In a small room down the hall from a crowded intensive care unit in Anchorage, a dog named Cupid sprawled on the floor, paws in the air.
Visiting Cupid – a Keeshond certified in therapy and crisis response – were employees of the Alaska Native Medical Center, mostly intensive care nurses, who were burned out, frustrated, disappointed, and in many cases unsure of how long they were under such stress could work.
Record numbers of their coworkers have retired early or left the field, and on their days off, they receive text messages from their supervisors asking them to take on extra shifts.
“I’m not saying that I thought about doing anything else, but it is really difficult to get to work,” said Alex Hailey, who has been a nurse for 12 years and currently works in the hospital’s intensive care unit. The unit is in short supply and the employees feel that there is no end in sight, she said.
COVID-19 cases and hospital stays in Alaska have increased since July, fueled by the Delta variant. Emergency rooms and intensive care units are now full.
Cupid visited ANMC on Wednesday, a day when Alaska hit a new record for COVID-19 hospital admissions and saw the second highest daily number of new virus cases since the pandemic began. Since then, hospital administrations across the state have described an unprecedented burden on the state health system that is not easing.
The visit was planned by Jacque Quantrille, Director of Intensive Care at ANMC. She wiped away tears as she described the stress her team has been under and the toll that has taken on their mental health.
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On Wednesday, Cupid was calm and quiet. She is so fluffy that some younger customers she recently saw left tiny braids in her fur.
“She knows who needs her,” said Anchorage Police and Fire Chaplain, Margaret Griffo, her supervisor. Cupid usually visits firefighters and other first responders who are experiencing trauma from their work.
“Everyone was so excited” about Cupid’s visit, said Hailey.
“We thought about it all day,” added Erika Middleton, another intensive care nurse. She had been on shift since 6:30 a.m.
Intensive care nurse Kacie Burks came to see the dog on her day off. She had a Keeshond as a kid, and she said it felt therapeutic to have the chance, for a moment, to shut out everything else that was going on and “love something that loves you.”
There’s some science behind that reaction, Griffo said.
“All I have to do is look in (Cupid’s) eyes” to trigger the release of oxytocin, the stress-reducing hormone, she said. “It’s not just that people like fluffy dogs.”
Burks and others in the room described themselves as deeply frustrated with a situation they identified as avoidable.
“It’s hard, especially hard, to know that there’s an easy way to stop it from spreading,” said Burks. “The vaccine is out there and there is so much opposition to it.”
Anna Bott, also an intensive care nurse, said she credits her 9-pound mutt for getting her through difficult times. She relaxes after work by walking her dog and going for daily walks, but that doesn’t always let go of what she experienced during a shift.
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She loves being a nurse, she said, but in the past year and a half that love has taken a blow.
“It just feels like we had the support of the ward last time,” she said. “But it doesn’t feel like that now. … I think people are tired and I understand that. I am tired, too. But who takes care of the people who are sick with COVID? “
During the pandemic, nurses had to take on a different, more intense role than before, Quantrille said.
A hospital visit policy limiting who can be in the hospital to prevent virus transmission has meant that intensive care nurses are often the ones sitting on the last breath with dying COVID-19 patients.
The hospital’s policy allows visitors in many end-of-life situations. But that rules out COVID-19 patients who are forced to say goodbye to their families for good with iPads and phones nurses hold.
Hailey said the sickest patients cannot express what they have been through. Once intubated and sedated, they may no longer have a chance to talk to their families.
“Almost all of our patients are unvaccinated, and this part is very frustrating because, as far as I can tell, it could have been avoided,” said Hailey. “Unfortunately, my belief in humanity has suffered a tremendous fall in the past year and a half.”
[Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations hit yet another new record with no virus slowdown in sight]
Later on, Hailey thought more about what she wanted to convey to people about the reality of the ICU.
“We don’t have a room. There are no additional staff, ”she wrote in an underlined note. “It doesn’t matter how many vents or beds we have. If there is no staff to take care of you … it doesn’t matter. “
Daily News journalist Marc Lester contributed to this.