PITTSFIELD — They are doing the great work of their lives at the epicenter of the county's coronavirus pandemic.
Doctors and nurses on the front lines at Berkshire Medical Center spoke to The Eagle on Thursday about what they see and feel daily, both at work and at home.
They are not only caregivers; they are the only connection to patients isolated from family and friends by disease.
They worry about getting sick, about their families and friends getting sick. Some have friends who are ill or have died. But, they say the worry quickly transmutes into energy and love.
Their days are more grueling than ever. They wash their hands six or more times when they take off their masks, shields, gowns and gloves. The protection makes it hard to hear and is a barrier to connecting with patients.
If they need help from outside a sterile room, they might write backward in marker on a door window to keep from opening it and breaking the seal. In an emergency, they might bang on it. When they arrive home, they strip off their scrubs before entering. They go through complex routines — "In a 'Mission Impossible' way," said Dr. Hafez Alsmaan — to avoid bringing the virus inside.
They try to take care of themselves, too. When they are off duty, they run. They hike. Some have stopped watching the news.
As they are cut off from their own people, every day they care for strangers who are alone in their moment of greatest need.
Yet, as suffering swirls around them, they say they see a brighter light than ever before amid the darkness. They say they are stronger than before the pandemic took them down this extraordinary and terrifying path.
And they want you to know that the hospital is safe if you need any kind of help. That the overall volume of patients is down, and that they successfully are segregating COVID-19 patients and those who care for them from the rest of the units.
"The thought that there are people out there who need medical care and are afraid to come in is worrisome," said Dr. William DeMarco.
And Thursday, they said, they began seeing a decline in the number of patients with the virus. They attribute it to the success of social distancing, and outpatient programs like the nurse call hotline and telemedicine.
Yet, they still are on high alert, preparing for a potential surge.
They also want you to know that they are aware of your loved ones' suffering should they be there, and that they will give a piece of themselves to ease it. They will hold their hand on your behalf.
Dr. Hafez Alsmaan, 46, Pittsfield; critical care
Going home, you are not scared about yourself anymore but about your loved ones. I'm trying to show them a lot of fun and joy when I walk in.
I have three girls. They said the other day how ... proud they are that I am on a team on the front line. And they keep telling me, "Everything is going to be OK, Dad." And when they just see me sitting alone and having a moment when I look like I'm flying with my own thoughts, the question comes right away, "Are you OK?" and the incredible thing is that it even comes from the 4-year-old — "Are you OK?"
I don't like the word "war," but we are at war. And when you see these sick loved ones — I don't call them patients — fighting for their lives, [it] is difficult. Personally, I lost a couple of my friends last week. One of my friends is in the hospital; she is not intubated right now, yet. That thought that, today, this could be the last day I am hugging my little one, at the same time gives you that power and energy to give of yourself to help.
We are using the iPad to do FaceTime with the families and we are holding their hands on their behalf. They are very appreciative, and at the same time, we are very appreciative and thankful for our community. It's an amazing feeling of unity. This is who we are — that in this time, we need a virus to make us shine.
Mark Brodeur, 39, Pittsfield, registered nurse; specialty float, critical care
I haven't seen my mom in weeks. She lives in Lanesborough. Normally, I see her multiple times a week. She's almost 70.
I do foster care with someone with autism who has had lung surgery, so, I have to be extra careful that I don't bring that home to him. He's nonverbal, so, he doesn't know why he can't hang out with me when I come home from work, or why he can't come close. He only knows sign language for soda and coffee. He's not able to go to his day program. He's 54. I'm trying to do as much with him as I can. I have a friend who stays with him when I'm working at night or sleeping during the day. It's lonely for everybody.
With every patient interaction, you sort of give a piece of yourself to them to support their healing, and at least for me, having my social system in place recharges me, and I'm lacking that.
The patients that aren't quite as sick are suffering. You can tell they're scared. You try to spend a little more time with them, give them a little more personal interaction.
It's hard because of all the personal protective equipment. And a lot of the negative pressure rooms have a lot of noisy fans. It's overwhelming from a sensory standpoint.
There are all these barriers between staff and patients. We try to overcome that the best we can. It's heartbreaking. If they stay longer, it gets a little bit harder. I just try to stay focused on the fact that the patients still need our care and we have to show up and be the strength for them.
Janice Bury, 61, Adams, registered nurse; clinical team leader, critical care
I think what I struggle with is the amount of death that I see. You can take care of a patient one day and you come back and the next day they are not here.
I feel bad for the families who cannot spend time with loved ones. But, what I want the community to know is that we're treating everyone with care and we are here with them. No family member is alone when they come into the hospital.
I have adult children. One is in the Boston area and two are in California. Easter is a very special time for us, and this will be our first Easter that we're not together.
Andrew Gagnon, 35, New Lebanon, N.Y., registered nurse; emergency department
My parents are a little older and my mom has had pneumonia a couple of times this year, so, I just check in a couple of times a week.
Our crew in the emergency department, we're all pretty tight with each other. There's that extra shoulder to lean on. We're all going through the same thing.
I think one of the harder things is that we lose that ability to get personal with patients. They're being isolated from human contact. It's hard to look at someone and see the strain on their face and their anxiety and you try to make them as comfortable as possible.
Kendra Price, 42, Pittsfield, registered nurse: nursing director, COVID-19 unit
The teamwork is incredible and has gotten even more so. I've even had nurses or nursing assistants who have volunteered to come off their unit.
We will come out stronger in the end. As strong as we are, we would like it to be over as soon as possible; so, if you can, wash your hands and stay home. ...
Michelle Dupont Cella, 52, Lee, registered nurse; educator for critical care
In the ICU, it's just hard to communicate with each other [with all the protective equipment and segregation]. Sometimes you can't communicate without writing backwards on the [door] window. You can't hear properly.
In emergencies where you need people right away, people are banging on the windows and we're communicating in really strange ways.
I'm a runner, and I've always done that for stress release. I run 3 to 4 miles in the morning. That's been my coping mechanism.
Johanna Tremblay, 28, Cheshire, registered nurse; emergency department
It's tough telling them that their families can't be there. They're having the worst day of their life.
At home, I have a boyfriend that lives with me. He knows that I'm having a hard time.
He's having to take a leave of absence at work because his co-workers are uncomfortable working with him. I guess you realize how stressful it is for them. Even though you come home and change [clothes] at the door.
Alison Losaw, 37, Cheshire, registered nurse; clinical manager, emergency department
These frontline workers are used to a baseline stress level. But, the fear that you might bring something home to your kids, your family, your parents who might be taking care of your kids.
I've had some staff just come to me in tears because they're worried about it. From a leadership standpoint, we just try to reinforce to everyone that they're doing the best they can.
People have been sending food, sending gifts, sending care packages. And it's really created a lot of positivity in the last couple of weeks.
Dr. William DeMarco, 62, Pittsfield; hospitalist medical director and interim chairman for internal medicine
We're doing things by iPad or by phone. The personal sadness for these folks, spending their last days and hours not being able to be comforted by their loved ones, is so foreign to us.
The uncertainty, I think, is substantial. There's so much about this virus that we still don't know. A lot of the things that are being used or have been talked about for treatments are anecdotal and with very limited evidence. And trying to sort through that and do it on the fly is always an area that makes us a bit anxious.
Seven patients were successfully weaned and extubated [from ventilators] over the last two weeks. As patients come out of ICU, the entire staff is lined up to pass them along and literally applauding as they go by and wishing them well.
There's nothing that I've dealt with in medicine over these 30 some odd years that approaches this. It's so life-altering on a personal level.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.