Nurses at Bellingham hospital speak out: 'It's something I feel called to do, but I don't want to risk my life to do it'

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center continues to face controversy after reportedly firing a longtime emergency room doctor who spoke out publicly and questioned how prepared the hospital is for the COVID-19 outbreak.

We've heard from several St. Joseph nurses who say they support Dr. Ming Lin and are deeply saddened that he'll no longer be working beside them. But like Dr. Lin has recently said, their focus is not to criticize their hospital, it's to educate the public and get support they say is desperately needed at every hospital.

One nurse we spoke with -- who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution -- has worked in the ER for 14 years at St. Joseph's.

"It's something I feel called to do, but I don't want to risk my life to do it...we have less than adequate gear to protect us, as well as our patients," she said.

The nurse is echoing the concerns of healthcare workers nationwide. We are protecting her identity as she fears speaking out could cost her her job.

"It’s very hard to perform your job in a loving, caring manner, knowing that any point in time you could be contaminating yourself."

These are the same concerns we heard from Dr. Lin before he was terminated from the hospital. While the staff is given personal protective equipment (PPE) for certain patients, they aren't given it for every single patient. That's an issue for healthcare workers who are seeing patients for non-COVID-19 related issues, but it turns out the patient still has the virus.

"Every time I go to work I think, 'Is this going to be the day I'm going to get exposed to a COVID patient without knowing?'"

The nurse says in the ER, nurses are given one N95 mask per shift. She wears hers all day. At the end of the day she puts the mask in the oven, hoping to kill the germs so she can reuse it if the hospital gets even lower on supplies. She says she wears a hand-sewn mask over her N95 and a face shield she purchased herself. She also recently bought herself a Tyvek suit because she feels the paper gowns they're given aren't adequate.

A lack of PPE is a monumental issue nationwide. On Friday evening, a message was projected onto St. Joseph's hospital: "Provide PPE, honor and protect front-line workers, thank you."

Bellingham resident Debbie Cantrell says she was the one who did several projections that night at the hospital.

Cantrell is a volunteer with the Backbone Campaign, a group that says they do artful activism.

"It's not just St. Joes, I don't have a beef with St .Joes in particular. I think it's a nationwide problem," says Cantrell.

Nancy Hill, a nurse at St. Joseph's, says any sign of support for healthcare workers now more than ever is so appreciated. Nancy has been spending much of her time gathering donations for her colleagues, from food, to flowers, to cards.

"Especially cards, cards because the staff can't have visitors right now, and especially those who do have COVID and end up passing by themselves without family. You know, we are the ones that hold their hands as they take their last breath, and that's very difficult to take home because we'll carry that forever," Hill said.

Hill says the support from the community, from PPE to the little things that cheer up staff and patients truly makes a difference.

"We're scared. This is a very scary time. People are dying. They're losing their lives. People are getting fired for speaking out, and I'm not here to speak out against my hospital by any means, I'm only here to speak out to the community and rally the support that we need."

When it comes to PPE, a representative for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center said Monday they are actively coordinating with local and regional manufacturers who are producing supplies. Nancy says she's appreciative for that, and that she and all the nurses are dedicated to serving, they just want to feel protected.

"I’m so sad that nurses are afraid, because they are. They drive home in tears because they’re afraid to bring this to our family. It’s absolutely appropriate that people are afraid, but we shouldn’t panic. We need to do the right thing, and first and foremost telling the truth is the right thing."

Nancy wants to remind everyone how much any donations and support and love for our healthcare workers means to them, and what a difference it makes.

If you'd like to get in touch with Nancy to provide donations for healthcare workers at St.Joseph's, Nancy runs a Facebook page "Support the frontline at Peace Health." You can find the group here.

Nancy says anyone would like to drop off donations can bring them to:

2711 Meridian Street
Bellingham, WA 98226