The window on Susan McClellan’s hospital room door gave her a 24-7 view of what happens just outside the COVID-19 unit.
She picked up her pencil and sketch pad to capture what she saw – nurses donning and doffing personal protective equipment, helping each other secure their gear, hearts heavy and sighs deep as they go back into the fray.
“There were a couple of times in a two-week period in the ICU my nurses came in and I could tell they were really, really sad. When I asked, it was because they had lost several patients,” Susan, 46, of Spirit Lake, said. “It just got me thinking. I drew the picture because I know they carry a lot of responsibility, and I just wanted to validate that.”
At the time of the interview for this article, Sept. 14, Susan was on day 55 living in Kootenai Health as a COVID-19 patient. While attached to oxygen and resting in her bed with steroids working to heal her lungs, she’s had time to observe the endless flurry of activity of medical staff around her.
“Nurses would be running back and forth, and I remember thinking, ‘They have so many people they have to care for at once. I’m just one of them,’” she said. “I remember watching them as they went about their activities. They never stopped. They just kept running from one room to the next.”
Another thought stuck in her mind: “They’re human, too.”
“They have families. They might know people who are sick and they’re watching people die,” Susan said. “That’s got to be so hard.”
Nurses Zane Ferguson and Cheryl Shaw were on a care team with six COVID-19 ICU patients, including Susan, for several weeks in the unit.
“For an ICU registered nurse, I can say that caring for that many patients is heart wrenching,” Cheryl said. “We care about each one and want so desperately to help them make it home. Lately, many aren’t making it home. We become their surrogate family, and some really touch our hearts and souls.”
Susan gave Zane the drawing at the end of an especially difficult day when two patients had died in the unit.
“Immediately, I was speechless,” Zane said. “I had gone into Susan’s room checking on her, making last rounds. I said, ‘Are you doing OK?’ and she said, ‘I’m OK. How are you guys? Seems like you had a busy day.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it was a busy day for sure.’”
Zane had seen Susan sketching and said he knew she was a fantastic artist. He didn’t know she was about to present him with something that would move him and his colleagues to tears.
“She said, ‘I made this for you. I wanted to wait, but I figured you needed it now,’” Zane said.
She handed him a carefully drawn image of a nurse tying another nurse’s protective equipment. The image is flanked by faces of nurses with noses and mouths covered by masks. A tear streams from the eye of the nurse on the left.
The words “Thank you!” are at the bottom of the drawing.
“Susan handed the picture to me and I immediately got teary-eyed, and you can’t wipe tears away because you’ve got goggles on and everything else,” Zane said. “This means a lot. This means more than doughnuts or pizza or anything else. I gave her a big hug, and she started crying and I started crying. It’s such a moving picture.”
Cheryl said she also cried when she saw the drawing.
“We try so hard to be strong for our patients, but they see through to our struggles and sadness,” she said. “I pray every day for my patients, and often with them. When I thanked this patient for this beautiful sketch, she said she prayed for us, her caregivers, every day. While struggling to simply breathe, she prays for us! She gives us strength! She is a spot of sunshine for us during these difficult times. This is why we go back every day to help the sickest of the sick.”
For Susan to capture a moment in time depicting the dedication and emotion in the COVID-19 unit was a gesture that touched the hearts of her care team.
“There’s so much put into it; she took her time doing this,” Zane said. “Literally every second is spent making sure she can breathe, and she used her time to draw something to share her thanks. For someone who is struggling to breathe every day. It makes you stop and realize how much of an impact you have.”