Roger Struckhoff was being treated for intestinal bleeding at a hospital outside of Chicago this month when he suffered a mild heart attack.
Normally, a 67-year-old man would be sent to intensive care. But Struhoff said he was overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and instead staff had to bring a heart monitor into his room and quickly inject nitroglycerin and morphine.
“A doctor I know pretty well said, ‘Roger, we’re going to have to improvise right here,'” said Struckhoff, who lives in DeKalb, Illinois.
This winter’s omicron surge has not only flooded U.S. hospitals with a record number of COVID-19 patients, but has also caused frightening moments and severe headaches for people trying to get treated for other illnesses.
Less urgent procedures, such as cochlear implant surgeries and steroid injections for rheumatoid arthritis, have been suspended across the country. And people with all sorts of medical complaints had to wait in emergency rooms for several hours longer than usual.
Mat Gleason said he took his 92-year-old father Eugene Gleason to an emergency room in the Los Angeles area last week for a blood transfusion to treat a blood disorder. It was supposed to take seven to ten hours, according to Gleason, but his father was there for 48 hours.
He said that his father called him 10 hours later and asked for a blanket.
“He later told me, ‘I just thought they forgot about me,’” said Gleason, 57, who works as an art critic. “And yet he wasn’t the only person in that room. There were dozens of people there.” But Gleason added: “I don’t feel sorry for the hospital at all. They did a great job.”
As of Tuesday, an average of almost 144,000 people were in U.S. hospitals with COVID-19, the highest number on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals in several states, such as New York and Connecticut, which experienced an early spike in umicron load, are seeing a decrease in patient load, but many other places are overwhelmed.
Hospitals say COVID-19 patients are not as sick as they were during the last wave. And many of them are hospitalized for reasons other than COVID-19 and only accidentally test positive for the virus.
Rick Pollack, CEO and president of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a broad impact on the availability of care for people who have health issues unrelated to COVID-19. He said a number of factors are at work: more people are in hospitals and a large number of healthcare workers have left with COVID-19, exacerbating the shortage of staff that existed long before the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, roughly 23% of hospitals across the country were reporting critical staff shortages, Pollack said.
Many people are also unable or unwilling to seek medical attention for symptoms that do not seem urgent, he said. Pollack said this has led to delays in diagnosing conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, which get worse the longer they go untreated.
Dr. Claudia Fegan, Chief Medical Officer of Chicago’s Cook County Health Department, said some people, especially older patients, have been avoiding checkups and other routine healthcare services during the pandemic out of fear of COVID-19.
And as a result, “the patients we see now are much more severe,” she said, citing cases of advanced heart failure and cancer that could have been diagnosed earlier.
Mike Bowden, a 59-year-old marketing consultant with a history of blood clots in his lungs, said he couldn’t make an appointment with his doctor in Davenport, Iowa because his cough symptoms were too similar to COVID-19. The doctor’s office was concerned about the spread of the virus to others.
Nearly two weeks later, Bowden went to an outpatient clinic, which sent him to the emergency room at Genesis-East Medical Center in Davenport. He said he waited nearly six hours in a crowded ER before being seen. Scans showed blood clots in his lungs, as he suspected, and he was prescribed blood thinners.
If not for the surge, Bowden said, he would have had his scan much earlier in the doctor’s office.
“It’s always so easy to call an ambulance on a Monday morning, but everyone was very nice – even the other patients,” Bowden said. “I think it’s important for people to understand that no one is a villain.”
Craig Cooper, a spokesman for Genesis, declined to comment on any individual cases. But he said in an email: “We are not exempt from the challenges medical centers face in the United States due to the significant impact of COVID. We encourage people to get vaccinated.”
Struckhoff, a tech start-up researcher, said he arrived at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb for what he suspected was internal bleeding.
He was diagnosed and given a bed in the emergency room. He waited there for six hours, feeling dizzy, before being taken to his room through corridors where people were lying on stretchers.
“I wasn’t in trouble at the time,” Struhoff said. “I was worried about cluttering up the emergency room and taking up space for other people.”
Christopher King, spokesman for Northwestern Medicine, declined to comment on Struhoff’s treatment due to privacy laws. But he confirmed that waiting times were higher than usual across the entire hospital system, as they were across the country.
Struhoff said that when he got his own hospital room, a colonoscopy revealed bleeding. Doctors treated him by cauterizing a vein. He then suffered a heart attack while recuperating. He said it took him five hours to get into intensive care.
“That’s not what they were made for, but they did it,” Struhoff said of the doctors and nurses who took up the challenge. “These people are heroes.”
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