‘Like M*A*S*H without the laugh track’: inside one Georgia hospital

Decatur resident Joan Durdin spent last weekend alone.

After being sick for a week, she drove herself to Northside Hospital Gwinnett with symptoms corresponding to the COVID-19 virus and was quickly put in isolation in an recovery room where she only saw the medical staff on rare occasions, and then only though protective gear and respirator masks.

The staff was so busy, Durdin went nearly an entire day without eating anything substantial.

“There was no neglect, no lack of competence, but this was like a war zone. This was like ‘M*A*S*H’ without the laugh track,” she said.

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Her experience says a lot about the stress placed on hospitals around the state and nation. Durdin said it also speaks to the heroism nurses are playing in this unprecedented pandemic.

“People are not really thinking in big picture terms,” she said. “Of course everybody is concerned about their family members, but there is a real big picture here.”

A semi-retired nurse midwife, Durdin had been monitoring her symptoms and consulting with her practice since she started feeling ill March 16.

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“I was sick as a dog. My head was killing me, I had to blow my nose and I couldn’t breathe,” she said.

She phoned her regular doctor and was told to “ride it out,” self-isolate and assume the worst. That didn’t come as a surprise, she said.

“The truth is, that’s what we tell people during flu season,” she said. “We tell them to take Tylenol and drink fluids. You don’t want them coming into an area where there are healthy people.”

She did as told, but her symptoms got no better. She called various hospitals to see if she could get tested for the virus, but kept striking out.

A spiking fever last Saturday was the final straw and she drove to the hospital in Lawrenceville where she worked a 12-hour shift on the maternity ward once or twice a month. A triage tent outside the ER clocked her symptoms and immediately sent her in.

“I got seen really quickly,” she said, but in her mind she never thought she was going to be admitted.

They set her up with an IV drip and took chest X-rays, but she wasn’t tested for COVID-19. When the chief doctor of her maternity practice called to check on her, she was shocked, Durdin said.

“She said tell me the name of the doctor who is seeing you. I need to have you tested,” she said.

Durdin is 69 and is medically fragile, but that wasn’t the doctor’s only reason for pushing for a test. Medical practices around the nation are strained as the spread of the virus forces symptomatic but untested doctors, nurses and assistants into quarantine. The remaining workforce has to work longer hours and risk increased exposure.

Her boss made a call, “then everything happened at once,” she said. She was admitted and placed in her room, where she waited.

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“People couldn’t come back there unless they worked there,” she said. And when they did, they were “gowned up” in full protective gear. In the COVID ward, Durdin said nurses did everything from check her IV to emptying the trash can to bringing her food.

If it was coronavirus, Durdin said she had a mild case. She was able to get up and walk around, and her medical background allowed her to care for her own IV when help wasn’t available.

As she watched, she said she was awed by the courage of the nursing staff, all of whom were volunteers from the hospital’s critical care units.

“I saw these nurses struggling mightily and put on a happy face,” she said. “But as a care provider, I know there could be someone gasping for breath in the next room. … They were heroes.”

She stayed in the room for two days and could hear other patients on the ward coughing. She measured the nurses’ worried looks behind the protective gear.

“I got a sense there were a lot of people who were worse than me. Nurses would come in and look frazzled and say, ‘We are so busy,’” she said. “Every one of them had stepped up to be of use in a situation where you wouldn’t want to be working.”

Monday morning she “saw” the doctor, who checked on her by telephone. He told her she could be discharged, but she was to be at home under strict quarantine until her test was processed. From experience with her colleagues, she knew that would be at least a week and probably more.

Along with her nursing degree, Durdin has a master’s degree in public health, so she has a grasp of what we are facing as the numbers of the infected and the dead continue to climb. A lot of what she hears from the public and the politicians is “not grounded in reality,” she said.

“I really believe that pretty soon there isn’t going to be a one of us that doesn’t know someone who has had this or died from this,” she said.