As she spoke, tears began rolling down Danielle Nowiski’s cheeks. Her voice caught in her throat and the sobs started. They were short-lived, but there she sat in her office, crying about a patient in the Lake Huron Medical Center (LHMC) intensive care unit (ICU).
In these days of surging COVID 19, tears are not uncommon amongst hospital staff in St. Clair County and, indeed, around the world.
Nowiski, a registered nurse and the director of critical care at LHMC who oversees both the ICU and emergency department (ER) was talking about a 40-something-year-old patient* who is a parent to several young children. This patient hesitated for days before agreeing to go on a ventilator because the patient feared it would mean the end of his life. He said his goodbyes to his family via iPad, hoping against hope that those goodbyes would just be “goodbye for now.”
Nowiski’s voice cracked into a soft whisper when she said, “And now, I don’t think he’s going to make it.”
The St. Clair County resident was diagnosed with COVID 19 and he was not vaccinated.
Nowiski, who lives in Croswell, is a wife and mom to a 10-year-old son. She has been a nurse since her graduation from the St. Clair County Community College Nursing Program in 2009. She has worked at Lake Huron Medical Center for the past five years. Prior to her nursing career, she was an EMT for almost 10 years.
In almost 20 years of medical experience, she has never seen more death than she has in the past 20 months since the beginning of the COVID 19 global pandemic.
In the past month, she has witnessed more death than discharge from her ICU, which is full of unvaccinated COVID patients.
All of her patients who are dying from COVID are unvaccinated.
“It’s affecting people that you wouldn’t expect to be affected,” she said. “We’re treating everyone from 30 to 80 years old. It’s not the vaccinated people who are affected. It’s those that are not vaccinated.”
Nowiski understands vaccine hesitation. She was not the first in line to obtain the COVID vaccine herself.
“I didn’t get vaccinated right out of the gate,” she said. “I wasn’t sure of the long-term effects of the vaccine. But, through my work, I’ve been so overwhelmed by the amount of illness and death.
“I finally decided that I would want to know I had given myself the very best fighting chance if I get it,” she said. “The biggest, saddest statements come from people saying they wish they would have gotten the vaccine as they are dying.
“Those hard-core people who are out there saying, ‘my body, my choice,’ are begging and pleading on their death bed for the vaccine.
“No one has told me, when dying, ‘I’m glad I didn’t get vaccinated.’”
Regular Emergencies Take a Back Seat
COVID cases are not just surging in St. Clair County. They are surging all across the state of Michigan and, Nowiski said, that is also beginning to affect local critically ill patients who are suffering from illness or injury other than COVID.
“What’s scary is we have all the COVID influx and we have all of the regular ER patients,” she said. “When you have an emergency, we are having an exceptionally hard time getting you a bed, here or elsewhere, because everyone has an influx of COVID patients filling their ICUs.”
Nowiski gave an example of a recent ER patient who presented with a non-COVID critical illness. It is standard procedure to contact a larger medical institution to make arrangements to transfer the patient to an interventional facility that can best meet the patient’s care needs.
“I was told ‘we have no ICU beds because of COVID patients,’” she said.
“I’ve been 18 or 19 years in medicine and never have I seen a higher level of care decline a patient. That was an eye-opener for me. That is scary.”
She noted even those larger institutions located throughout southeastern Michigan began to push their critically ill patients into other states, such as Ohio.
But then Ohio began experiencing a surge.
Toll on the Staff
The current COVID surge in St. Clair County is the worst the region has experienced since the beginning of the pandemic. “This is the most COVID death that we’ve seen in this county,” Nowiski said. “The staff are tired.
“The death is overwhelming to them. There is tremendous guilt when a patient dies. They pray every day that God will lead their hands. I’ve had staff leave because they cannot do it anymore. It takes a great emotional toll.
“We just pray to God that we make the right choice every day because everybody needs you medically. That’s what weighs on nurses emotionally. Who do you go to help first?”
In addition to worrying about their patients, staff worry about the possibility of bringing home a potentially deadly illness to their family.
“We wonder, ‘Are we going to spread it and give it to our loved ones?’ That feeling of dread doesn’t go away.”
Nowiski asks that the public be patient with staff during this difficult time. She said there is increasing frustration in the ER when there are long waits for medical treatment. People also get frustrated by the restrictions on visitors that have been put in place at times during the pandemic.
“We put policy in place to protect you, your family and the public. If we let people in to visit COVID patients, all we’d be doing is increasing exposure to the virus.
“We are trying our very best; the staff is doing the best that they can. I want people to know that the staff works so hard and it never feels like we are giving enough.”
Because she was hesitant to get vaccinated herself, Nowiski understands that many in the community are not yet comfortable with getting vaccinated, but as more and more contagious variants begin spreading, she asks everyone to reconsider.
“I support people’s personal choice, I really do,” she said. “But you’re taking an exceptional risk when you do not vaccinate.”
She said many come to the ER with mild cases of COVID hoping to get a dose of monoclonal anti-bodies, but that is generally reserved for those with more severe cases, and all across the state, there are shortages of monoclonal antibodies.
She noted that patients can check with their family physician for monoclonal anti-bodies before coming to the emergency room.
If people cannot obtain that, or they come in when they are very, very sick, they might end up in the ICU. “Our ICU is full every day,” Nowiski said. “You are only getting a bed if someone is deceased or discharged. We’re seeing a whole lot of death and not a lot of discharge right now.
“We’ve been responding in an emergent way every day for the last few weeks,” she said. “We are not alone; every place across southeastern Michigan is like this, not just us.”
But, she noted, it doesn’t have to be this way. Vaccinated people are not filling up the ER or the ICU.
“I think people need to do their part,” she said. “We do have a social responsibility to help protect others, too.”
Don’t Make Your Kids Plan Your Funeral
Nowiski’s eyes teared up again when she shared the story of a family in COVID crisis.* A single parent raised two teenagers with the help of a grandparent because the other parent had died many years ago. First, the unvaccinated grandparent got COVID and died. Then the remaining parent, who was also unvaccinated, got COVID and died within days of the grandparent.
The two teenagers, one of whom was of legal age, were left to plan two funerals.
“They didn’t even know how to call a funeral home to make arrangements,” Nowiski said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I decided to get vaccinated because I have to know in my heart that I’m giving myself my best chance for survival and I don’t leave my 10-year-old son behind. I’ve seen first-hand that the alternative is horrific.
“Not one dying person has said, ‘Boy, I’m glad I didn’t get vaccinated.’
“Get vaccinated. Don’t be the person who is on their death bed wishing they got the vaccine.”
To schedule your COVID 19 vaccine, visit:
St. Clair County Health Department
Local pharmacies in CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid and Meijer all provide the COVID vaccine, as well. Contact them directly to schedule.