Shawnee emergency room striving to treat COVID, other patients

By Elisabeth Slay
Elisabeth Slay is a Reporter with the Shawnee News-Star. She can be reached at (405) 214-3926 or eslay@news-star.com.

This is the third story in a series of articles about the impact of the pandemic on Shawnee's health professionals and medical resources.

If community members are showing COVID-19-like symptoms they are advised to schedule a COVID test at the hospital rather than go straight to the ER for one.
To schedule a test, call 405-273-5801.

For several weeks, the physicians and nurses of the SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital-Shawnee Emergency Room have mainly treated COVID patients and struggled to find care for patients with other health issues.

According to A.C. Husen, D.O. and medical director of the emergency department, the emergency room is overwhelmed by its amount of coronavirus patients.

"At this point in this wave it is kind of crisis mood or disaster mode," he said. "People continue to come in. People need to be admitted to the hospital and there's no staffed bed upstairs."

Husen explained because there are not enough staffed beds for those very ill with the virus, then those patients have to stay in the ER.

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These patients then become admin holds, which means they are admitted to the hospital but remain in the ER until they can be transferred to the Intensive Care Unit.

"So subsequently what happens is our rooms get filled with admin holds so that is one less bed we have to use to see patients coming in," Husen said.

The ER has a total of 18 beds in the department, and at times in recent months Husen explained they were all full.

"So people coming in with their lacerations, sprained ankle, their hurt knee and we only have two rooms to see those people at times," he said.

The medical professional explained for the last month on average the emergency department has had about eight to 10 admin holds.

"We're using half of our emergency department because we're holding people that should be (in the ICU)," he said.

Due to this current wave, Husen explained the ER created a policy in which the department could not accept patients coming in ambulances from other agencies besides REACT.

"Outside services we try to divert because we're so overwhelmed," he said. "A lot of times the ambulances are coming in and there are patients waiting on the stretchers in the hallway for two to three hours before we can put them in a room because we don't have a room to put them in."

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In the history of the Shawnee emergency department this has never happened.

For Husen, there are many challenging aspects to treating people during the pandemic.

"It has been incredibly difficult. There's so many different things with the COVID numbers and staffing shortages being the two biggest kinks in this process," he said.

Additionally, Husen is finding it extremely hard to not be able to provide care to patients or finding them care elsewhere.

He said at the beginning of the pandemic the main concern was learning how to treat and contain the virus.

However, during this surge he explained the two main concerns are treating COVID and other health issue such as Diabetes, heart problems and other illnesses.

"So it creates a incredible amount of burden to the whole medical system," Husen said.

Due to the holds, the ER is extremely backlogged and has gone from one hour wait times to six or eight hour wait times.

The other problem is not having enough nurses due to the staffing shortage.

"I don't have full staffing and so the nurses that are working are just working extra hours to help take care of the community, taking on more patients than they typically would and that's just extremely stressful," he said.

Typically there are eight nurses per 12-hour shift in the ER, but Husen said there are days when there are about half that amount.

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A nurse and REACT paramedics in the SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital-Shawnee Emergency Room.

"We're doing more with less," said Carla Tollett, SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital-Shawnee communications and marketing consultant.

Tollett explained the hospital is even stretching its resources outside of Oklahoma.

"This isn't just a Shawnee issue. It's statewide and surrounding states," Husen said. "So a lot of my day is spent...trying to find care for a patient."

While some of this is the result of the staffing shortage, many of these problems are caused by keeping up with the demand of COVID patients.

"Never, and I've practiced medicine for 15 years, have we seen a disease that filled half a hospital (and) that we had to create floors for," he said.

In the emergency department the physicians and nurses stabilize their COVID-19 patients with oxygen and steroids.

In addition, Husen said the ER also offers the antibody infusion treatment in the hospital's infusion center.

"That is a big thing that we have been doing a lot of and it's kind of one of the newer cutting edge treatments that we're doing through the emergency department," he said.

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However, though these treatments help there are still times when the doctors do everything they can but the patients continues to decline.

"This is a virus that kind of just acts like it wants and you don't know who will get sick and who will not," Husen said.

In his experience, Husen has found that vaccinated patients are not as ill as unvaccinated.

Out of the 26 COVID-19 patients currently at St. Anthony Shawnee, around 80 percent of those patients are unvaccinated.

Husen explained that percentage fluctuates; a few weeks ago 100 percent of the hospital's COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.

"The trend in our region in Oklahoma and surrounding states is about 95 percent of patients hospitalized are unvaccinated," he said.

"The vaccine is something that is very beneficial."

He explained those benefits include lessening illness, lessening length of illness, and new data shows it might lessen how infectious people are when they have the disease.

The medical professional also recognized the risks of the vaccine.

"What we have seen is people feeling poorly for 36 hours, some body aches, some people will run a fever," Husen said. "Typically after 36 hours most people are back to normal."

The benefits of the vaccine are greater than the risk, according to Husen.

Tollett said in August there were 17 COVID-19 deaths and of those people, 82 percent were unvaccinated.

The age range of those patients was 41 to 88 and over 50 percent were under the age of 65.

While times are hard, Husen said he pushes on because it's his passion to assist those who need it most.

"It's what nurses and doctors chose to do. We chose to go into medicine and to help people," Husen said. "It's probably the most difficult time I've seen in 15 years of doing emergency medicine."

What keeps him going is knowing that he's helping people and saving lives.

That being said, Husen has a message to the public regarding how to help the health care system.

"We the medical community need your help. How can you help? We need your support, your patience, your love and your respect," he said. "We need you to take care of yourself and get vaccinated."

Additionally, Husen said he and his fellow medical professionals are exhausted both mentally and physically and spending most of their time caring for the lives of strangers and their families.

"We put everything we can into helping and we never ask for a thank you," Husen said. "We have seen enough illness and death over the last 18 months to last 10 lifetimes."

He encourages the community to show its support to those in the medical community and asks people to check in on their friend, relative or loved one working hard and risking their own well being every day to care for others.

"It feels like we're running a race that doesn't have a finish line," Husen said. "If we get pushed much further I don't know how we'll tolerate it."

Lastly, Husen hopes to see a downward trend in the Delta wave, more vaccinations and a break for America's overwhelmed health care system.

"I hope we get through this and see a light at the end of the tunnel," Husen said.

If community members are expressing COVID-19 like symptoms they are advised to schedule a COVID test at the hospital rather than go straight to the ER for one.

To schedule a test, call 405-273-5801.