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Local

'Never seen anything like this': Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee nurses talk treating COVID-19

Nurses in Kishwaukee Hospital’s COVID-19 unit share their experiences

Brittany Melvin (left) and Stacy Slayton, both nurses in Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital's COVID-19 unit, ready for work at the hospital Monday afternoon in DeKalb.
Brittany Melvin (left) and Stacy Slayton, both nurses in Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital's COVID-19 unit, ready for work at the hospital Monday afternoon in DeKalb.

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DeKALB – Brittany Melvin has learned the deeply emotive art of communicating through only her eyes to patients battling the coronavirus at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital.

She said with her mask and other personal protective equipment on during her shift in Kish’s COVID-19 unit, she has to get creative.

“In this case, you really are kind of using emotions through your eyes because that’s all they really can see,” Melvin, 31, of Rochelle, said. She’s been a registered nurse with Kish for seven years.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she continued. “I feel like it’s all so scary but also kind of an exciting time to be a nurse because this is something a lot of us have never seen before. It’s just scary to see how these patients differ from normal patients, they can get sick quicker. You have to keep a closer eye on them.”

Melvin works on Kish’s medical telemetry surgical floor, which has since been turned into the unit to care for patients hospitalized with the viral respiratory disease. It’s significantly isolated, for the benefit of both the medical staff and the patients. In DeKalb County, 57 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, and a man in his 50s has died. It’s unclear just how many of those 57 people have been or are currently being treated at Kish, although the DeKalb County Public Health Department reported Friday that 31 patients have fully recovered.

A few nurses from Kish spoke with the Daily Chronicle to share an inside glimpse at the treatment efforts.

Northwestern Medicine system is prepped for a patient surge, should it come, although local numbers of cases and deaths aren’t as high as neighboring counties of Kendall or Kane, for instance.

That doesn’t mean the coronavirus hasn’t hit DeKalb County as much as others, although Melvin said she believes they’re ready.

“Kish may be a small town hospital but we are still equipped with what we need,” Melvin said. “Somebody said on Facebook ‘Kish can’t handle this,’ but Kish has grown a lot with Northwestern Medicine and we’ve come a long way.”

When coronavirus unit nurses head into work, they’re provided a fresh set of hospital scrubs and PPE once they get to the hospital which they stay in during their shift. Before leaving for the day, they’re given clean scrubs to change into while the hospital launders the used ones.

It’s all in an effort to prevent potential spread of the disease from front-line worker to front-line worker, and those who sacrifice family life for the job.

Stacy Slayton, 34, of Malta, who’s been with Kish for four and a half years, is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and said she’s got a husband and three kids at home, but feels safe because of extra precautions taken by her colleagues in the COVID unit.

“I’m not really concerned,” Slayton said. “A lot of my co-workers, including myself, are really strict about hygiene, not touching our face, making sure as soon as we walk into the doors we put our clothes straight into the washer before we interact [with family].”

Slayton and Melvin’s COVID-19 team cares for patients who test positive for the coronavirus, who often don’t require as high a level of care as other patients, Slayton said.

“For my unit, we have daily meetings,” Slayton said. “We’re working just to be up-to-date and informed on different procedures. Just like everybody else, we’re learning more about COVID as we’ve seen it hit the Chicagoland area and state.”

There are currently no walk-in or drive-thru testing sites in DeKalb County, so locals can’t get a test until they call a medical professional who will then ascertain whether their symptoms qualify for a test. Residents are not be allowed to walk into the hospital or emergency room for testing.

Local testing is being administered through the Northwestern Medicine system, Physicians Immediate Care and the Center for Family Health in Sycamore, which are prioritizing high-risk patients, first responders and healthcare workers and those experiencing severe symptoms.

When a patient is admitted to Kish hospital with potential coronavirus symptoms, they’re tested via nasopherangyeal swab almost immediately, with results within a one to three hours, Slayton said. If they test negative, they’re sent home or treated in a different area of the hospital. If they test positive, they’re taken to the COVID-19 unit for treatment.

“We trying to keep the net population away from that unit,” Slayton said. “If we do have positives, we have had some that have been treated and then they’ve gone home to self-quarantine, with a lot of great educating that we provide them as part of the discharging.”

Melvin said treatment can be rough on the patients, who are often isolated and unable to have visitors, though nurses try to keep them in touch with family members over the phone.

“I had a patient, he was having a hard time, not really eating because he was depressed,” Melvin said. “His family member said he really loves chocolate and popcorn, so we went to the cafeteria and got him a bunch of candy. It really lifted his spirits.”

Melvin and Slayton said they’ve been pleased to see the outpouring of community support for healthcare workers, and residents social distancing among other efforts.

“It’s been greatly appreciated to see how much our community has supported us,” Slayton said. “Somebody wrote messages in chalk in our walkway leading up to our employee entrance. From dietary to housing to other units supporting each other to the doctors, everybody is really working together.”

However, the hard days still come, and that means being able to lift up coworkers, or listen to early 2000s music on the car ride home if you’re Slayton – or as she put it, “the kind of songs we grew up with as teenagers.”

“Nobody really knows what it’s like to be a nurse unless you’re a nurse,” Slayton said. “We joke a lot, just try to make people laugh, lean on each other.”

Melvin said she became a nurse after caring for her ailing grandfather who lived down the street from her growing up, and family spirit is what keeps her going.

“The hardest moment for me is when you get patients in here who also have kids around the same age as your kids,” Melvin said. “And then you go home and you kind of take it home with you. My son, he’s 10 year’s old, and we’ve had a lot of talks lately about what this means. He knows what I do, and he’s been a big supporter, saying stuff like ‘You guys are kind of like superheroes because you wear masks.’ ”

A giant rainbow adorns the walls of Kish hospital now, with windows covered in paper hearts which have the names and roles of staff members. The art was inspired by the rainbows that Italians began posting in windows in their homes and businesses during their own COVID-19 crisis. Their message read, “Tutto andra’ bene,” which means “everything will turn out okay.”

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