'It Felt Like They Were Doomed': Inside LA's Besieged ICUs

Nurses treat a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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The massive surge in coronavirus cases has left hospitals scrambling to handle the increasing number of patients showing up at their doors. It's threatening to push Southern California's entire health care system to the breaking point.

Nowhere is that more evident than in hospitals' intensive care units, which are rapidly filling up with the worst COVID-19 cases.

"We are certainly worried that with so many patients with Covid ... needing ICU level care that that fragile but important system may be overwhelmed," California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Tuesday.

'ALL THE NURSES [ARE] BURNING OUT'

ICU nurse Jun Jai already feels overwhelmed.

"Right now the ICU is crazy," he said. "It's so much worse than before."

For the past 10 months, Jai has treated the sickest COVID-19 patients at L.A. County-USC Medical Center. Every time he goes to work for another 12-hour shift, two or three other ICU nurses have taken time off.

"All the nurses [are] burning out," Jai said. "Every day you go, it's nonstop running from morning to the evening. You can see so many nurses have depression."

Jun Jai (Courtesy Jun Jai)

Burnout isn't the only reason for the staffing crisis. Last week, 1,745 health care workers in L.A. County tested positive for the coronavirus.

"This is more than twice what we reported the week before and it's the highest weekly number of health care workers testing positive for COVID-19 that we have ever reported," County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday.

Like many health care workers who treat coronavirus patients, Jai has never been tested for the virus by his employer. He has to go to a free testing site on his days off, though he's only managed to go a few times since the pandemic started.

"You feel like they are just using you. That's why so many nurses have left already," Jai said.

Now, after a decade as an ICU nurse, Jai is thinking about quitting.

'I WOULD PRAY 'TIL I CRIED'

Many, like Chanel Rosecrans already have.

"Before work I would pray 'til I cried, begging God, please [don't] let me lose a patient tonight. I can't take it."

Rosecrans started working as an overnight ICU nurse at a hospital in the San Gabriel Valley in February, right before the pandemic hit. She asked that we not name the facility.

Because the coronavirus is so contagious, each patient is kept isolated in their own room. Rosecrans spent nights rushing between rooms closely monitoring patients on breathing equipment with complicated medications. Patients' rooms would get so hot from all the machines that she'd be left dripping in sweat.

Often Rosecrans had to explain to a patient's family over the phone that there was nothing else the medical team could do to keep their loved one alive. She expected to see patients die when she began working in the ICU, but the sheer number of coronavirus deaths shocked her.

"It just felt like ticking time bombs," Rosecrans said. "I didn't want to have to just sit and wait for all these people to pass away, but it felt like all these people were just doomed. It was just really hard to accept; I don't think I ever really did accept it."

After more than eight months, she quit her ICU job in October. Balancing work and life was no longer possible. Rosecrans wasn't eating and on her days off she could only sleep. Caring for COVID-19 patients left her physically and emotionally exhausted.

SWITCHING TO PLASTIC SURGERY

"There was no way I could, as one person, replace a full staff of ICU nurses," she said. "We were on a skeleton staff."

Rosecrans found a new job as a surgical nurse for a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. As coronavirus cases have surged, she's noticed an uptick in calls from staffing agencies, asking her to fill in at local hospitals.

"I don't see what the point of going right back would be because I feel like they're going to be operating in that crisis mode," she said.

Health officials say the crisis mode will only intensify.

"We anticipate not just the ongoing slope of increase that we've seen now but we are worried about a rapidly accelerating increase in pressure on our hospitals," Secretary Ghaly said.

California hospitals can assign more critically ill patients to each ICU nurse, and the state is working to contract with more than 800 medical workers to back up ICUs, hospitals, and nursing homes, he said.

Hospitals can also add ICU beds and redeploy staff from other parts of the hospital, although Ghaly noted that health care workers who aren't specially trained to work in intensive care can't provide the same level of care.