I’m an ER Nurse Who’s Seen Dying COVID Patients Beg to Live

  • Thad Cummings, 31, is a registered nurse who works in emergency rooms in Michigan and North Carolina.
  • He told Insider about pandemic conversations shifting from “Hey, you’re sick” to “Hey, you’re dying.”
  • This is his story, as told to the writer Jenny Powers.

This story is based on a conversation with Thad Cummings, 31, a registered nurse who works in emergency rooms in Michigan and North Carolina. It has been edited for length and clarity.

My hands visibly shook as the anesthesiologist directed me to inject the sedatives into the IV line attached to the not-yet-40-year-old mother with COVID-19 who was begging me not to let her die.

Only one week before, this woman had learned she’d tested positive for COVID-19. Within just a few days her lungs began to fail her, and the conversation quickly turned from “Hey, you’re sick” to “Hey, you’re dying.”

It was November 2020, and I had only been a registered nurse for a month at that point. I’d earned my nursing license over the summer and subsequently passed my nursing exam. By that fall, I found myself inside a local COVID-19 ICU doing everything I could to make myself useful.

My timing for becoming a nurse was either really good or really, really bad

It all depends on how you look at it.

In my career, I go wherever I am most needed. Most of the time that means rotating between two states — Michigan and North Carolina — regularly.

I pull a 30- to 40-hour workweek at Mercy Health in Muskegon, Michigan, filling in gaps in the hospital’s schedule while my daughter is at school. With joint custody, I fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, during the weeks I don’t have her. There I work at a community hospital called Atrium Health for up to 80 hours during a six-day window.

I know flying during a pandemic presents an added health risk, but I never take my mask off during a flight, under any circumstances.

People often ask me about what I wear when I’m working with COVID-19 patients

Upon arrival I change into surgical scrubs, don an N95 mask topped by a surgical mask, and I follow that up with a pair of goggles or a face shield. Then I cover my body with a plastic suit and my hands with two pairs of nitrile gloves.

Within minutes, like most of our patients, I find it hard to breathe. Then I begin sweating from head to toe, as if I’m wrapped tightly inside a garbage bag. That’s how I remain for most of my shift, up to 14 hours a day.

Walking the halls of the hospital, my senses are constantly assaulted by everything from alarms signaling people’s last breaths to desperate cries for help.

Early on in the pandemic, I learned not to make promises I couldn’t keep

So, on the day that mother pleaded for her life, I gazed into her panicked brown eyes and gave her hand a comforting squeeze.

Rather than provide false hope, I said nothing as the medication infiltrated her nervous system and rendered her comatose, the first step in the intubation process — which, while a last resort, was a necessary one in the early days of the pandemic.

Thad Cummings' headshot, where he's standing in front of a gray brick wall.

Cummings.

Courtesy of Thad Cummings


According to the anesthesiologist on duty that day, only 10 patients had survived intubation on this particular floor since COVID-19 reared its ugly head in March. This young mother, whose final act before losing consciousness was making the sign of the cross, would not be one of them.

The intubation process requires a patient to be put into a medically induced coma. Then a tube is inserted into their airway and connected to a ventilator that pushes air into the lungs and removes it.

It takes 20 to 30 minutes for a team of six or seven to intubate a single patient. With staff already stretched thin and an overflow of patients, often there was no time for patients to even call loved ones before we’d storm in and get to work, racing against the clock.

Most of the time, despite all our efforts, they die anyway.

The pandemic was a trial by fire for me

During my first two weeks on the job at Mercy Health in Michigan, I watched as four of the five hospital floors were converted into a COVID-only ward. Every day I woke up to do battle on the front lines in what can only be accurately described as a war zone. We were in complete disaster mode, surrounded by trauma and loss.

I got COVID-19 in April 2020. Then, two weeks into my job, I got it a second time and was required to quarantine once more.

I experienced the hallmark symptoms of loss of taste and smell, headaches, fevers, low oxygen counts, and lung infection. It would be another two to three months before I could walk up a flight of steps again without losing my breath — which says a lot, since I’m a triathlete who prides myself on leading a healthy lifestyle.

In 2021, I transitioned from the ICU to the emergency room when the Delta variant hit.

With new variants, things got rougher as we saw mostly unvaccinated people come into the hospital

One afternoon I caught up with a friend to grab a cup of coffee and try to indulge in a bit of normalcy. Turns out, the place we chose was filled with maskless people who had just returned from a rally against COVID-19 vaccinations.

Those people believed COVID-19 was a hoax and part of a political agenda, but they’ve never seen the inside of an ER or ICU and witnessed the level of decimation I have. Try standing by as doctors tell parents their children are going to die, then tell me it’s all a hoax.

Despite people saying that Omicron is a milder variant, it’s still wreaking havoc. Our emergency rooms continue to be flooded by people, many of whom have not only been vaccinated but have had the booster. In Michigan, we’re seeing more hospitalizations in this surge than we did last fall.

Thad Cummings with colleagues at the hospital.

Cummings with colleagues.

Courtesy of Thad Cummings


Does this mean every person coming in is terribly ill? No. Some people with COVID-19 are driven by fear, so they come in despite being perfectly stable. Yet a fair number of people are in fact quite ill, and some don’t even know how ill they are — to the point that they’re coming in almost too late.

The medical field now understands more about the virus than when it first arrived. For example, we may be slower to intubate someone and first treat them with a BiPAP machine, which is a positive-pressure ventilator that allows you to reach positive air pressure when you breathe in and out.

It isn’t that we treat Omicron differently than other variants; it’s that our understanding and relationship to what may help people has evolved and continues to each day.

Unvaccinated COVID-19 patients don’t just impact their own health — they impact others coming into the ER

We had a lady come in who was having a heart attack. On a normal day, we would stabilize the patient, and within two to three hours she’d be in a neighboring hospital in a cath lab receiving life-saving treatment.

Instead, she spent eight days in the ER where I worked waiting for a bed. None were open.

The implications and politics or personal beliefs on COVID-19 are lost to me, because the average citizen doesn’t even grasp the greater impact on the community as a whole. Once you’re ill, you come to the hospital regardless. Your beliefs are left behind at home with your Facebook posts.

I believe avoiding vaccines or chasing ‘normalcy’ — including not wearing masks after vaccination — are lethal mistakes

COVID-19 is very real. It isn’t political, and it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t care about your age, race, or religion. It doesn’t care that hospital staff is getting burnt out and leaving the field in droves, or that our resources are limited.

I’m not asking anyone to stop living their life, but I am urging everyone to put politics aside and come together. COVID-19 hasn’t only caused people to lose their lives — it’s caused us to lose our humanity.

Simonne Stigall

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