ERs are swamped with seriously ill patients, although many don’t have COVID


Burnout feeds staffing shortages, and vice versa

Every morning, Tiffani Dusang wakes up and checks her Sparrow email with one singular hope: that she will not see yet another nurse resignation letter in her inbox.

“I cannot tell you how many of them [the nurses] tell me they went home crying” after their shifts, she said.

Despite Ms. Dusang’s best efforts to support her staffers, they’re leaving too fast to be replaced, either to take higher-paying gigs as a travel nurse, to try a less-stressful type of nursing, or simply walking away from the profession entirely.

Kelly Spitz has been an emergency department nurse at Sparrow for 10 years. But, lately, she has also fantasized about leaving. “It has crossed my mind several times,” she said, and yet she continues to come back. “Because I have a team here. And I love what I do.” But then she started to cry. The issue is not the hard work, or even the stress. She struggles with not being able to give her patients the kind of care and attention she wants to give them, and that they need and deserve, she said.

She often thinks about a patient whose test results revealed terminal cancer, she said. Ms. Spitz spent all day working the phones, hustling case managers, trying to get hospice care set up in the man’s home. He was going to die, and she just didn’t want him to have to die in the hospital, where only one visitor was allowed. She wanted to get him home, and back with his family.

Finally, after many hours, they found an ambulance to take him home.

Three days later, the man’s family members called Ms. Spitz: He had died surrounded by family. They were calling to thank her.

“I felt like I did my job there, because I got him home,” she said. But that’s a rare feeling these days. “I just hope it gets better. I hope it gets better soon.”

Around 4 p.m. at Sparrow Hospital as one shift approached its end, Ms. Dusang faced a new crisis: The overnight shift was more short-staffed than usual.

“Can we get two inpatient nurses?” she asked, hoping to borrow two nurses from one of the hospital floors upstairs.

“Already tried,” replied nurse Troy Latunski.

Without more staff, it’s going to be hard to care for new patients who come in overnight — from car crashes to seizures or other emergencies.

But Mr. Latunski had a plan: He would go home, snatch a few hours of sleep and return at 11 p.m. to work the overnight shift in the ER’s overflow unit. That meant he would be largely caring for eight patients, alone. On just a few short hours of sleep. But lately that seemed to be their only, and best, option.

Ms. Dusang considered for a moment, took a deep breath and nodded. “OK,” she said.

“Go home. Get some sleep. Thank you,” she added, shooting Mr. Latunski a grateful smile. And then she pivoted, because another nurse was approaching with an urgent question. On to the next crisis.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation. This story is part of a partnership that includes Michigan Radio, NPR and KHN.


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