Medical Workers Discuss the Difficulties of Working During the Pandemic

December 15, 2020


Julie and Mike Littlefield work directly with Covid patients at UNM Sandoval Regional Center.
Balancing work and family life can be difficult with their high stress jobs.

By Leah Morales

With new Covid-19 cases arising daily in this state, The Catalyst sat down with Julie and Mike Littlefield, whose children are scholars at The ASK Academy. Mike Littlefield is a medical unit director at UNM Sandoval Medical Center and oversees the Covid unit. His wife, Julie, is a veteran nurse who works in the ER at the same hospital. They opened up about what it’s like to work with Covid patients during a global pandemic.

The Catalyst: Are your hospital numbers as high as other hospitals around the state?

Mrs. Littlefield: No, because we’re a smaller hospital. But as far as capacity, we are probably fuller than we’ve ever been. Albuquerque has been taking patients all over New Mexico and Texas because there are no beds left at their facilities.

The Catalyst: What is the hardest part about working directly with Covid patients?

Mrs. Littlefield: Seeing them come in and they look fine, and within a day or two, having them in the ICU on a bed watching them die. That’s hard.

The Catalyst: The governor is saying that hospitals are overloaded. Can you describe some of the effects covid has had on your unit and hospital?

Mr. Littlefield: Each of my nurses are working harder than they normally do, they’re taking care of sicker patients than they normally do, and with fewer staff members because of how full the unit stays, it just makes it more tiresome.

The Catalyst: Are there a lot of Covid patients on intubation? 

Mrs. Littlefield: Citywide, yes. Our facility, I think last night we got down to 6. The intubated patient is usually on the vent for a minimum of a month, just to recover. Their lungs are just so destroyed by this disease.

The Catalyst: Do a lot of them recover? 

Mr. Littlefield: Yes, a lot of them do recover. More so now than last year. They are sicker, however, because we’ve improved in changed treatments and gotten better at treating them, I think we have better outcomes.

The Catalyst: Tell me about your hardest day yet in the pandemic. 

Mrs. Littlefield: It was a couple of days. I took care of a woman who had children at home and she was the primary breadwinner, there was no husband in the picture. She was crying on my shoulder that she was going to die. I reassured her, she looked healthy and was walking around, she was only just on oxygen. I told her all the things she needed to do to keep safe and to get through this without things progressing worse. Within 3 hours, she was already progressing worse, and I had to call what is called a react, which is where we call all of our experienced nurses and I’ve never had to do that in my career because I am one of the experienced nurses. We got her back, and she was fine, but by the third day, she was up in ICU on a vent. I saw her a week later and she didn’t look good, she had that look about her that nurses know of somebody who looks like their going to die. The doctors were saying her outcome was grim because she was already critical, and all I could think about is that two kids are going to lose their mom. She was young, I looked up her age and she was 37.

Mr. Littlefield: I think my hardest day was just as we kind of got busy again, and seeing how sick all of them were. We would have so many on just a little bit of oxygen and by the end of our shift, were requiring high volumes of oxygen. They were getting sicker and it was making it challenging. We had a couple of days, but one, in particular, was busy with a lot of patients, and knowing how sick they were getting, it was very challenging to help keep them safe and healthy.

The Catalyst: As the unit director, what is your job and how has it been impacted by covid?

Mr. Littlefield: As a unit director, my job is to make sure my unit is staffed appropriately with the right number of staff based on the patients we have, to make sure that they are all trained and have the proper equipment and tools that they need to do their job, in addition, to support them in their role as nurses because I am also a nurse. How covid impacted my job is that because it is so much more stressful on my nurses, it makes it challenging because they need my support a lot more than they usually do. They need me to be able to support them in various ways, whether it’s helping them with patients or just reassuring them we’re doing the best we can every day for our patients.

The Catalyst: As a nurse, what is the most stressful part of working in a pandemic?

Mrs. Littlefield: As a nurse, I work directly with covid every single day, just like Mike’s unit, he is the covid unit and it’s mostly filled with covid patients. My hardest part of any day is constantly remembering every step you do before you enter a room. We have to wear two masks, wear goggles, a face shield, our hair has to be covered, we wear big plastic bags that get so hot, we have scrubs on under that, and sometimes it gets really cold, so you have to put on another layer of clothes, along with covers for your shoes. While the whole time you’re getting all the stuff on quickly, a patient’s oxygen level is falling into the toilet, and it’s all about how quickly you can get in there. Sometimes, you just want to run into the room and rescue them, but you have to spend 2 minutes getting all this gear on, so I don’t go and get it and bring it home to my family. I think the hardest part of our job is the protective gear and to know that somebody is in respiratory distress and I still have to put on all this junk.

The Catalyst: Are you ever worried about bringing it home to kids?

Mr. Littlefield: I think we always worry about bringing something home, whether it’s covid or not covid. Other things are infectious as well, influenza; during the flu season, all those things can be taken to people or home. So I think we worry about that every day, but because this is such a new thing, and so potentially harmful, it makes us more aware. I don’t think anyone in my building doesn’t think, “I don’t want to take this home to my family,” and I hear that each day that I work.

The Catalyst: As people who see the direct outcome of the pandemic, do you agree with the precautionary measures that ASK is taking by doing school virtually?

Mr. Littlefield: With online school, I still think it’s a good idea this year, and I would continue to support it through the spring. I think by the time we finish out the summer, we’re going to have more ideas and more knowledge about how it’s transferred. So I think there’s a possibility that it’ll be safe to return in the fall but still premature right now.

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