By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — While many Minnesotans enjoy the comfort of family and friends this Thanksgiving, Dr. Jess Boland and nurse Mikayla Reimers are caring for people they barley know: sick patients inside our hospitals battling COVID and other critical illness and trauma.

“It still hurts to try everything we can do for someone and have them get worse regardless of that,” said Boland, a critical care physician at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids.

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Boland is frank about the situation: It can feel demoralizing battling a pandemic that’s still persisting after 20 months. It’s stressful and challenging, she said, to establish boundaries between her personal and professional life.

But working on Thanksgiving Day, she still finds so much to be grateful for — her supportive co-workers, her family and her baby. And moments of gratitude people have shown her during challenging times.

“It’ll be a family that has really been struggling with the critical care process, and all of a sudden, somebody does something that’s just so graceful and generous,” Boland recalled. “Those are the things that help me be resilient in this job.”

Thanksgiving this year comes as Minnesota is grappling with its latest surge in coronavirus infections, sending more than 1,400 to the hospital with COVID-19 — the most the state has had in the hospital yet this year, according to state data.

It’s a bit reminiscent of around the same time last year, where the state saw its highest peak of the whole pandemic and vaccines weren’t yet available.

But this latest situation is a bit different: Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed with patients with and without COVID-19. The situation is dire enough that the state called on the federal government for help, and two military medical teams are on the ground at Hennepin County Medical Center and St. Cloud Hospital to relieve doctors and nurses on the job.

Emergency nurse Mikayla Reimers at United Hospital in St. Paul also worked Thanksgiving. She said the influx in patients has created longer wait times and fewer beds available, creating a backlog of people awaiting care. The latest surge is taking its toll, but she and her colleagues push through it.

She said most patients ill with COVID in the ER where she works are unvaccinated.

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“We are really strained at this point to meet all the demands of people coming in,” she said. “We haven’t seen numbers like this…in terms of overall patient volumes.”

“As a health care system, we’re doing our best,” she added.

She’s also grateful for her colleagues without whom “it wouldn’t be possible to do this job,” she said. And she is thankful for her family that has endured the stress she sometimes brings home with her and the exposure they have to COVID-19 on a consistent basis.

“This job would not be sustainable without having each other’s backs and going through this as a team, checking on each other — from a nursing perspective, but from a personal perspective, too,” she said. “We have lives outside of this to where everyone still goes home and has to deal with those types of things, too, so there’s multiple stressors going on at this point.”

There are fewer health care workers on the job in Minnesota than there were last year, state health commissioner Jan Malcolm said last month, citing “extreme stress” driving some out of the profession.

A Morning Consult survey found nationwide 18% of health care workers quit their jobs during the pandemic.

Boland said she doesn’t mind working the holidays because it’s a “good moment with the people I work with to have a shared purpose.” And she said she is mindful of the blessings she still has — a family waiting for her at the end of her shift – -even when she has to work on a day where most people are enjoying time with loved ones.

“It’s not lost on me that a lot of our patients are going to be alone this Thanksgiving,” she said, noting the restrictions on visitors to hospitals. “It reminds me of all my blessings and really try to pay it forward and leverage my blessings into something that makes someone else’s life better.”

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Caroline Cummings