MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As Minnesota COVID-19 cases fall and vaccinations add a layer of protection, they are in many ways the forgotten faces of the pandemic: WCCO has a candid conversation with six of the frontline workers who ran the state’s only COVID-19-dedicated hospital for more than seven months last year.

As they looked back, the former Bethesda Hospital workers shared the heartbreak and the haunting moments that in some cases, forced them from their careers.

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“We lived there. We went through something there,” Angie Whitley, Bethesda’s former nurse manager said.

“It’s like everyone ran to the fire,” Bethesda’s Medical Director, Erica Kuhlman told WCCO.

For the first time as a group they are reflecting publicly on their service, freshly vaccinated and comfortable doing so masked side-by-side.

Not one ever contracted COVID-19 in their time at the St. Paul hospital, which they believe only underscores how taking the proper steps works.

“I had to say, ‘Think of it as “M*A*S*H” 2020.’ It feels like we went to war together. We fought a battle,” Kuhlman said.

A nurse manager, RN’s, a respiratory therapist and Bethesda’s medical director of the COVID ICU.

“We had no idea what we could do to help these people get better except for try to not let them die. That was our main mission,” Kuhlman said.

It was the end of last March when within three days a 130-year-old long-term hospital transformed into a new home for the 1,000 people infected with a brand new violent virus over the next seven months.

“These are the sickest patients we’ve ever taken care of in my life,” Kuhlman said.

Some who have stayed with them for nearly a year.

“We remember certain cases. Like, I remember the first patient that passed away, Scott,” Whitley said. “I remember sitting with his son [and saying], ‘Could I just stand by you and pray?’”

(credit: CBS)

They were the scenes that played out all too often outside doorways and under layers of PPE.

“There were days we’d have six,” Whitley said.

“I’ve signed more death certificates this year than I have in my entire career,” Kuhlman added.

They did this all while keeping a distance from their own spouses and kids for weeks — sleeping in hotel rooms and forming a family of their own.

Danyel Braziel is now an RN Supervisor at St. Joseph’s Hospital after her time at Bethesda.

“We carry a lot that you guys don’t ever see,”

“You bond with the people you’re working with because those are the only people you see,” Kuhlman said.” It really is a transformative experience because you have to lean on each other.”

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“In the beginning I did 14-hour days probably, a good seven days a week. No one made me, I just needed to make sure people felt supported,” Whitley said.

At first, support showed up in the mail, in the lunchroom and on the sidewalk. But, as time has passed, the adrenaline wore off.

“I watched people slowly decline over the year,” Kuhlman noted.

A new more personal war is being waged. Emily Allen is an RN.

“I don’t know what other word to use right now other than haunted by the things that I’ve seen, the people I’ve seen die. The staff members I’ve seen break down. It physically and mentally is so overwhelming right now,” Allen said.

“By now it’s just chronic fatigue. You can just see it on people’s faces. And it’s a whole different kind of injury because it’s just relentless,” Whitley said.

Whitley left her job in January, looking for a new start possibly outside of healthcare.

“I ultimately said I have to be done. It’s not healthy anymore,” she said.

Christy Crosthwaite sold her house and bought an RV, leaving her position with no clear career plans.

“You’re not just a nurse, you’re not just an RT, you’re everything to these people, and that’s hard,” Crosthwaite said.

Laura Triplett, also an RN, pushed to go back to cardiac patients.

“We almost have a double whammy, many of us. That’s why this is getting out that we are struggling, and we do only have each other,” she said.

Not wanting to burden their own families or friends whose lives have also been altered.

“I think COVID sort of exposed something that I feel like has always been a part of healthcare that we just like don’t talk about. COVID has brought that healthcare, mental health, wellness and emotional health to the forefront. It’s a really big part of this role and job, COVID or not, and I think this last year has exposed that,” Braziel said.

A year they will always remember.

“People are starting to quote-unquote ‘forget.’ I will never forget this. They will never forget this. They will never forget this,” Allen said.

But, when asked if they would do it again, they all said they would.

Last year, 131 patients died from COVID-19 at Bethesda. Still, it produced some of the most successful survival rates in the world, with 74% surviving an ICU stay, compared to 50% in Seattle or just 12% in New York.

Bethesda closed in November and is now a homeless shelter.

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There is an ongoing effort to help M Health Fairview employees through psychological trauma caused by COVID-19.

Liz Collin