A look inside Harborview Medical’s grim COVID-19 intensive care unit


There is a constant beep inside the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center, a reminder that the COVID patients in the ward are fighting for their lives.

FOX 13 News had rare access inside the ICU where nurse manager Janelle Downey spoke of the desperate struggle to keep people alive.

“If a person’s oxygen starts to decline, we hear alarms,” Downey said.

During the two hours inside, FOX 13 News saw teams of doctors and nurses gather and strategize in the hallways.

When we asked Downey how tired she was, her answer was simply that everyone is exhausted.

“We work overtime. We have nurses who work 16 hour shifts,” Downey said.

We also met Dr James Town while he was doing his rounds.

Town walked into a room he had been in for weeks now with the same patient inside.

It’s one thing to see sick people on a TV screen, but it’s another level of emotion when you see a human being in person, lifeless. Tubes come out of their throats because they cannot breathe on their own.

After exiting the room, Town is gloomy.

RELATED: Washington’s COVID outbreak is worst since pandemic began

“Unfortunately, this patient has had a lot of setbacks. He’s not really in a good position,” Town said.

Doctors say the patient in his 40s had no underlying issues and was otherwise healthy, until COVID.

The patients they see are younger. Most are in intensive care for weeks or even months.

They are sedated, which means family members at home are unable to communicate with them.

The isolation is heartbreaking, so much so that there are pictures of family members hanging in different rooms – a desperate demand from loved ones who want to be here but are not allowed.

In their place are people like Nurse Downey. She talks to patients even if they are sedated, hoping it will make them feel less alone.

“You get to know them personally and you get to know their family members,” Downey said.

The most difficult cases for Downey are when they lose their parents, as she herself is a mother to a 2-year-old and pregnant expecting her second child.

RELATED: Increase in COVID-related hospitalizations in rural areas, leaving few or no beds for other patients

“Watching these families go through this is heartbreaking,” Downey said.

She says she’s put too many people in body bags and her sanity is suffering.

“It’s a pretty scary situation in the ICU,” said Dr. John Lynch. “Lots of expertise, respiratory therapists, nurses, pulmonologists and intensive care physicians.”

Even with the best care and the best technology, a patient’s outcome is always unpredictable.

For healthcare workers, the sadness is magnified as they say the vast majority of COVID hospitalizations are preventable.

“The degree of misinformation and how easily it spreads amazes me. We see people dying who shouldn’t die,” Town said.

The vast majority of intensive care patients are not vaccinated.

Lynch says there is a disconnect in the community, with some people still arguing over the severity of the virus as doctors and nurses struggle to keep people alive.

RELATED: Unvaccinated people 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, CDC says

“My basic human response is extreme frustration,” Lynch said.

Yet they give their all, even when they know the odds of survival are slim in many cases.

“We’re not giving up hope. It takes a long time,” Town said.

For those patients lucky enough to be released from the ICU, doctors say the long-term health effects are unclear.

“It may be a few years before we know the answer to that question,” Town said.

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