COVID-19 is still with us, given the recent uptick in cases. Even though the chaotic early days of the pandemic are fading into memory, what shouldn't be forgotten are the nearly 15,000 Minnesotans who have died due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
St. Cloud Hospital saw its first COVID patients in March 2020. Three months later, it had a COVID-specific unit and a staff working desperately to save lives. As the disease becomes a still worrying — but more routine — part of life, a group of nurses at the hospital created a book to help people remember what those earlier days were like for health care providers on the front lines.
Lisa Kilgard is a nurse at St. Cloud Hospital and one of three editors behind the new collection, “Just Breathe: COVID Stories from the Heart of Minnesota.” She talked with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about reflecting on a difficult time through the perspectives of her colleagues and their loved ones.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
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Three months later, it had a COVID specific unit and a staff working desperately to save lives. As COVID-19 becomes a still worrying but more routine part of life, a group of nurses at the hospital wants to make sure people remember what those earlier days were like for health care providers on the front lines, so they've written a book. Here's a snippet of some of the stories read by voice actors for the hospital's umbrella organization, Centracare.
SUBJECT 1: I remember in the very beginning being so terrified. Nurses were dying in other parts of the world. Was my life in jeopardy? And then it started.
SUBJECT 2: I did not sign up to be in a war, and yet I found myself drafted into the worst type of battle I could imagine. I will forever remember the faces of the people who looked at me for the last time before they became silent.
SUBJECT 3: Two hours and 47 minutes. That is how long it took to soak through a pair of scrubs all the way down to the skin.
SUBJECT 4: We are no longer the frontline. We are the last line of defense between the patient and the grave.
SUBJECT 5: This has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with, and I can honestly say I couldn't have done it without my coworkers.
SUBJECT 6: Even in the bleakest times, there was hope. From watching patients walk out after having a complete turnaround to holding their hand as they took their final breaths, our purpose has remained clear the entire time. We are healers and comforters. We live to help other people.
CATHY WURZER: Lisa Kilgard is a nurse at St. Cloud Hospital and one of three editors behind this new book, Just Breathe, COVID Stories from the Heart of Minnesota. Lisa is on the line. Welcome to the program.
LISA KILGARD: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
CATHY WURZER: So Lisa, you and colleagues Nicole May and Amanda Shank got together to gather these stories. What was the spark behind the idea?
LISA KILGARD: Well, all three of us have worked on this unit for a really long time. And from the start of COVID, it was really difficult with everything that we were seeing, and we needed to find a way to let our emotions go somewhere productive.
And some of our leadership were rounding up on the unit here and were telling us about past experiences of people who have journaled their experiences. And I thought to myself, why don't we do that? And so it started out as a project for our unit, the COVID unit here. And we thought to ourselves, why not let anybody who has a story share their story?
Everybody has one, and it's going to be different from people who are working in one part of the hospital to people that were working outside of the hospital. Some of our staff were at home. Some of our staff were here. And it just kind of turned into a project that everyone in the hospital here kind of got behind-- and not even just in the hospital.
We have some home care staff that wrote entries. There's one entry in there from my daughter. She's the only non-Centracare employee at the time that wrote a story, and so that one is from a 15 year old's perspective of having a mom working with this. And so the book just kind of came to be.
And with the support of Joy Salmon and a number of other people, we were able to make it a reality, and staff were able to use it as a way of getting their feelings out, their emotions out. And in the midst of it, it was getting our stories out of what it was like up here on the COVID unit during that first year, year and a half.
CATHY WURZER: Which was so chaotic, as you know. I was talking to an Essentia Health hospitalist, and she said she is just really trying to put COVID in the rear view mirror-- doesn't really want to talk about it. Are you running into that, too? Or is something like this book really helpful?
LISA KILGARD: The book itself-- the stories in the book-- are written right from the staff member's hearts. It was what was going on at the time. It was how we were feeling at the time. And a lot of our staff that were working directly with those COVID patients will tell you that it's too much.
It's too much to read because those memories come back and those feelings come back, and it is early in the whole scheme of life-- this is just a short part, and it was just a little while ago. And so even myself, I have read and I have edited everything in the book. But the book itself I have not read necessarily cover to cover because it just brings back all those emotions and those feelings.
A lot of people that didn't work with those direct patients are really interested in what was going on up here and what was going on in the different parts of the hospital that were caring directly for those COVID patients, and this is a really good way for them to see what it was like. So kind of both ways-- we don't want to forget, but it's a little bit too early to go back and remember.
CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you had some stories from family members of caregivers. Those perspectives are really important.
LISA KILGARD: Yeah. They're definitely from a different perspective versus coming straight from the nurses and the caregivers that were up here. During the whole pandemic and during that time, I think for myself, I forgot that there was different perspectives-- what my kids were feeling, what my husband was feeling with me being here, and how scary that must have been for them each time when I came to work.
But that was something that I didn't think about. And when these stories came out, especially the one from my daughter, I thought to myself, oh, goodness sakes. It really was an eye opener for me in that respect just remembering that kind of same thing. Everybody that went through this has a story about their COVID journey.
CATHY WURZER: Gosh. There was so much despair at the very beginning, as you know, but I was happy to hear through some of the stories that there was always hope, right? This patient is going to pull through. Darn it, we're going to do what we can here. And was that clearly an important thing to hold on to?
LISA KILGARD: During that time, that was what we held onto for every single patient. We wanted every single patient to pull through this. But seeing what was going on, knowing that every single one of them wasn't going to-- and as nurses and caregivers, that's what we want for every patient every day of our careers.
Every day that we come to work, that's what we strive for. But during the pandemic, there was just so much more loss more frequently, and we needed to do something in order to understand that our work was really, really still important, and our coworkers were a huge, huge part of getting everybody through that. And I think the patients could see that we were doing everything that we could in order to help them.
CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you captured some lighter moments in the book. There was the one about the physical therapist installing a super pole for a patient. What was that about?
LISA KILGARD: Yeah. A lot of patients use a lot of different types of equipment. And when you have those days that it's just really hard to get through, you kind of want to find the light in anything that you can.
And from wearing all of the PPE and just constant sweating and the faces just burning from those masks being on-- it was what we needed to do. Yeah. It was just one of those times when you just find things are just really, really funny. And maybe they're not as funny as what you might think of later in that instance-- that's what we needed.
CATHY WURZER: Sometimes, a little levity is a good thing. Say, where can people find the book?
LISA KILGARD: Right now, it is on sale at all of the Centracare gift galleries. And soon-- they're working on a couple of things-- it'll be available on Amazon. They're just working through a couple of things today, actually, to get it on there as soon as they are able to.
And the book is a nice hardcover book. We're not using the book to make any type of profits or anything like that. We're using the book in order to help our nurses, our staff, and the community know what was going on and try to heal from it.
CATHY WURZER: Lisa, it's a really lovely book. Thanks for working on it.
LISA KILGARD: Yeah. No problem.
CATHY WURZER: And thanks for joining us. Lisa Kilgard is a nurse at St. Cloud Hospital. She and two other nurses collected stories from their colleagues for this new book called Just Breathe, COVID Stories from the Heart of Minnesota.
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