‘In my world, it seems like everybody’s dying’: Yakima ICU nurse shares experience caring for COVID patients

YAKIMA, Wash. — For local nurse Becky Ross, one of the hardest parts of caring for COVID-19 patients comes just before she has to intubate them — they ask her if they are going to die.

“You don’t want to tell them that, ‘The chances are you will,’” Ross said. “So you just tell them, ‘I’m going to take really good care of you and we’re going to do our best.’”

Ross has worked in the intensive care unit at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital throughout the pandemic. She has seen more patients die in the last year and a half than in her previous 15 years of nursing combined.

She’s also faced long hours of difficult work in stifling personal protective equipment, countless grieving families and constant uncertainty. Ross said that uncertainty was even more pronounced at the beginning of the pandemic, when no one knew how COVID-19 spread.

Ross would come home from work exhausted and anxious, constantly wondering if she had brought the virus home. Fearing for the life and wellbeing of her 12-year-old son, she sent him away from Yakima to live with her sister for months.

“It’s heartbreaking when he looks at you and says, ‘How long am I gonna have to be gone and away from you?’” Ross said.

Memories of the lives lost to the pandemic follow Ross wherever she goes, like the day three COVID patients died on her floor in one day or when she watched a family lose their mother and father at the same time.

“The first time I ever thought, ‘I’m done, I’m not doing this anymore,’ is when we had a couple here that we put in the same room together,” Ross said. “Neither one of them were doing well, so we had their family come up and put them in the same room and withdrew care.”

Ross said she remembers the couple was holding hands and died within moments of each other.

“It was the hardest day that I can even remember in my nursing career,” Ross said.

At the end of the day, she and the other nurses walked out to the parking lot together and found a double rainbow in the sky above them.

“After you have a really hard day, it’s those little signs that you get that say, ‘Okay, I’m going to take a little breather tonight, and then I’ll come back in the morning, because we need to,’” Ross said.

RELATED: Yakima hospital warns of ‘extremely dangerous’ surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

Life is difficult outside of the hospital as well, when Ross sees people in the Yakima community who don’t take the pandemic seriously and don’t believe her when she tells them about what she deals with daily.

“It’s really hard to not take it personally sometimes that people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s fake, you’re exaggerating it, not that many people are dying,’” Ross said. “And I would love to live in that world because in my world, it seems like everybody’s dying.”

Ross used to go to the gym and work out to relieve stress, but she can’t do it any more. When people invite her to come out places or attend large gatherings, especially if not everyone is vaccinated or wearing a mask, she can’t do it.

“All I think when I’m sitting there is, ‘I wonder how long it’s going to be until I see you at my work,’” Ross said. 

Ross said she’s thankful to all the people who do follow COVID-19 guidelines, but wishes those who don’t would take the pandemic seriously.

“We’ve had people close to us that have died and there’s nothing worse than going into work and seeing somebody you know on a ventilator,” Ross said. “Take it seriously and get your vaccine, so you don’t end up there — I would beg of you to do that.”

Ross said the bulk of COVID patients in the ICU are unvaccinated and have varying reasons for not getting the vaccine.

“When we asked them why, most of them say they were scared,” Ross said. “There was a lot of unknown.”

Ross said patients tell her they didn’t know what the research said or what it meant or where to find the vaccine — but once they make it to the ICU, most regret not being fully vaccinated.

“It’s too late for some of them now, but the most common thing is, ‘I wish I would have gotten the vaccine,’” Ross said.

Having a support system of other nurses and health care workers all dealing with the same trauma, day in and day out, has helped Ross through the trials of the pandemic. She said unless someone has seen the inside of the ICU during the past year and a half, it’s hard to fully understand what the nurses are dealing with.

“They see you on your darkest days and they see you on your best days,” Ross said. “I don’t think you can go through this without getting close to people and trusting them.”

While there’s been moments of doubt and frustration when Ross has been tempted to leave and not walk back into the hospital because of all the death she’s seen, she always comes back because of the people she has been able to save.

Ross was recently approached at the hospital by a man who was visiting his wife’s aunt, who was not doing well. It was a former COVID patient who Ross had treated more than a year ago.

“He’s like, ‘I’m so and so. I was in this room for a week and a half and you guys are my angels. I owe my life to you,’” Ross said. “Hearing things like that is what makes you stay and what makes you keep doing it.”

Another time, a husband and wife were eating lunch in the cafeteria when they decided to sneak up to Ross’s floor to see her. The woman had previously been hospitalized with COVID-19 for a month and a half and at the time, they didn’t know if she was going to make it.

Ross said the woman apologized for being a difficult patient and sometimes refusing to do what the nurses told her to do.

“She was so thankful and crying and she was also like, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you,’” Ross said. “It’s stories like that that make you come back because you know you actually make a difference in people’s lives.”


RELATED: State entities could ‘take action’ against doctors prescribing Ivermectin