EVERETT — Last year was a lonely one for intensive care unit nurse Sara Gering.
She spent her 12-hour shifts at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett trying to comfort patients’ family members on the worst days of their lives. And when she finally returned to her home in Mount Vernon after those grueling days, the residual anguish felt too heavy to unload on her own loved ones.
Many times, she suited up in protective gear, like an astronaut preparing to leave the atmosphere. And when she was fully dressed — donning two pairs of gloves, a gown and an air-purifying respirator hood — she departed this world for the next.
In one sterile hospital room or another, her only company was a patient, someone usually so close to death that they seemed barely a person at all. And when she needed supplies, she used a walkie-talkie to call to her colleagues.
The co-workers were just outside in the hallway.
But they felt much farther.
“It’s just you, alone in that room with that very, very sick patient. And it’s a scary feeling,” she said. “It’s just on you.”
A year after the nation’s first patient entered Providence, half of the 48 beds in the hospital’s intensive care unit are still occupied by those with severe cases of COVID-19. And Gering and her co-workers are still enduring the physical and emotional exhaustion that comes with caring for them.
“It takes a really strong person to keep showing up and doing this job, especially right now during the pandemic,” she said. “Everyone on the team has really brought out a lot of hidden strengths. It’s shown me that I can rise to the occasion and meet my challenges.”
Gering, 33, has witnessed the final moments of many coronavirus patients. Those in the unit often require ventilators to breathe. Once someone becomes dependent on the life-supporting machine, a full recovery becomes a slim chance.
The worst day came when a former colleague was admitted to the ICU with the disease, Gering said.
“I just broke down sobbing at work that day. It didn’t feel real,” she said. “There’s certainly been a lot of really sad moments with patients suffering and passing away, but I think that was the hardest — seeing it hit home and affect someone that I know.”
The former Providence employee recovered, she said.
So did an older woman who was on a ventilator in the ICU last spring, Gering recalled.
After the woman was discharged, she sent hospital staff a letter with recent photos of her and her family.
“She was in a cute outfit and looked like herself again,” Gering said. “It was just the best feeling seeing how different she looked and how she had gotten back to her life and how grateful her and her family were. That really meant a lot.”
For Gering, 2020 was a year of isolation, as it was for so many other people.
She found a silver lining in simple successes and took solace in the people around her — especially her colleagues, who have shared an experience so harrowing that even the most sympathetic of friends and family members struggle to fully understand it.
“I’ve learned how important it is to have a strong team. I like knowing that my co-workers have my back and being confident in their abilities,” she said. “That camaraderie has been such a huge part of what has gotten me through this year.”
Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; email@example.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.