Learning the lessons of COVID-19

Frontline workers recall the challenges they faced while working to save patients

Belen Ward
Posted 4/26/21

(This the first part of a two-part series, which continues on May 6.) The first cases of COVID-19 hit the United States in 2020 and it was declared a pandemic by March 2020, changing the world and …

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Learning the lessons of COVID-19

Frontline workers recall the challenges they faced while working to save patients


(This the first part of a two-part series, which continues on May 6.)

The first cases of COVID-19 hit the United States in 2020 and it was declared a pandemic by March 2020, changing the world and how we live.

But nowhere is the impact of the virus more apparent than with medical frontline workers from across the world who initially did not know what they were dealing with or its dangers.

They learned in 2020 and learned quickly.

“There was so much hype and fear with the hospital personnel. Just because we work in a hospital doesn’t mean that we don’t have fear,” said Wendy Colon, the Director of the Emergency Department and Emergency Manager for Platte Valley Medical Center. “With this emerging virus, everybody was a little bit nervous.”

The team at Brighton’s Platte Valley Medical Center joined together with doctors and nurses across the nation to combat the mystery virus. Colon played a big role at Platte Valley, relying on her experience in emergency medicine and disaster emergency management when the pandemic hit.

“I ended up in the position by moving into my career the way I wanted; because, I have two loves, emergency medicine and disaster emergency management,” said Colon.

Colon was very interested in emergency management and bioterrorism before COVID-19 appeared in Colorado. She continued to monitor the virus as it was appearing in China and moving around the world and the country.

Once the first case was confirmed in Colorado, the hospital quickly opened an Incident Command Center, she said. Even then, when there was one person of interest in the hospital that needed COVID testing, they were not ready with all the processes in place. They were not even sure how to collect a swab in those early days, and then they received the call the virus was in Adams County. The hospital worked as a team to quickly codify those processes.

Colon was busy working in two roles on processes for the whole hospital. She also assigned other people to help from other areas and also a resource for the hospital.

“I was trying to divide my time to make sure my staff was safe in the Emergency Department. But also making decisions for the hospital, and sometimes I could not get back to the Emergency Department quick enough, but we did great,” said Colon.

The new virus not only impacted the hospital and staff medically but also emotionally since they often had to say no to family members visiting a loved one.

“It killed us because we all knew how much it meant to the family and how much it means to the patient. I hope people know that it was not easy for us to say no,” said Colon.

Scattering family

Colon has four sisters and her mother and she did not see her family for a long time. Her mother, who had volunteered at the Platte Valley Hospital before COVID-19, had to quit to isolate herself for safety.

“We comforted each other and it was just one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. We talked to my mother every day. But knowing that I was in a very infectious environment, I knew I could not bring any infection to her, so her health was important to me,” said Colon.

Colon’s husband also works in emergency management and was called to Washington D.C. to work in the office of the Secretary Operation Center for Health and Human Resources representing law enforcement.

“He left the day after we opened the Incident Command Center and I would go home and be alone,” Colon said. “I know a lot of people experience the same thing being home alone. We always talked on the phone about our day. We were able to able to share our day and vent. But this time, we were both were so busy, it made it tough. I am a people person, it was hard to be home alone.”

Colon said she continues to work on plans to keep up with the ever-changing surge and shortages. The community of Brighton heard about the PPE shortage at the hospital and people were dropping off supplies.

“We had a surge with a lot of people. Then we had to deal with a shortage of PPE. We were not hit as hard because we started to receive donations from the community.”

‘Mystery flu’

Dr. William McNitt is the Emergency Physician at Platte Valley Medical Center since 2017. McNitt said he heard about the pandemic coming out of China in late November 2019 and New York and a few places across the country. The staff knew it was coming by the rumors and saw when it hit Italy, with sick people overwhelming the ICU.

“It was terrifying. It had not hit the United States yet, but we had admissions of people who had some virus, and we didn’t know what it was and their flu swab was negative,” said McNitt. “It looked like viral pneumonia but the laboratory work did not make sense and all the flu swabs were coming out negative, which was unusual.”

Dr. McNitt said they were treating a mystery flu back in February and March. Then it hit New York and then the staff learned about COVID-19.

“We started hearing about it, but into late April there were not effective testing available, there was not test. And when there was a test it was very limited with about eight of them a week,” said McNitt.

