Healing Reflections: "Reflection of 2020" by Sue Cullinan, M.D.

Jan 10, 2021 | Hannah Schlotthauer, Administrative Assistant | @schlohan

"Reflections of 2020"
Story by: Sue Cullinan, M.D. | Mayo Clinic Health System

I remember my first very sick COVID patient. These patients can be ill for many days and come to the Emergency Department short of breath. It was a different shortness of breath than chronic obstructive pulmonary disease {COPD} or congestive heart failure labored breathing. A patient may be able to speak full sentences yet be very winded with any activity. Vital signs can show low oxygen saturation levels, causing distress.  We prepare to intubate if the patient is tiring out and we would need to do so. When we re-evaluate, the patient may be able to speak in full sentences.

Some patients are ultimately admitted for COVID pneumonia. I follow the patient course, as I want to make sure the emergency department course was optimal. In one case, the fact that we did not intubate a patient was the best decision. Some patients are admitted to intensive care, stay the course, initially, but then worsen again requiring intubation many days later.

Some patients eventually transfer to other facilities remaining in the hospital for many weeks. Some have not made it home, dying from COVID.I did not follow all typical long inpatient courses. It was tough, never knowing which ones would make it out of the hospital.

Some patients did not want to be admitted, as they were afraid to die. I would see patients several times in the emergency department who then go on to be followed on an outpatient basis closely. I reassured patients when they looked well, and that we would take good care of them. If I saw an obituary published I felt like I really failed a patient.

There are many patients, and those that did well and were discharged home.

My emergency department visit for shortness of breath was while I had COVID. I didn’t know if I was going to worsen at day 12 or if I was improving.  It was concerning for my family and for my co-workers filling in for me, because of the unknown. It’s hard to think of yourself when this was occurring every day in multiple places. Yet, it was also hard not to too.

COVID is such a strange virus with so many symptoms. There was hardly a patient in the emergency department that did NOT have a COVID symptom as almost every symptom was on the list. And no symptoms? That was on the list too.

How can something that is 0.12 microns in size cause such worldwide chaos? There is not a person that has not been affected in some way or some form from this virus.

It’s SO hard to imagine how something so little and so hidden, can go so……”viral”.

Early on, our emergency department prepared for a surge of covid patients, but instead, had a huge drop in patient volume.  Over the summer, as numbers of emergency department patients increased, we continued to plan for a surge, to be alert and ready for that influx of patients. We had several moments and days of increased numbers and hitting capacity at times, but nothing catastrophic or overbearing. We are thankful.

We are still ready, but less concerned for that massive overload. Yet, as crazy and unpredictable as COVID has been, we take nothing for granted.

As the virus changes, we continue to stay updated on treatments and new courses of action if needed.


Art by: Claire Dronen 

I am an artist and student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, studying for my BFA in Industrial Design and Studio Art minor. Originally from Minnesota, I moved to Menomonie, WI at the end of 2015 and have lived here since. Science and medicine have always been of interest to me; the capabilities of the human body and the natural world are incredible, but more incredible than that, is our capacity to connect and love. In many ways, art and science are one in the same.

Inspiration from Sue's story: Her "team" mindset. She felt deeply when her patients in her care succumbed to the virus. She ended her story on a more hopeful note, one that alluded to a vaccine on the horizon aiding our fight against this pandemic.


For more information about the Healing Reflections gallery or to get involved with the project, contact Sara Martinek.

To discuss the latest on Post-COVID Syndrome, head over to the Post-COVID Recovery discussion group.

Interested in more newsfeed posts like this? Go to the Post-COVID Recovery blog.

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