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Together for life until separated by COVID-19, care staff rejoin couple in his final days

Together for life until separated by COVID-19, care staff rejoin couple in his final days
Monday, February 07, 2022

Hope Sternberg

His body failed to respond to treatment for COVID-19. Hospitalized in Gundersen’s unit for patients infected with the virus, now was the time for comfort measures and compassionate care.

Hope Sternberg, RN, almost didn’t believe he had reached the end of his life.

“He had so much energy and was so talkative,” she said. “I asked if he wanted ice cream and he said, ‘Only one scoop because I don’t want to get fat.’”

He’d changed the next day.

His coloring—warm a day earlier—had faded to pale. Fluid filled his lungs. Potent medicine tried to starve off the pain of organ failure.

Sternberg knew he would not survive for long. She also felt he shouldn’t be alone when it happened.

Across the hall was his long-time wife, also infected with COVID-19.

“We knew they loved each other,” Sternberg said. “And we knew we would have to try to get them to be together.”

The virus requires patients to isolate, even if they're related. But for this couple, compassionate care meant an exception.

With consent from the unit leader and hospital operations manager, care staff moved his wife into his room late one afternoon.

“It was the right thing to do for them,” Clinical Manager Jenny Jackson said.

Their beds parallel, his wife reached for his hand and held it.

She knew why staff had brought them together.

“This virus can change things fast,” Sternberg said. “We want our patients to know they are being cared for at the most difficult time.”

Difficult for families. Difficult for the community. Difficult for staff.

“Nurses have shed a lot of tears inside the PAPRs,” Jackson said.

For the rest of her shift that stretched into the late evening, Sternberg continued to care for him and listened as his daughters shared his story.

“I tried to make things the best for them,” she said.

She cried with other nurses. She gave her condolences to his family. She knew they wouldn’t be there when she returned to work.

But before her shift ended, she told him she was the nurse who allowed all the ice cream he wanted. His eyes opened, just a sliver. She told him his wife and daughters were bedside and, knowing their relationship with faith, to go toward the light when it came.

Hours later, he lost his life to COVID-19.

“They were all around him,” Sternberg said. “And that’s what made it beautiful.”

Staff allowed his wife to remain at his side until she needed care to continue her fight against the virus that took her husband and brought a global pandemic.

A pandemic that changed so much for us. A pandemic that brought so much for Sternberg. Her graduation from Viterbo University. Her first job, here at Gundersen. Her first shifts in General Medicine, her desired practice area. And then her role caring only for patients hospitalized with COVID-19, where her work continues.

“Someone asked me, ‘Are you sure that’s something you want to do?’” Sternberg remembered. “I was a little naïve, but I took it head on. These people are really sick, and they need us to be there.”

“Us.”  The team. A real team that brings together experienced caring staff and those just entering the field, like Sternberg. When they’re challenged mentally, fatigued and facing burn out, they lean on each other. They inspire each other. Push each other through it.

“All of this is overwhelming for us,” she said. “Especially when there are more end-of-life cases than we expected.”

To Sternberg and her colleagues fighting for patients who are fighting COVID-19, the virus is very real. And it’s very serious.

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La Crosse, WI 54601

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