Kansas hospital workers: Hope, purpose shadowed by COVID-19

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Steve Morgan spent part of Christmas morning as the chaplain on duty in a Wichita hospital comforting the family of a patient who died and said he knows from personal experience how a death on a holiday means “you’ll always remember that.”

But Morgan, an ordained United Methodist minister for more than 25 years, also reflected on what he sees as hospital workers’ sense of purpose on the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. He called it a day “about faith and unity and family.”

“Because we have received love, and grace and mercy, we can give it away,” he said.

In a year that saw the coronavirus pandemic upend Christmas plans and family rituals, some employees at Kansas hospitals spent a good part of the holiday caring for patients or providing comfort to families and colleagues. The pandemic has stressed the state’s hospitals so that, as one official put it, they are “very close to the edge.”

Yvonne Murphy’s 12-hour Christmas hospital shift in Topeka in a unit for pre- and post-surgery patients came near the end of her first year as a registered nurse. She was feeling hopeful, having received the early gift of the first of two doses of a coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer eight days before, though she said she’s always felt safe at work, even when caring for COVID-19 patients.

“There was something, I think, kind of freeing about it, that there’s hope with it,” she said. “There’s a sense of normalcy that hopefully will be coming on the horizon.”

Kansas has reported nearly 210,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases from when the pandemic reached the state in early March through Wednesday, or one case for every 14 of its 2.9 million residents. More than 2,500 people have died, and more than 6,400 have been hospitalized, including 1,700-plus in sometimes hard-to-find intensive care unit beds.

Small hospitals without ICU beds have sometimes reported taking hours to find open ones in larger hospitals. The Kansas Hospital Association said that as of Wednesday, 57 of the 145 hospitals it surveyed said they expected staffing shortages over the next week.

“We are very close to the edge,” Jon Rolph, a Wichita restaurant company CEO who’s leading a regional COVID-19 reporting program for the state, said during a meeting this week with legislative leaders. “We’ve gotten very comfortable being close to the edge.”

Murphy said she and her family have stretched out their family celebrations over several days to accommodate her work schedule. She also said the gatherings between her, her three children, her mother and her brother’s family have been smaller because of the pandemic.

She has worked in health care for 16 years but completed her schooling as a nurse late last year. At the Stormont Vail health system’s hospital in Topeka, workers decorated floors with trees and lights, and the drive to its main visitor entrance is lined by a display of colorful lights synchronized with Christmas music.

In Wichita, Morgan didn’t want to say much about the grieving family he comforted, other than that the patient died from a long illness.

He expected to follow his eight-hour shift at the Ascension Via Christi health system’s St. Francis hospital by immediately getting out of his scrubs and taking a shower before having contact with his wife and adult son. In previous years, the 66-year-old minister would head over to another family member’s house for a larger gathering.

Inside the hospital, he said, workers celebrated Christmas with snacks and other treats. He was checking in on colleagues as well, knowing that being away from family made the holiday tougher.

His own mother died on Christmas Eve in 2007 when he was leading a service as a church pastor.

“Actually, it’s not a sad thing, because my mother loved Christmas so much that it was real appropriate that she died on Christmas Eve,” he said.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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