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Valley ICU nurse describes caring for ‘worst of the worst’ COVID-19 patients

PHOENIX – Kendal Gribler has spent the past nine months caring for some of the sickest COVID-19 patients inside Valleywise Health’s hospital in Phoenix.

On Wednesday, the hospital reported that all but one of its staffed ICU beds were filled. That same day KTAR News 92.3 FM got an inside look of one of the four COVID-19 designated units within the hospital.

Through a plexiglass window, Gribler was seen dressed head to toe in personal protective equipment as she cared for multiple patients on both ventilators and dialysis machines.

“I feel like it’s pretty overwhelming,” Gribler said. “We don’t always have adequate staff to care for these critically ill patients.”

The intensive care units within Valleywise Health in Phoenix can hold anywhere from 12 to 26 patients.

Gribler said there had been multiple instances in the past couple of weeks where two or three critically ill patients have been assigned to just one nurse.

With space and staff limited, the intensive care unit on the fifth floor at Valleywise Health has been retrofitted into a negative pressure space, meaning it is one big room shared by multiple critical COVID-19 patients separated by curtains.

Doctors, nurses and support staff enter through a makeshift room built at the front of the ICU. The closet-like space is full of personal protective equipment and decontamination products.

It serves as a space for the medical professionals to both enter and exit safely.

Dressed in full PPE including a silicon half mask respirator, Gribler has had two red blisters on the bridge of her nose since she began working 12-hour shifts inside the COVID-19 unit in March.

“I come out for a break to eat my breakfast – 15 minutes maybe, half an hour at lunch and couple water breaks, but most of the time I’m in there the whole day,” Gribler said.

While inside her unit, the healthcare workers do what they can with what Gribler describes as, ‘the worst of the worst,’ referring to COVID positive patients with underlying health conditions.

“It’s scary. Once these people get intubated, there’s no telling if they’re going to get off the ventilator or not,” Gribler said.

With visitor restrictions back in place, communication for loved ones relies on video conferences. Gribler believes families of critically ill patients do not get a realistic picture of what’s really happening.

“What they see on screen is their family member who looks like their sleeping with a tube in their throat.” she said.

“They don’t see everything else that’s going on – they don’t see when we’re repositioning, when we’re manually flipping these people on their stomach when they’re on a ventilator.”

Gribler painted a vivid picture when asked what the most difficult part of her job has been since the pandemic began. She described holding a stranger’s hand through rubber gloves as they received their last rights over the phone while dying alone in the hospital.

“It’s hard when their families can’t be there for them, so essentially you’re like their family,” she said.

Leading up to the holidays, Gribler planned to take two weeks off work to spend Christmas with parents in Minnesota, but that trip has since been canceled due to the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country and here in Arizona .

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