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'Earth-shattering secret': ER nurse on knowing signs of dying Covid patients
02:44 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Audrey Wendt frequently reads the local obituaries. She scans the page looking for a name she recognizes, bracing herself for an emotional blow if she finds one.

Learning that a patient has died is a reality of Wendt’s job as an emergency room nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But since the start of the pandemic, and particularly in the last few weeks as Covid-19 cases have spiked in her state, it is a reality that has become far too commonplace. Michigan’s 56% vaccination rate has not been sufficient to curb the spread of disease, resulting in the state setting a record for hospitalizations last week.

Audrey Wendt with her daughter, Halle.

Wendt is starkly aware that her interactions with her patients might be some of the last human contact they’ll ever have. And many of these patients, she says, are unvaccinated.

Some days, there have been 40 odd patients packed into Wendt’s waiting room, some of whom have waited up to 12 hours for a bed. In late November, the federal government sent additional medical personnel to assist in providing care, and, still, hospital resources can’t keep up with the influx of patients. But even when they can secure a hospital bed, it is just as hard for Wendt to watch them fight to stay alive. “There’s a period of time when patients often get really restless. It’s horrible to see,” she says. “The body knows something is very wrong. It’s trying to compensate, but it just can’t.”

Wendt watched an unvaccinated man in his 30s – the father of three young children – enter this restless state. “I looked over at his wife. The lights were very dim and all I could hear was him breathing with the help of a BiPap ventilator. His wife asked me, ‘What do I do?’ I replied, ‘If it were me, I would call your children and have them tell their dad that they love him … I think now would be a good time.’”

Wendt knew by his demeanor that this man was going to be intubated soon. “And you never know if you’re going to get off that ventilator,” Wendt says through tears.

Though Wendt doesn’t know these patients outside the hospital walls, she says she loves every person she treats – vaccinated and unvaccinated. She likens the feeling to the unconditional love a mother feels for her child. The pain of seeing someone nearing the end of their life is overpowering for her, and it is in the name of preventing this outcome that Wendt pleads with her patients, and with the public, to get vaccinated, get a booster shot when eligible and wear a mask when in a high-risk environment.

Many people – even some who knew and trusted Wendt – have not heeded her advice. This included her Uncle John, who she saw for the last time just before Thanksgiving.

Aurdey Wendt's uncle, John Ziehm, with his great niece, Halle, in January 2021.

“I had been struggling because I knew he was not vaccinated,” says Wendt. “I was telling him stories about people dying of Covid, and he was bothered by them, but he just wasn’t sure about the vaccine. He said, ‘I never get sick, Audrey. I think my body can fight it.’”

“I said, ‘Uncle John, I just have this really bad feeling that if you get Covid, you’re going to die.’”

Her uncle never did get the vaccine, and about two weeks later he tested positive for Covid-19. His condition declined over a matter of weeks, and he was admitted to the hospital where he died on Monday. He was 61 years old.

Weeks prior to her uncle’s death, Wendt took to Facebook to share what she has witnessed in and out of her hospital:

“My beloved community, I want YOU to know…

On our backs we will carry you. No matter your beliefs, your choices, your lifestyle, your past. Our legs grow tired, and we beg for your help, but we will continue to carry you until this race is over, my friends.

Believe in us. Help us. Get Vaccinated.”

In the wake of her uncle’s passing, it is a message Wendt will stop at nothing to share.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

CNN: Could you tell me a little bit about your uncle? What was he like? What made him so special to you?

Wendt: He was so consistently happy and content with life. And he loved his wife, Paula, and two sons more than anything else. He also loved investing in quality time with people, so the last day that we shared together was really perfect. I wish I would’ve known it would be the last.

CNN: What was it, do you think, that made him not want to get vaccinated?

Wendt: He just couldn’t shake doubts that he had in his mind about the vaccines. And he believed that a bad outcome wouldn’t happen to him. It’s kind of like texting and driving. You don’t think you’re going to crash your car until you do. I think he always thought he would live to be 90. I always thought that, too.

Audrey Wendt's uncle, John Ziehm, hospitalized with Covid-19 on December 13, 2021.

CNN: That seems to be a common problem: people get doubts about the vaccines – perhaps because of misinformation they are exposed to – and then they have to determine whether to trust what they’re reading online or what their doctor is telling them. What do you say to those folks who aren’t sure who to trust?

Wendt: You don’t know who that person is online who’s telling you the vaccines don’t work. In contrast, I’m here in front of you telling you what I’m seeing. I’ve said to some of my patients, ‘I’ve got a family. I’ve got kids. I have no ulterior motive. There’s no gain for me to spread this message, except that I will have fewer patients in the hospital because they are staying healthy.’

But, at the end of the day, if you choose not to get vaccinated, I am still going to take really good care of you and give you kindness and treat you with respect. I want anyone who needs care to know that they are welcome here, no matter what. I feel like Republicans and Democrats, and people of all backgrounds and all beliefs can come together knowing that we want the same thing: we want what’s best for our family members so that they can live long, healthy lives.

CNN: You touched on political unity. Why do you feel that this pandemic is bigger than the politics it’s been swept up in?

Wendt: I’ve held so many people’s hands while they are dying, and nobody’s talking about who they voted for. They’re talking about their family. It pains me that in all of the political talk, we can’t see a bigger picture here. It’s not about who you voted for, or who your favorite politician is, or who you listen to or your social media.

CNN: Can you talk about what inspired your Facebook post detailing your experience in the emergency room?

Wendt: The inspiration for that post came on one particular day while I was triaging for a four-hour block. I’d never checked in as many patients in such a short window of time in my career. There was an unvaccinated man who was only 18. The look of anguish on his mother’s face is something I’ll never forget. It really breaks you down because you want to be able to help patients, but there’s only so much you can do.

CNN: How have the last few weeks been for you as Covid cases have spiked in Michigan?

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    Wendt: Our hospital has done a great job of converting some of our normal hospital floors into extra ICU space and trying to accommodate that influx, but we’re still not able to keep up with the surge. When I have a 93-year-old who has to sit in my waiting room for hours, that’s hard for me to bear as a nurse because I can’t properly take care of them.

    CNN: Do you worry, too, that having unvaccinated Covid patients sitting in the waiting room could possibly expose other patients who may be there for a different reason to Covid-19?

    Wendt: Yes, we wear masks and take precautions, but when everybody’s together, there is always that chance.

    CNN: Can you describe how you feel when you see an unvaccinated person come into the emergency room with Covid?

    Wendt: I’ll go out on a limb and say this, because this is not something that health care professionals like to admit: When you are working in an overflowing hospital, that compassion begins to turn into a horrible frustration with people who are unvaccinated. We love people, we want to save them, which creates this internal frustration and anger. But that anger is a secondary emotion and, ultimately, we have to let it go. I turn my focus to the fact that everybody deserves love and grace, no matter what.