Traveling nurse Michelle Martin in her west Wichita home.
Traveling nurse Michelle Martin enjoys a quiet moment in her west Wichita home before heading to bed after a 61-hour shift in Topeka. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

The numbers are clear — COVID cases in Kansas reached an unprecedented peak in January. Local Wichita hospitals were not spared.

“Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen numbers of hospitalizations that were even higher than the peak from 2020,” Dr. Samer Antonios, chief clinical officer at Ascension Via Christi, said in January during an event with KMUW. “Same thing happened in urgent cares. Same thing happened in emergency rooms.”

But the barrage of cases has been amplified by a statewide hospital staffing shortage — most notably, among nurses. 

Doctors in Wichita and statewide say the shortage has many roots, including an increased number of sick nurses, higher pay offered in other states and staff exhaustion

“There are days that I’m just like, what am I doing?” said Angelica Aguirre, a registered nurse at Wesley Medical Center. “Why am I still here?”

The Wichita Beacon spoke with three nurses in south-central Kansas who say the job is physically and emotionally draining right now. The unprecedented number of deaths is heart-wrenching, while the job grows more difficult as staffing shrinks. 

All three said they wanted the public to get a glimpse of what their days inside a hospital look like.

Michelle Martin: ‘I became the plague’

In the early days of the pandemic — before nurses received surgical scrubs to change into at work — Michelle Martin had a special routine for coming home.

“I would actually get naked out in my garage,” Martin said. “And then I would run down my stairs and take a shower in my basement.”

From March 2020 through November 2021, Martin worked as an ICU nurse at Wesley Medical Center. The stress of the job didn’t always stay within the hospital’s doors.

With two young grandchildren at home, she was terrified of bringing the virus home with her. And two family Christmases in a row were canceled — likely, she suspects, around concerns from her on-the-job exposure.

“I became the plague doing a job that nobody else wants to do but somebody has to do,” Martin said. 

Navigating her personal life during the pandemic was tough. But work brought its own challenges. Martin witnessed family members saying goodbye to their loved ones by phone and young patients battling fatal bouts of COVID. And she witnessed her own colleagues leaving — some burnt out from nursing altogether, some taking travel nursing positions. 

All the while, she focused on providing care. Turning patients who were unable to move. Monitoring patients’ medications — for pain, for blood pressure, to ensure a patient can use a ventilator. Charting hourly drips, urine output and a patient’s skin were also part of the job. 

But throughout the fall of 2021, Martin began to worry about her work conditions. She said she regularly spent shifts assigned more patients than felt comfortable or safe. And the margin for error, in a hospital, is low.

“If you confuse medications, if you give the wrong medication, too much of a medication, you can cause a heart rate or blood pressure to go down to just about zero,” Martin said. 

Any nursing actions that fall below the standard of care can be reported to the Kansas State Board of Nursing. The board can discipline nurses and revoke their licenses.

Martin left Wesley in November to become a travel nurse. Travel nurses generally make higher wages on shorter contracts.

“If I’m going to put my license on the line, I might as well go somewhere and be compensated for it,” Martin said. “And then 13 weeks later, if I’m not 100% satisfied or happy with that hospital, go to another hospital.” 

Dave Stewart, a spokesperson for Wesley Medical Center, wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon that the hospital meets the needs of patients during the pandemic while maintaining “a level of patient safety that continues to be recognized.”  He added that Wesley has instituted several pay increases and other strategies to “help compensate hardworking nurses and balance the reduced workforce.”

Angelica Aguirre, who works in the intensive care unit at Wesley Medical Center, said she’s considering leaving nursing to become a 911 dispatcher. (Photo courtesy of Angelica Aguirre)
Angelica Aguirre, who works in the intensive care unit at Wesley Medical Center, said she’s considering leaving nursing to become a 911 dispatcher. (Photo courtesy of Angelica Aguirre)

Angelica Aguirre: ‘We’re terrified all the time’

Angelica Aguirre never expected COVID to last this long. 

When she volunteered to work with COVID patients in February 2020 — then as a registered nurse in Dallas — she remembers thinking it wouldn’t be a long-lasting deal. 

