Bethesda Revisited: The emotional reunion of a COVID nurse and patient one year later
For 365 days, Emily Allen has cared exclusively for COVID patients. One of her first patients inspired her to keep going despite many dark days.
MINNEAPOLIS — On March 26, 2020, M Health Fairview opened the first hospital dedicated solely to treating COVID-19 patients. Exactly one year later, KARE11 reporter Kent Erdahl revisited the hospital with one of the first nurses who volunteered to work inside and one of the first patients who sought treatment.
Kent Erdahl: “Can you begin by introducing yourselves?”
Emily Allen: “I’m Emily Allen. I’m a registered nurse that has been working with ICU COVID patients for a year today.”
Rick Huggins: “I’m Rick Huggins. I’m a COVID survivor, father of two, husband to Patti for 30 years and happy to be here.”
Kent: “I have this distinct memory, one year ago, driving down an empty interstate a day after the Stay At Home Order went into effect and coming to this building that was going to become one of the first COVID hospitals. I was wondering what is going to happen next. What was going through your mind?”
Emily: “I remember showing up and parking in the parking lot and walking in, and didn’t know where anything was. I mean they put the hospital together in just a very short amount of time. It kind of felt like MASH 2020. I can remember washing my hands, so hard that my skin was red. Just to be extra, extra careful, and praying to god that you don’t contract it yourself.
“It took me a while to make the decision to come and work with, specifically, COVID patients. I have a very young family, a five year old, a four year old and an almost two year old now. I was scared. I was nervous. I’ll never forget, we had one patient right away, the first night when we got here, and I’ll never forget putting on all my PPE and walking in to help prone that patient, turn them on their stomach, and thinking, once I go in that room, there’s really no going back.”
Rick: “I was the second patient here… from what I’ve been told. It was a year ago today.”
Kent: “Rick, if anything, what do you remember about your first day at Bethesda?”
Rick: “I don’t even remember being driven to the hospital. I know I walked in under my own power because they wouldn’t let Patti come in. I was so hypoxic, I suppose, that I couldn’t even get my phone to dial to call Patti, so I texted her, told her that they were going to intubate me and told her that it would be a couple of days before we could speak again. The next thing I know, I woke up a month later in this building behind us.”
Kent: “Was there a worst day?”
Rick: “When I woke from my coma I was so weak. I needed help to roll over in bed. This is coming from a guy that was physically very active prior, I would cycle five or six thousand miles a year. It was just a very, very long road to recovery. I’m not complete yet. But I do better every day.”
Kent: “I’m not complete yet. Emily do you feel complete yet?”
Emily: “No, because there are still people, just like Rick, that I’m still taking care of. Young people that have no co-morbitities. COVID is very much still here. I worked last week and our ICU was almost at capacity again and I’m expecting the same thing when I go back to work tonight.
“I’m not trying to be negative but there were a few weeks where we were putting multiple people into body bags and that stuff sticks with you.”
Kent: “Multiple people on a shift?”
Emily: “Yeah. I think one shift we had five or six people pass away.
“I go back and forth between maybe wanting to go and look for another job somewhere and just kind of step away from the ICU and COVID in general, but then I keep… there’s just this little voice in the back of my head that says, I’m not done.”
Kent: “After that first day, journalists were no longer allowed inside, but we saw some beautiful moments happen outside. Rick, you returned on your bike this summer to thank these nurses.”
Rick: “The day I rode out to thank the doctors and nurses here was probably one of the most emotional days that I’ve dealt with, and the most meaningful to me.”
Emily: “How many miles was it from your house to Bethesda?”
Rick: “It was 60 miles out and back.”
Emily: “A 60 mile bike ride. I mean, it’s a miracle. It is truly a miracle.”
Kent: “Tell me about your best day, Emily.”
Emily: “My best day was when Patti called the nurses station and we finally got Rick off the ventilator. I said, ‘Do you want to talk to Rick?’ And she goes, ‘Oh my gosh, can I? Can I?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ We got suited up and went in and we were able to FaceTime. I mean, they haven’t talked for a month, and I got to be there. Just to be a part of that moment. That was my best day.”
Kent: “Have you heard that story Rick?”
Rick: “No. That’s the first I heard that. Thank you, Emily.”
Kent: “Do you have anything that you want to say to each other?”
Rick: “I do. What I find so remarkable about people like Emily and the folks that volunteered to come to Bethesda is, one, they chose to do that willingly. To face what was really unknown at that time was very scary. Then the heartache and death that they had to witness and tolerate and yet continued to volunteer to come in every day. It’s just truly remarkable. Emily, I hold you and your co-workers and doctors and nurses and all the staff in the hospital in the highest regards and I love you guys so much for the work that you do. It means the world to me and my family.”
Emily: “That really means a lot to me. I would be lying if I didn’t say you keep me going. You and your beautiful family keep me going. I want to help people and miracles truly do happen because you are sitting next to me right now. And we love you too. We still talk about you at work. We’re just so happy that you could be reunited with your family.”
Kent: “A year from today, where do you hope to be?”
Rick: “I hope to be back to 100% enjoying my cycling, being in the company of my family, where all of my loved ones are vaccinated and safe and we don’t have that daily worry of who might get ill.”
Emily: “I hope to still be doing ICU care because that’s where my passion is. And I just hope to see people getting better again, that’s what I miss the most. More than anything.”
M Health Fairview closed Bethesda in October, moving Emily and the rest of the COVID team into nearby St. Joe’s Hospital. They continue to work exclusively with COVID Patients.
Nearly 1,000 patients came through the doors of Bethesda before it closed. In the ICU, there was a 74% survival rate, but that still means that one in four ICU patients, never made it home like Rick.