The labor and delivery unit at UK HealthCare in Lexington, Kentucky, always has been a fast-paced environment. The care team handles both high-risk pregnancies and deliveries and “normal” ones. However, the pace and intensity have increased exponentially since March 2020, during the early days of the pandemic.
Twenty months later, there are no signs that this intense pace will be easing soon. Team members are among the front-line staff who are speaking about their experiences “treating the sickest COVID-19 patients” — and encouraging vaccinations — in the video series “UK HealthCare: Voices from the Front Lines.” The fourth and final chapter in the video series, released in October 2021, focuses on the neonatal, pediatric intensive care and labor and delivery units at Kentucky Children’s Hospital and the Birthing Center, part of the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital and UK HealthCare.
The stories shared by nurses, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, physicians and other professionals caring for moms and their babies underscore the utmost commitment and compassion they have for their work and their patients. Many of their stories are heartbreaking.
“The other day, half of my [assigned] patients were born to COVID-positive mothers,” said Alicia Chenail-Friend, a physician assistant in the neonatal intensive care unit at Kentucky Children’s Hospital. “It was kind of shocking how dramatically it’s changed,” she observed.
Jenna Shanks, an acute care nurse at the children’s hospital, explained that the hospital is seeing “higher acuity levels” and now providing care and treatment with fewer team members. “You’re basically giving it your all. You almost feel like you’re running in circles, more or less, because it’s just busy. It’s very busy.”
Chenail-Friend described just how critically ill many pregnant patients with COVID-19 are. “The sickest moms we are seeing are otherwise young and healthy, and they’re pregnant. And then they contract COVID and are unvaccinated. They are the sickest patients this hospital is seeing at times.”
Colleen Honey, a labor and delivery nurse, shared similar sentiments in the video and also in a blog posted on the UK HealthCare website. “I’ve definitely noticed a change in how sick our patients are getting from the pandemic,” she said. “Our goal at the end of the day is to keep our moms and our babies healthy, and this variant — and COVID in general — doesn’t pick and choose. You don’t know who it’s going to affect poorly and who’s going to do well.”
Honey spoke about the importance of having pregnant women receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “The take-home is that we have to try to keep our healthy people as healthy as possible and [look out for] those who are immunocompromised. Encourage them to listen to medical advice, really listen to their providers and encourage them to get the vaccine. I have seen several healthy, normal, young moms get very sick and need ECMO and need high-flow oxygen. ... [COVID-19] just doesn’t pick and choose.”
The labor and delivery teams have had to deliver some babies early because the mothers are so ill with COVID-19. Mandy Brasher, M.D., a neonatology fellow at UK HealthCare, explained that it’s not that a baby contracts COVID-19, but “the mother is so sick that the baby’s health ends up being compromised.” Some babies die.
Both mother and baby are at risk. Brasher became emotional when talking about mothers of newborns who had lost their battle with COVID-19. “[We are] seeing babies being separated from their mothers — mothers dying without ever holding their babies. It’s heartbreaking, and something I would never wish on anyone.”
She added, “I recommend strongly to get vaccinated and help protect your family in that way. … Being there for your baby … offering your baby everything you can. … You don’t want to put yourself at unnecessary risk — the same way you’d put your baby in a car seat when you take them home. That’s not going to 100% protect everything. [But vaccination] will give your baby a very strong advantage.”