Their year was not like your year.
Their job put them at the very center of the most disruptive event in our lifetimes – the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are tens of thousands of Arizona nurses, doctors and support staff who risked their lives for their fellow Arizonans.
Many not only served our state but left their families to help the sick and dying in other places aflame with the virus. Many served with the Arizona National Guard.
At the close of one of the most stressful years in memory, we celebrate those who worked in the COVID-19 wards of hospitals and health clinics across this state.
For their professionalism, their commitment to their fellow human beings and for their endurance in a crisis whose end is still unseen, The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com name our state’s health care workers the Arizonans of the Year.
Nurses are exhausted, overwhelmed
They stand along with other Arizonans who have been so honored, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Pat Tillman, Gabrielle Giffords and John McCain.
Collectively they represent the best among us, citizens confronted with an epic challenge that taxed them both physically and emotionally, but stood in the breach and saved lives.
Truth be told, they’re in no mood to celebrate.
While most of us enjoy the holidays in more sequestered settings thanks to the pandemic, our health professionals are enduring new feelings of dread, knowing that the latest wave of novel coronavirus infection is likely to eclipse the first.
The first took them right to the edge. The second has put them back there.
Front-line ICU nurses this week “described themselves as exhausted, discouraged, overwhelmed and scared,” writes Arizona Republic health reporter Stephanie Innes. “They are picking up extra shifts as a staff shortage continues and as patients continue to fill up hospital beds.”
A new and potentially more destructive wave of coronavirus infection is upon us. To date, some 8,000 Arizonans have died of COVID-19 and nearly 500,000 people have tested positive.
And the worst may be ahead of us.
They witness death every day
“I’ve been an ICU nurse for 22 years, and these are without a doubt the sickest patients I have ever cared for,” said Jennifer Granger, clinical resource leader and charge nurse at Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix.
We invited Granger and one of her colleagues at Valleywise, Dr. Mark MacElwee, an internal medicine specialist, to be our eyes and ears in the COVID-19 units, to help us understand the pandemic in ways only health workers can.
For Granger, the experience has been profound.
“I’m not a religious person by any means, much to my mother’s dismay, and I have never prayed so much in my life.”
Prior to COVID-19, a patient might die every couple of weeks. Today they die with far greater frequency, she said. “This is daily, and sometimes more than one. The stress level is very high.
“None of us have dealt with death of this magnitude, and that’s hard.”
They comfort patients for families
Here’s what they’ve seen that you have not.
An elderly man was dying. He was in deep sedation, and clinically declining. Granger and a respiratory therapist met with the family about the hard decision of letting go. The family agreed it was time.
Because the families usually cannot go into the COVID-19 ICU, Granger and one of the respiratory therapists went to the man’s hospital bed. He was unconscious, but they stroked his hair and told him his family loved him.
Often it is not possible to talk to a patient to learn about them, she said. But the families want to fill in those gaps. They want the health providers to know the person they’re treating.
“Most of the experience we have with our patients is through their families,” Granger said. “They want to humanize them. They want us to see them the way they see them. You talk to their four kids, you talk to their wife, and it’s hard sometimes when you have nothing good to tell them.”
The erratic nature of COVID-19 is also grueling on families, she said. One moment a patient is doing well and spirits rise. Then suddenly everything changes for the worse. “It’s almost like (they’re) blindsided. And they say, ‘But you gave me a good update this morning.’ ”
Treating in isolation takes its toll
There is no reliable and comprehensive treatment for the disease, MacElwee said, such as penicillin for strep throat.
“COVID is a humbling infection, in the sense that you can have a young person, a relatively healthy 30-year-old who goes from just a little bit of oxygen to a ventilator overnight. And then you can have a 67-year-old person with a lot of comorbidity conditions cruising through. It’s difficult to know who is going to do well and who won’t.”
MacElwee has served as a medical volunteer treating infectious disease in the Third World nations of Kenya, Burundi and Haiti. That helped him prepare for the pandemic and its high level of death and dying and the shortage of critical equipment.
But dealing with so much death takes its toll psychologically. “As a physician you own people’s death and you grieve it because you feel inadequate. That’s just human. You look at isolation and death as probably one of the greater fears that folks have.”
Even as they deal with the crises at work, the COVID-19 doctors and nurses must also contend with the very real danger they’ll expose their families after work. “I would come home and change in our garage and then go out to our backyard,” MacElwee said. “I super chlorinated our pool. I usually swam and cleaned up.”
“People want to keep their families safe,” said Granger. “One of my co-workers didn’t live with her family for three months. Others would go out and rent an RV, apartments or a hotel as a group and live away from their families.”
We owe doctors and nurses this much
We Arizonans owe a huge debt to our health professionals. The best way to repay them is to take seriously the state protocols to avoid infection:
- Wash your hands often and well with soap and water.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Stay at home when you are sick.
- Avoid close contact (within 6 feet) with others.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or your sleeve.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
- Wear masks in public settings.
- If you are at higher risk for severe illness, avoid attending congregate settings.
We can also express show our gratitude and shared commitment by getting vaccinated. If 75-80% of us get vaccinated we can build the herd immunity that can significantly slow the spread of the virus, say Arizona’s health professionals.
“(You) don’t want to be my patient,” said Granger. “No one wants to be a COVID nurse’s patient.”
The doctors and nurses have had to steel themselves for what is ahead, but the first wave taught them something important, Granger said. They’re resilient.
“I have learned my colleagues are the toughest pack of humans you’ll ever meet. … I used to think health care was the most badass profession in the world, and now I know it is.”
Past Arizonans of the Year
2019: Tom Buschatzke and Ted Cooke. These water managers overcame differences to help forge an historic compromise on our Colorado River water supply.
2018: Kyrsten Sinema. Not only is she Arizona’s first female senator, but her insistence on bipartisanship shows us how politics should be.
2017: John McCain and Jeff Flake. Arizona’s senators stuck out their necks and paid the price for it. And in so doing, reminded us of core American values.
2016: OSIRIS-REx. The space mission headed by Arizona scientists promises to reveal key parts of who we are.
2015: Doug Ducey. Arizona’s new governor had two huge policy wins in his first year in office.
2014: VA whistleblowers. They braved an angry, vindictive administration to shine light on the poor treatment of veterans.
2013: Yarnell volunteers. Those who helped the victims of the fire that killed 19 hotshots are a perfect picture of selflessness.
2012: Jon Kyl. The Arizona congressman’s work ethic and unique willingness to delve into the details astonished supporters and exhausted the opposition.
2011: Gabrielle Giffords. The Arizona congresswoman became an example of strength and resilience, and a model for Arizona and the nation.
2010: The volunteer. In the worst economic times in a generation, volunteers were never so sorely needed nor so appreciated.
2009: Sandra Day O’Connor (Arizonan of the Decade). The former U.S. Supreme Court justice’s accomplishments made her one of the most powerful people in the world.
2008: John McCain. For his historic run for the presidency, his stoic leadership during the darkest hours of the Iraq War and his valiant fight for immigration reform.
2007: Philanthropic foundations. A group, not a person, earned the distinction for its hard work, generosity and critical mass.
2006: Michael Crow. Arizona State University’s 16th president took risks that have transformed ASU.
2005: Jim Kolbe. The Arizona congressman tackled Social Security and immigration reform when others preferred to steer clear.
2004: Pat Tillman. He put aside a football career with the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country and give his life as an Army Ranger.
2003: Sandra Day O’Connor. In a year that saw historic decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, her opinion almost always counted most.