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Inside the third surge at Sparrow: A Lansing hospital in overflow

63-year-old Annette Cyphert
For patients like 63-year-old Annette Cyphert, a COVID diagnosis has made it difficult to do even the simplest of tasks, like talking to family via the phone – something she tries to do every day to combat the loneliness. (Courtesy of Lester Graham/Michigan Radio)

May 10: “It’s like a miracle:” Monoclonal antibody use soars over 300% in Michigan

Jeanne Bishop and Kathleen Marble are huddled together over their laptop and notes, quietly trying to figure out where they’re going to put all the kids and infants coming into Sparrow Hospital with COVID-19. It’s Tuesday, April 20, and the 8 a.m. incident command meeting has just wrapped. Now the real work begins.

“We haven't really seen it in the population until last week,” says Marble, the nursing director for pediatric services at the Lansing hospital. Her eyes are tired, and she’s pushed her glasses on top of her head. “And now, our numbers are going up now in both (pediatric) ICU and pediatrics.”

The youngest infant they’ve admitted is just 2 months old.

Kathleen Marble, nursing director for pediatric services, and Jeanne Bishop, director of nursing operations, discuss where to put all the kids and infants coming into Sparrow Hospital with COVID-19.
Kathleen Marble, nursing director for pediatric services, and Jeanne Bishop, director of nursing operations, discuss where to put all the kids and infants coming into Sparrow Hospital with COVID-19. (Courtesy of Lester Graham/Michigan Radio)

“The ones that are in ICU are needing, you know, respiratory support. They're on a ventilator just like the adults are. The ones that are in pediatrics are on a high flow (oxygen support).

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“And there's still kids that come in that we find out are COVID (positive), because we test them when they come into the hospital. And they're here for a broken leg, or they're here because they were in an auto accident. And then we find out they're positive.”

As of Friday, April 23, 54 children were hospitalized in Michigan with suspected or confirmed  COVID-19. The state hit a new record for pediatric hospitalizations just days earlier on April 20, with 70 inpatients under age 18, according to the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. 

That’s a 311% increase in pediatric admissions in just the last two months, says John Karasinski, MHA’s spokesperson. 

Stories from the front  

Bridge Magazine, Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio are teaming up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. We will be sharing accounts of the challenges doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel face as they work to treat patients and save lives. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact reporters Robin Erb rerb@bridgemi.com at Bridge, Kristen Jordan Shamus kshamus@freepress.com at the Free Press and Kate Wells katwells@umich.edu at Michigan Radio.

“The increase is likely due to a combination of factors. The higher infection rates for children under the age of 18 ultimately leads to more children requiring inpatient care,” he says. “The more contagious variants is likely driving the higher infection rates, along with exposure to unvaccinated adults and a resumption of activities at levels we have not seen previously during the pandemic, including sports, extracurricular activities, increased mobility and social gatherings.”

Dr. Michael Zaroukian
Dr. Michael Zaroukian, Sparrow’s chief medical information officer, says it looks like COVID cases have stopped their rapid climb and may be at a plateau. He hopes the decrease in cases will stick. (Courtesy of Lester Graham/Michigan Radio)

Zaroukian hopes the recent decrease in new cases will stick.

“People are probably responding to what they’re seeing by being more cautious,” he says, nodding toward the whiteboards lining the walls, covered in notes about new admissions and changing protocols.

“I think it’s partly behavior, and partly the fact that some of the (social) mixing, like spring break, is over. And so they’re not doing as much traveling as they would have been doing during late March, early April. But I think the big aspect of it seems to have settled down. And so what’s also helping [is] our winter sports, which we think also was a bit of a vector, those seasons are over now. And so the next set of sports will be mostly outside and that should help as well.”

What worries him, though, is the possibility of hitting a vaccine wall: getting to a point where vaccine hesitancy keeps herd immunity out of reach. Given the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, we’ll probably all need vaccine booster shots in six months to a year. But if the coronavirus  continues to circulate widely, it could make real progress hard.

“That's the biggest concern I have actually right now,” Zaroukian says. “The more (these variants) continue to spread and stay active, the more variants we’ll get … (and) the greater the chance that one of those variants will not respond to the vaccine. So that's why time is of the essence.”

'I’ve always been the caregiver'

From the command meeting, everyone disperses, headed back to their departments. We take the elevator to the ninth floor, where Annette Cyphert is struggling to breathe.

