On the front lines of COVID, nurses confront life and death

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — A fire engine wailed its siren up Cotton Avenue and disappeared behind the El Paso Long Term Acute Care hospital.

A man at the front desk held his hand up to a visitor: “Please wait outside. A COVID patient is being transferred.”

Upstairs on the third floor, in an office outside the COVID-19 wing, nurse Valerie Scott updated a co-worker on the patient being rushed by the fire department to an emergency room. She wore black scrubs and spoke from behind a black surgical mask.

The supplemental oxygen wasn’t helping. The man couldn’t breathe.


“I don’t think he is coming back,” she said, worried.

725 people have died of COVID-19 in El Paso since March 23 — the day the county reported the first death tied to the novel coronavirus, according to El Paso Times. Grandparents, parents, siblings and one teenager have died; retired people, working people and teachers have died. Nurses have died.

The bed belonging to the man who left Scott’s hospital in distress would be occupied again that evening. The waitlist for her 15 dedicated COVID-19 beds had swelled overnight from 22 to 32 patients.

Across the city, more than 1,000 people per day are testing positive and the city’s major hospitals are overrun with severely ill and dying El Pasoans. Hundreds of health care workers have flown into El Paso to pick up shifts from exhausted doctors and nurses and to staff tent hospitals erected in parking lots. The refrigerators of six morgue trailers hummed, keeping the bodies cold.

The El Paso Long Term Acute Care hospital, physician-owned and licensed for 33 beds, is pitching in as it can.

“They tried to talk to the family,” Scott told her co-worker, who manages the relationship with acute-care hospitals, about the COVID-19 patient transferred out. “Basically, at this point, it would be better to give him comfort measures… Here there was nothing more we could do.”

She had reason to worry: When doctors have ordered an emergency room transfer of a COVID-19 patient, it meant things had taken a turn for the worse and the patient rarely survived.

The co-worker cursed under her breath.

In the city outside, beyond the hospital’s pale pink stucco walls, El Pasoans went about their day, most in face masks but with few other precautions. People shopped at Target and Walmart and shopping centers. Bars-turned-restaurants kept dining rooms open to guests. A fight between city and county leaders and businesses over restrictions on daily life lumbered through the court system.

The relentless war against a deadly, invisible enemy was out of sight to all but those working its front lines.

The El Paso Long Term Acute Care hospital faces southeast, soaking up morning light, built as it was in 1925 for tuberculosis patients when sunlight was the only cure for another disease that eats away at the lungs and suffocates those who succumb to it.

The COVID-19 wing occupies half of the hospital’s third floor.

Inside, the narrow

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