Reflections from the frontlines: A look inside the local ICU that treated the nation's first COVID-19 outbreak

We are nearly 14 months into the pandemic, which has challenged all of us in ways we never imagined. For the medical workers treating COVID-19 patients, and losing some of them, it has been a grueling and emotional journey. 

That includes the team at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, which was called on to care for a sudden wave of patients following the first outbreak in the country, before we knew much about this deadly virus.     

"I’m a huge fan of process and procedure," said Dr. Melissa Lee, the Medical Director at Evergreen Health Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Walk the floor of the ICU at EvergeenHealth with Lee and you’ll see many of the changes made since the start of the pandemic. But so many of the impacts there are less visible.   

"We absolutely have PTSD. I remember when those numbers started to go up around Thanksgiving and I could feel the tightness in my stomach and the nightmares came back," said Lee.

Nightmares about the first rush of COVID-19 cases seen anywhere in the country following an outbreak at the nearby Lifecare Center of Kirkland, which started in late February of last year. 

"That hit like a tidal wave. When I got the call, it was Friday night, our family was sitting down to play a family game. When I received that call I knew I had to go in," said Lee. "I realized their lives, my life, everybody’s life that I know is going to change," said Lee.

Over the next several weeks, Lee and the team at EvergreenHealth would treat more than a hundred patients for the virus. Dozens would not make it. 

EvergreenHealth ICU in Kirkland medical staff preparing their PPE

"I remember there was a feeling that I was in the center of a tornado. And that tornado was constantly spinning around me. Because there was so much to do, so many changes to make all the while having to remain calm," said Lee.

Engineers re-constructed patient rooms so contaminated air could not escape, as sanitation crews worked around the clock.

Wearing personal protective equipment became personal, as workers worried about their own exposure to the deadly virus. And over time, those providing the medical care also needed it. 

"Some of the staff that struggled the most were the ones who did get sick with COVID," said Lee.

As an ICU nurse, Tammy Wiatrowski had cared for some of the most critically ill COVID-19 patients. Her positive test last spring brought fears that she, too, could become one of them.   

"They and said you’re positive. And like I said, I just sunk," said Wiatrowski. "We had just intubated the nurse that we lost in the ICU. And so, to see that and get the positive result, I thought I didn’t want that to happen to me. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my kids and grandkids yet."

The nurse who loves outdoor adventures survived to take on a few more. Although complications from COVID-19 lingered, including shortness of breath.  

Wiatrowski is part of the four percent of the staff at EvergreenHealth who have tested positive for the virus since February of last year. But always a caregiver first, her primary concern is for families whose loved ones would not recover. 

"Your telling loved ones, um, it breaks your heart that somebody is passing and a family member can’t be there to hold their hand," said Wiatrowski. "To be on a virtual visit with a family member and convey love, both to the patient and the family was a different aspect of what we’ve ever done before."

Things did get better, though. Throughout the year, therapeutics kept more patients alive, providing much-needed hope to the ICU workers. And on Christmas Eve, the best gift came in the form of vaccinations for those serving on the frontlines. 

EvergreenHealth ICU Medical Director Dr. Melissa Lee receives a COVID-19 vaccine.

"The feeling of joy and excitement, it almost was like a party of which none of us had had in a year!" said Lee.

A year of being pushed to the brink, but the messages sketched on the sidewalks outside the hospital, signs of encouragement from the community, and all the care pages proved a new sense of appreciation and purpose for those serving the sick

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EvergreenHealth medical staff

"We are caregivers. That’s the job we signed up for. And the honor of being surrounded by people who constantly give of themselves to somebody else is a warm feeling that helps you get through anything," said Dr. Lee.

"We do this because we love it and I love it even more. And it made me really kind of examine what it means to be a nurse and I'm actually prouder of that now than I have been in 15 years," said Wiatrowski.

Evergreenhealth is set to open a new Intensive Care Unit this summer. ICU staff, including Lee and Wiatrowski, have been essential in planning and designing it to better support families. If you would like to support Evergreen Health and improve the healthcare for communities on the Eastside, click on this link: Support EvergreenHealth

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