By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Katie Huffman had never felt so alone as she did that April day when she dropped her mother off at the doors to the emergency department at IU Health North Hospital.
As a nurse at Riley Hospital for Children, Katie knew she could go no farther than the entrance to the ED due to the safety protocols put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. She blinked back tears as she watched her mom go through those doors, knowing she might not see her again for days or even weeks.
Two days earlier, Katie’s grandmother had died. While she was never able to be tested, her family is certain she died of complications related to COVID-19. Now her mom was sick with the virus, and soon, Katie would be sick as well.
The three women were tight. Lynn Huffman raised Katie as a single mom with the help of her own mother, Judy Huffman. Katie has no siblings.
Lynn Huffman, 57, was previously healthy, but COVID knocked her down pretty hard, Katie said. The two had taken in Katie’s grandmother to stay with them when her nursing home could no longer care for her. Eleven of the 13 patients in her unit died after contracting the virus.
“She had a great week and a half with us before she died,” Katie said. “My grandma was one of my best friends. It was nice to take care of her like she always cared for me.”
Judy Huffman passed away April 20. By then, Lynn Huffman was already feeling sick, so sick that she was unable to attend her mother’s funeral.
“My mom went into the hospital April 22,” Katie said. “She had been sick for a week with fever and every other symptom. We knew the house was full of COVID.”
Because Katie had taken care of COVID-positive patients in the PICU at Riley previously, she worried that she might be the one to unknowingly transmit the virus to her loved ones. But it was the other way around. She would be the last to get sick.
At this point, Katie could only think of her mom, alone in the hospital with no family to comfort her. But then she got a message from a fellow PICU nurse that would leave her amazed and grateful.
Megan Allen divides her time between the PICU at North and Riley Downtown. For three months this past spring, the North PICU transitioned to an adult COVID unit, and the young nurse volunteered to care for those patients.
“I wanted to help, I wanted to go where there was a need,” she said.
During one of her shifts, she overheard a colleague say that a patient in the ICU was the mother of a Riley PICU nurse. Megan figured she might know the nurse, and she was right. Even though Katie works nights and Megan works days when she is Downtown, they have crossed paths.
Megan knew she could offer Katie at least some reassurance, along with a friendly voice.
“I messaged her and told her I’m working up North in the ICU, I’m here with your mom right now and I’m here for the next three days,” Megan recalled. “I gave her my phone number so we could communicate. I felt so awful for these families that couldn’t visit their loved ones.”
That message came at a crucial time for Katie.
“I was probably at my breaking point that morning when my mom was intubated and sent to the ICU. Then I get a call from Megan, and I’m in shock, I’m just a mess. I realize it’s PICU Megan who I work with, but it still didn’t quite register. It was so ironic that my mom was actually in the PICU and she had PICU nurses taking care of her.”
For Katie, it’s the best thing that could have happened, especially when her mom was on a ventilator. When Megan told a sedated Lynn Huffman that she works with Katie, Lynn’s eyes shot open, she said.
“When mom was intubated and I couldn’t talk to her, Megan gave her a white board to write on and the only thing my mom would write was my name,” Katie said. “When she got extubated, I got to FaceTime her and that was pretty awesome.”
Knowing her mom was in good hands meant the world to Katie, and to know she could call Megan daily during the most critical time was a blessing.
“Any question I had, she had the answer for. She kept me so well-informed,” said Katie, a nurse at Riley for five years.
Three months after her COVID scare, Lynn Huffman is “100 percent good,” she said. She was discharged after nine days at North through a new program at IU Health called Hospital in the Home. With Katie serving as her in-home nurse, Lynn was on oxygen support for less than a week, during which time a nurse called several times a day to get her vitals and offer additional monitoring.
“She was just ready to come home to be with me,” Katie said. “We could just have COVID together.”
Katie began showing symptoms while her mom was hospitalized, but she was able to manage them at home.
Lynn returned to work earlier this month and is walking up to four miles a day to stay fit. She is grateful to her nurses, techs and her physical therapist for going above and beyond during such a trying time. Her only regret is that she can’t remember everyone’s name.
“I tell the girls that the PICU was my favorite, even though I was probably at my worst then,” Lynn said. “I want to thank all of IU North, my favorite nurse Ashley, and Megan especially – for keeping in contact with Katie. She was just a godsend during an awful time. Thank God they have liaisons and nurses who are calling family. I know it meant so much to Katie to hear a familiar voice on the other end of the phone.”
Megan was glad to be that familiar voice, knowing how important it would be for her if she had family members hospitalized. As difficult as the experience was, she appreciates the perspective it gave her.
“I grew tremendously as a nurse. I’ve been challenged in ways I never knew,” she said. “I’ve only done pediatrics, so it was challenging being in the adult world. It was really hard to watch people have to go through this and go through it alone. So I wanted to be there in any way I could.”
Katie and Lynn Huffman are grateful that she was there for them.
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com