Annette Cyphert
Michigan’s seeing a small, but hopeful, drop in daily new COVID cases, and there’s optimism that hospitalizations may have peaked in this third wave as well. But at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital – where nurses like Maddie Schrauben care for COVID patients like 63-year-old Annette Cyphert – space is still maxed out. (Courtesy of Lester Graham/Michigan Radio)

The 63-year-old has been at Sparrow for over a week now. Sitting up in bed, her bare feet hanging over the edge, Cyphert says COVID-19 has made it hard to even talk to her children on the phone from her hospital room.

“I have to tell them to go away,” she says, managing a small chuckle between long, labored inhales from the nasal cannula pushing oxygen into her body. “I say, ‘I’ll call you back later when I can breathe.’”

Cyphert, who works in the bakery department at Walmart, says this experience is a role reversal.

“I’ve always been the caregiver. And I can say that, because my daughter has extensive issues.”

Now even small things, like going for walks — something that helps her anxiety — are no longer options.

She still manages to talk to her adult children on the phone every day, she says. And she thinks about the great-granddaughter on the way — her third. And just being able to sit up, or “hear my own voice,” that’s an improvement. But it’s an effort to get out even a few words at a time.

As we head out of Cyphert’s room and wish her well, I ask her: What made her agree to be interviewed? She’s in such a vulnerable position: sick, fighting to breathe, wearing only a thin gown, while the reporter and photographers are dressed in head-to-toe PPE and specialized oxygen hoods, like we’re handling toxic specimens.

“It’s lonely here!” Cyphert says. “That’s the main reason.”

She just wanted to see people.

“I’ve got three faces in here now,” she says, nodding at us.

'So close' to getting vaccinated

Quinita Glynn’s room is just a few doors down. The 42-year-old has spent the last 13 days here, and nurses say her remarkable improvement is a morale boost for the whole floor. When Glynn was admitted, she needed so much oxygen that she had to have a special feeding tube, so as not to remove her oxygen mask even briefly.

Now it looks like Glynn will soon be able to go home to her four kids, albeit with an oxygen machine.

“I’m feeling 100% better,” she says. “When I came in here about 13 days ago. My body just felt beat.”

42-year-old Quinita Glynn
42-year-old Quinita Glynn was just days away from her vaccination appointment when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. Her case was severe, but her remarkable improvement has been a morale boost for nurses. Here she talks with her family on her cell phone.

Glynn has asthma. She knew COVID-19 could be life-threatening for her, so she’s been extremely cautious over the last year, basically only leaving the house when it was absolutely necessary.

Just last month, she went in for a check-up with her pulmonologist, who said her lungs looked great. She’s not sure how she contracted the virus — possibly her youngest daughter, a sixth  grader, brought it home from school.

But what Glynn initially assumed was a sinus infection just wouldn’t go away. One afternoon, her sister made her go to the emergency room, because Glynn was increasingly disoriented. That’s when she started deteriorating, fast, and was rushed to intensive care. During those first few days, she thought she was dying. But she fought hard, she says.

“And I been calling COVID ‘devil.’ I’m not gonna let the devil defeat me. You know, it’s bigger than this. I'm going to get out of here. Now … I got a testimony. This is part of my testimony. This is part of my story.”

But she can’t help but think how she got sick just days away from getting vaccinated.

“I was so close, you know? I fought the fight. I'm determined, you know, waiting for April 5. And here come COVID. And so I tried to push it and quarantine it. I just almost made it.”

The marathon keeps going

Out in the hallway, Dr. Kenneth Thompson is doing rounds with a resident. He’s been trying to keep the mood light, he says, and the nurses affectionately roll their eyes at his jokes about a box of gloves that “only have left hands! Must have been a discount.”

But everyone is exhausted. Just a couple months ago, Thompson and his team lost one of their own: Dr. Enrique Lopez, 67, another family medicine physician, died of COVID-19-related complications on Feb. 5.

“He was a good friend,” Thomspon says. “(He) picked it up in his office.”

Lopez’s wife works at Sparrow, too, Thompson says.

“She’s been here 33 years. I just saw her the other day. She’s still working, because she says, ‘If I don’t work, I’ll just sit at home and cry.’”

Thompson is silent a moment. Then a resident pokes her head out of a patient’s room, waving him over. “Gotta go be a hero,” he jokes, walking off. “Alright, you guys. Have fun. Wear a mask. Save a life.”

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