For those who enter Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital, they’ll see new signs around the hospital that reminds everyone, patient and staff, that they are in this together and thanks them for their patience and understanding.

“Everyone is stretched. Be kind to those who are here,” the signs read. “Because of COVID and other illnesses in our community, we’re extremely busy and short-staffed. Our caregivers are doing all they can under challenging circumstances to care for each patient.”

VTHH has two COVID units for patients with different nurses working each. Registered nurses Stephania Colangione and Casey Kimzey work in the critical care COVID unit (CCU) while licensed practical nurses Karlisha Linder and Peyton Meaker work in the medical care COVID unit (MCU). According to Chief Nursing Officer Marilyn Smith, the MCU handles COVID patients who do not need high critical care, like ventilators and drips.

The words the nurses used to describe what the last year and a half of the COVID pandemic has been like “busy” and “exhausting.” Colangione said from her 11 year experience as a nurse, working in the wards resembled winter time at the hospital, where beds are full and patients waiting in the ER.

“Winter time is exhausting for nurses and that’s what this feels like,” Colangione said. “It feels like winter time but every single day, every shift.”

Meaker shared the same sediment and said the last year and a half has been mentally and physically draining as it felt like they are fighting an uphill battle most of the time to care for their patients. Yet, when a patient is able to go home and recover it is a success story.

“When somebody gets to go home and recovers as good as they can when they can be discharged you do feel like you did do something as it does feel like a rare feat sometimes,” Meaker said.

While the nurses’ day to day is caring for two patients in the units, they’re constantly trying to get them better and fight every day with no breaks.

“If I take a break and sit down in about 15 minutes an alarm will go off and I know what’s happening: things are getting worse and I need to go in there and do something or something bad will happen,” Colangione said.

With the visiting policy at VTHH being strict, as only allowing one family member can visit behind a glass for 30 minutes, the families of the patients only other way of communicating is through the nurses via phone calls or FaceTime. While some families lose patience when it comes to the outcome of their loved ones, Smith said the nurses at VTHH have received plenty of praise and love from the families of patients, regardless if the outcome was what they wanted or not, with letters sent to the hospital mentioning the nurses who took care of their loved ones. Colangione said the nurses don’t like it when the outcomes are bad too because they are always thinking about their patients.

“It means so much because even though they are not our personal family, we don’t just leave our patients at work,” Colangione said.

She called one patient who was really sick and things were looking bad for her but she improved. When she was helping her as she was being discharged, the patient’s husband cried and hugged her for her work.

“It just caught me off guard when he started hugging me and crying. I then found out they were married for decades and they hadn’t never spent a night apart so he was really scared for her,” Linder said. “That was a really positive experience that I think I’ll remember that for real long time.”

With both wards being full during most of the pandemic, the nursing staff have gone to the doctors and each other for support. Kimzey said they find hope in the smallest victories when they get them and hold on to it. Colangione added it was smallest things that seemed to matter in the COVID unit for both patients and nurses.

“That isolation can take a toll on the patients and their mood and that makes a difference whether or not they recover faster,” she said. “For us it takes a toll on us too.”

She recalled a man who came in to visit his girlfriend in the COVID unit. During his visit he brought his guitar and played and sang for her as he sat outside her door. Colangione said the nurses told him his playing meant a lot to them as the music comforted them.

“I know it was for his lady but for us everything felt calm for 30 minutes going in and out of patients’ room and hearing him try his best for his loved one,” Colangione said. “It comforted us too. It was really special.”

Kimzey also said he was thankful for experienced nurses like Colangione who can provide moral support on tougher days.

“If it wasn’t for some of the really good nurses we have, it would be harder,” Kimzey said.

Meaker added, to him, nurses are very adaptive people and he praised the doctors at VTHH for willingly wanting to sit them down and teach them.

“It’s definitely made a huge difference because it makes the workplace more pleasant whenever you have people who really care and want to work as a team and not as an individual,” Meaker said.

As the surge of COVID cases continue to stay high, all the nurses at VTHH emphasize to the public to not wait to get tested, as most of the patients they see are the ones who waited too long.

“I rather you be more cautious then more lackadaisical and sit at home and get worse,” Meaker said.

Linder added, “It’s totally one of those things you have to catch early and if you don’t, then things will not end so well for you.”

All the nurses recommended anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated to do so and if they don’t then to wear their mask and to stay healthy.