Dr. McNitt said people started to get scared and coming to the hospital. Then COVID patients started showing up at the hospital, about 10 to 15 a day. Most of the patients were okay and did not need to go to ICU. At that time the State of Colorado issued the mandating orders for shutdowns as COVID started spreading quickly after the hospital’s first couple of cases.

“We stopped seeing our normal sort of bread and butter, trauma and substance abuse, and the sort of stuff we see all day. People were having heart attacks and strokes started staying home because they were afraid,” said Dr. McNitt. “Even with messaging alerts advising, please don’t say home. It was a very odd dynamic of having this new virus that we didn’t know what to do with and we’re learning on the job.”

Dr. McNitt and his team had conversations with Emergency Manager Colon about the department’s need for PPE and the possibility of bioterror.

“It kept us safe as we were learning how to do everything without getting all of our doctors and nurses sick,” McNitt said. “I think the most challenging thing for me was watching our staff. There were not enough respirators to go around.”

The doctors also went out and bought everybody goggles from Home Depot, so the staff was wearing construction goggles until more equipment arrived.

“There was a lot of concern about how to keep the infection from spreading to other patients in the hospital and spreading to the staff. So, we were spending three hours in a room with a patient with heavy equipment on and there wasn’t enough to go around for everyone,” said Dr. McNitt. “We didn’t have anybody get sick in those first couple of months with COVID, our infection control was fine, the N95 we were wearing was fine.”

First-hand perspective

McNitt said the Emergency Room doctors did not lose a lot of patients but performed aggressive treatments when sick patients arrived in the ER and then transferred them upstairs to a patient room.

“We would follow their chart and find out 45 days later, the patient didn’t make it. It’s frustrating, because you’re trying everything and then people are still dying, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said McNitt. “It’s just not a very good feeling.”

Dr. McNitt, said it was a difficult situation to have a patient pass away when you are trying your best to save them, it was heartbreaking.

“Then you’re worried about your staff, and you’re trying to deal with that situation and trying to deal with PPE shortages and figuring out who needs what equipment and how we’re going to keep everybody safe.”

Within a couple of weeks, the community found out the hospital was having shortages, and it responded. Residents started donating N95 from their workshops and construction companies began donating eye protection, gloves and Tyvek suits.

“We are dealing with people who are sick and having the worst day of their life and having difficult situations. But the community came out, they supported us throughout this whole thing and it’s was very helpful. We were always very thankful to have that help,” said McNitt.


SCL Platte Valley Hospital worked as a team with the intensive care unit, putting their heads together via zoom meetings during the early part of the pandemic to gather data. They were also in virtual contact with hospitals and medical professionals from other parts of the country the world to bring together information on how to treat the patients and learning about the most cutting-edge treatments.

“With COVID, it was a week-to-week and we were moving along very quickly, learning. Then the news came out that there was a steroid we could use and one of the doctors upstairs was an early proponent of this when the evidence hadn’t quite come out yet. Then he started using it and writing about that,” said McNitt. “We started getting more evidence that it was a literal lifesaver. We felt like we can do something.”

Protecting Family

McNitt’s wife is a psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital specializing in emergency psychiatry. She bore the risk of seeing patients when there was no testing and no way of knowing the patient had COVID. McNitt and his wife sheltered in place to not only protect themselves but protect others since they could have been unknowingly be infected.

“We made the decision we are both are exposed all the time. There wasn’t much we were going to be able to do about it. Like everybody else, we didn’t see anybody in our family. There was no Christmas to see grandparents,” said Dr. McNitt.

Dr. McNitt did get infected with COVID in December 2020. His wife was expecting a baby at the time.

“When I found out I had it, I just was sitting there cooking dinner one night, waiting for my wife to get home from the hospital. I lost my sense of smell in the middle of cooking dinner,” McNitt said. “It was a big shift in my thinking, now I have the deadly virus. We had no idea how it works out for people who are pregnant and fortunately for us she did not end up coming down with it. I came into the hospital and they were very supportive. They got me tested that night, within an hour and I got my diagnosis. “

After McNitt’s test confirming he had COVID, he went into quarantine and got his shifts covered for 10 days. McNitt successfully recovered.

“I spent, 10 days sitting in a corner of the house wearing the N95 and wiping down every surface,” he said.


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