Inside the COVID ICU at Harborview

SEATTLE — For 20 months, doctors, nurses, therapists and aides at Harborview Medical Center have battled an unrelenting enemy. COVID-19 has taken a dramatic toll on patients and employees.

“It is awful, extremely challenging. It’s been overwhelming,” said registered nurse Natalie Lovely.

During a visit by KIRO 7 inside the COVID ICU, we saw six patients in isolation and on life support. “These are some of the sickest patients in this part of the country,” said UW Medicine pulmonologist Dr. James Town. All of the patients are on life support, and none are vaccinated.

“I have not taken care of a single patient in our ICU that has been vaccinated. It’s frustrating. It makes me sad, and it makes me angry,” said Lovely.

The oldest patient in the COVID ICU is in his mid-40s. He is in a medically-induced coma, coughing with a breathing tube running down his throat. His organs are shutting down, and he is on dialysis. After three weeks at Harborview, he is precariously close to death. “The odds are stacked against them. Some patients don’t ever leave here,” said Town.

When a room becomes available, another critically ill patient is moved in for treatment. “We just had two different 26-year-olds pass away,” said nurse manager Janelle Downey.

For Downey and the other employees in the COVID ICU, the nightmares continue after they leave work. “I lose sleep at night, high burnout. It’s hard not to take the experiences that we see here and bring it home,” said Downey.

Downey is the mother of a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Maika, and is due in March with her second child. Lovely had just delivered her first daughter, Sophia when the pandemic struck. Both mothers fear they might take the coronavirus home to their unvaccinated children. “I feel sad. I feel anxious a lot. A lot of us have had problems with PTSD and started medication, just to really function here, function in our everyday lives,” said Lovely.

Rick Lundquist of Aberdeen is among the lucky patients. He is out of intensive care after nearly dying from COVID-19. Lundquist said he and seven of his fellow unvaccinated employees contracted COVID. He said he thought he was tough. “COVID don’t care if you’re a badass, big guy. It only cares about taking lives,” said Lundquist.

Lundquist said he is not an anti-vaxxer. “I’m a liberal,” he proclaims.

Doctors and nurses in the Harborview COVID ICU said they believe misinformation and disinformation play a role in people dying. “I have no doubt. I think for those with access to the right information, and I would put people who have TV shows as people who have privilege and access to information, who spread disinformation, have direct responsibility for harm,” said infectious disease physician Dr. John Lynch.

For 12 hours a day, Lovely attends to a woman in her 30s who is critically ill with COVID-19. She is on a heart-lung bypass machine, called ECMO, to help her breathe. While it can save lives, an increasing number of patients are dying. “In the beginning, they were talking about it being 50-50, and now I’m wondering if it’s even 20%,” said Lovely.

Because of the danger of infection, families are not allowed to visit until 20 minutes before death. Sometimes, that goodbye takes place via Zoom. “They ask you, ‘Natalie, hold my husband the way I do with his cheeks between your palms and tell them I love them.’ How can you not take that home with you? It’s haunting, but it’s also the greatest gift I can give that patient and that family member,” said Lovely.

As shifts change, doctors, nurses, therapists and aides come and go, but the devastating effects of the pandemic remain on full display in the COVID ICU. “It’s awful. I think about them. I can still see their faces, the faces of their families, and that’s something that I’ll carry forever,” said Lovely.