“We had Ebola five years prior to that, and nothing ever really happened with the Ebola team,” Aguirre said. Later that year, she moved back to Wichita, her hometown, to work at Wesley Medical Center. 

But two years later, Aguirre is still in the COVID trenches. And with every new peak and variant of the pandemic, she grows more exhausted. 

She’s exhausted by her workload — the number and acuity of patients she cares for per shift. Aguirre said she’s concerned that the number of patients she’s assigned is not safe. 

“We’re terrified all the time,” Aguirre said. 

She’s exhausted from fighting about vaccines, too. 

Aguirre said she supports every person’s right to decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated. But she wishes unvaccinated people would recognize the risk they face without it. She said she’s taken care of unvaccinated patients who ended up in the hospital with COVID after traveling and going to theme parks. 

“If you’re not going to get the vaccination, you have to live your life like you don’t have a vaccination,” Aguirre said. “Don’t go to concerts, don’t go to the zoo, don’t go do those things, because it’s not safe for you right now.” 

And most of all, she’s exhausted by death. 

Aguirre said she’s seen so many patients die that it’s becoming hard to handle. During one particularly bad rotation, she said she lost three patients she was taking care of. 

“This is the part that bothers me the most: It didn’t really bother me much at all,” Aguirre said. “I’ve gotten so desensitized and so used to having to call these families — their wives, their kids — and tell them your person is not going to make it.” 

She went home and cried after that shift, struggling with the feeling of being hardened to constant death.

Aguirre is considering leaving nursing and applying to be a 911 dispatcher. She’s not sure she’ll make more money, but it would remove some of the emotional burden.   

“What are my heartstrings worth?” she said. 

In addition to pay increases, Stewart wrote, the hospital offers counseling opportunities and has “increased our communications with colleagues around their mental and emotional health.”

Colby Lynn Martin, a nurse in Arkansas City, started a petition opposing legislation that could limit the pay for contract nurses in long-term care facilities. (Photo courtesy of Colby Lynn Martin)
Colby Lynn Martin, a nurse in Arkansas City, started a petition opposing legislation that could limit the pay for contract nurses in long-term care facilities. (Photo courtesy of Colby Lynn Martin)

Colby Lynn Martin: ‘We nurses didn’t have a choice’

Before Feb. 1, Colby Lynn Martin would not have described herself as involved in politics. 

But last Tuesday, the labor and delivery nurse from Arkansas City found herself testifying via Zoom before the Kansas House Committee on Children and Seniors. 

“It was actually pretty interesting,” Martin said. “People think government meetings are kind of dry, and it got to be very heated when everybody was speaking.”

Martin was speaking against a proposed bill that would cap the amount supplemental nursing services agencies could bill adult care homes or long-term care facilities for their services. The cap would apply to the temporary nursing personnel’s hourly pay.

Though House Bill 2524 only applies to contract nurses in long-term care facilities, Martin worries it is one step away from capping wages for other travel nurses. She began working as a travel nurse part time in November after realizing it could better support her family of four.

Martin started a petition in January in opposition to the bill and garnered nearly 1,000 signatures. She said the legislation ignores many of the sacrifices nurses have made throughout the past two years of the pandemic.

“At the beginning when this started, we nurses didn’t have a choice,” Martin said. “We knew every day we went to work: ‘I’m risking catching this, I’m risking dying, I’m risking taking it home to my family.’ And we still went to work.”

As Martin enters year three of the pandemic, the job is still hard. Long shifts wearing a plastic gown, face shield, goggles and an N95 mask weigh her down. Staffing is shorter, so she worries for new nurses who are given more responsibility than they may be prepared for. Since she’s taken on travel nursing, she has to drive an hour each way to a hospital in El Dorado for a night shift. Her children feel like they’re not seeing her.

But as the pandemic drags on, health care heroes are no longer at the forefront of everyone’s minds, Martin said.

“Now, it feels like all of a sudden the hospital execs and everybody are just saying, ‘Yeah, thanks for that, but…,’” Martin said. “That’s basically it: Thanks for that, but…”

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...