the phone or friends and of course, they appreciate your knowledge about COVID and and advice, but yet it's also good to be able to just completely separate from that. And I can do that through prayer and I can do that through spending time with my children."

As someone who works directly with COVID-19 patients, what would you say to those who aren't taking the pandemic seriously?

"Wow.  I've said before that I wish everyone could spend a day, a week, with a COVID nurse.  The degree of--I'm going to say sadness is--it can it can be a heavy burden, and if you feel like a mask is infringing on your freedoms, if you are concerned about it making you sick, I would just ask that you educate yourself on that. I would ask that you just be kind and love those around you. And I don't think that you would ever--I've never heard anyone say, 'I wish I hadn't done that because it didn't keep someone else safe.' If we know, and we do know, that wearing masks helps prevent the spread, then to me it just seems like everyone would want to do that. But I know that isn't the case, and it's become very political, and I'm not sure why that happened. But, you know, definitely politics have had a big impact on this, but I would just encourage everyone to please wear their mask and to social distance. Your life doesn't have to shut down. It just looks different than it did before. You know, we're--I can't celebrate Thanksgiving with my family in the way that we're used to, but we're finding ways to work around that. And and at first, it was kind of sad and depressing. But now we all put our masks on and we stay six feet plus apart and we make things work."

Many are calling health care workers right now heroes. And I would tend to agree. Would you consider yourself a hero?

"I don't. Someone else asked that question. Not at all, I--this is what I love to do. I think that most of the nurses on this floor and staff on the floor would say that this is what we love to do. And I'm just--I don't want to minimize caring for patients by saying that it's just my job. But it is my--it's my job. It's my work, and I enjoy it. People will tease, 'how do you still love what you do after 33 years?' But I do. I get up every morning, and I love coming to work. And COVID has given has given me a new purpose, but it certainly is not anything that makes me feel like a hero. I just come to work and try to take care of my patients as best I can."

What else would you like the public to know about you and your job?

Just about our floor in general, just to know that we are--we take COVID very seriously, we take public safety very seriously. You know, I always want to be reflecting current recommendations by the CDC:  Wearing my mask--you won't ever find me out in public without it, that carries over, I know to all the staff on this floor. You know, if we show that we are taking it seriously, hopefully that will trickle down to others. But this is, you know, consistently watching people die alone day after day is--that's disheartening at times. But the little successes, that's what keeps you going. When you get two or three people that improve and go home in a day, that's--that makes it more worthwhile."

Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it.

"Thank you. It's been nice to talk with you today."