Inside the third surge: A hospital in overflow

Hear what it sounds like at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing as it struggles with maximum capacity.

Jeanne Bishop and Kathleen Marble huddle together over their laptops and notes as they quietly try to figure out where to put all the children and babies coming to Sparrow Hospital with COVID-19. It’s Tuesday, April 20, and the 8 o’clock incident command meeting has just ended. Now the real work begins.

“We didn’t see it in the population until last week,” said Marble, the nursing director for pediatric services here at Lansing Hospital. Her eyes are tired and she has put her glasses on her head. And now our numbers are rising in both [pediatrics] ICU and Pediatrics. “

The youngest baby they have taken in is only two months old.

“Those in the ICU need respiratory support. They’re on a ventilator, just like the adults. Those who are in pediatrics have a high current [oxygen support]. “

‘And there are still children coming in who we discover to be COVID [positive]because we test them when they get to the hospital. And they are here for a broken leg, or they are here because they were in a car accident. And then we find out that they are positive. “

That’s not unique to Sparrow. As of Friday, April 23, 54 children in Michigan were hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID (although Sparrow did see a decrease in his pediatric admissions over the past week, a spokesman said.) Just days earlier, the state hit a new one. record for pediatric COVID hospital admissions on April 20, according to the Michigan Health and Hospital Association: 70 admitted patients under the age of 18.

That’s a 311% increase in pediatric admissions in the past two months, MHA spokesperson John Karasinski said.

“The increase is likely due to a combination of factors,” he said via email Friday. The higher rate of infection for children under 18 will ultimately lead to more children needing inpatient care. The more contagious variants are likely to lead to higher infection rates, along with exposure to unvaccinated adults and a resumption of activities at levels we do not have been seen before during the pandemic, including sports, extracurricular activities, increased mobility and social gatherings. ”

A one year plus marathon

These “command and control” meetings are a crisis measure that Sparrow started last year during the spring wave. At the time, the meetings had an urgent feeling of all hands on deck, staffers say. Now, on the third wave, the tone is different.

“In the beginning it was a big adrenaline rush. You had the command center, “Oh, we’re here and we’re going to help everyone!” Says Dr. Kenneth Thompson, a family physician. Now it is, ‘Oh, you’re only at mile number six. There are twenty more. ‘ You are joking. I sprinted the first six. “

On Tuesday, the day we spent at Sparrow, the hospital was at 100% capacity, with 50 overflow beds. Twelve people were waiting for the emergency room, and they would no longer allow transfers from hospitals outside the Sparrow health system, said Jeanne Bishop, the director of nursing operations.

However, there may be some good news: It appears that COVID cases have halted their rapid climb and may be on a plateau, says Dr. Michael Zaroukian, the Chief Medical Information Officer and Chief Transformation Officer. In the Lansing region, the positivity rate has fallen “below 16% for the first time in weeks,” according to Sparrow’s own test results.

Zaroukian hopes that the recent decline in the number of new cases will continue.

“People probably respond to what they see by being more careful,” he says, nodding at the whiteboards lining the walls, covered in notes about new recordings and changing protocols.

“I think it’s partly the behavior, and partly the fact that part of the [social] the mixing, like spring break, is over. And so they don’t travel as much as they would have done in late March, early April. But I think the big aspect of it seems to have been resolved. And what also helps [is] our winter sport, which we think was also a bit of a vector, those seasons are over now. And so the next set of sports will be mostly outdoors and that should help too. “

What worries him, however, is the possibility of hitting a vaccine wall: reaching a point where vaccine hesitation keeps herd immunity out of reach. Given the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, we’ll likely all need vaccine booster shots in six months to a year. But if COVID continues to circulate widely, it can be really difficult.

“That’s the biggest concern I have right now,” says Dr. Zaroukian. “More [these variants] keep spreading and stay active, the more variants we get …[and] the more likely 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 caretaker”

From the command meeting, everyone scatters and goes back to their own sections. We take the elevator to the ninth floor, where Annette Cyphert has trouble breathing.

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

“I have to tell them to leave,” she says, managing a small smile between long, labored breaths from the nasal cannula that pushes oxygen into her body. “I say, ‘I’ll call you 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 caretaker. And I can say that because my daughter has extensive problems. “Now even little things, like walking – something that helps her anxiety, are no longer an option.

She still manages to talk to her grown children on the phone every day, she says. And on the way she thinks about the great-granddaughter – her third. And being able to sit up straight or ‘hear my own voice’ is an improvement. But it is an effort to say even a few words at a time.

When we leave Cyphert’s room and wish her the best, I ask her, why did she agree to be interviewed? She is in such a vulnerable position: sick, struggling to breathe, dressed only in a thin dress, while the reporter and photographers are dressed in head-to-toe personal protective equipment and specialized oxygen bottles, as if handling poisonous monsters.

“It’s lonely here!” Cyphert says. “That’s the main reason.” She just wanted to see people. “I’ve got three faces here now,” she says, nodding at us.

“I was so close” to be vaccinated

Quinita Glynn’s room is just a few doors down. The 42-year-old has spent the past 13 days here, and nurses say her remarkable improvement is a moral boost for the entire floor. When Glynn was admitted, she needed so much oxygen that she needed a special feeding tube to not even take off her oxygen mask.

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

“I feel 100% better,” she says. “When I came here about 13 days ago. My body just felt throbbing. “

Glynn has asthma. She knew that COVID could be life-threatening to her, so she has been extremely careful over the past year and actually only left the house when absolutely necessary.

Last month she went for a check-up with her pulmonologist, who said her lungs looked great. She’s not sure how she contracted the virus – her youngest daughter, a sixth-grade group, may have brought it from school.

But what Glynn initially assumed was that a sinus infection just wouldn’t go away. One afternoon her sister forced her to go to the emergency room because Glynn became increasingly disoriented. Then she started to deteriorate rapidly and was rushed to intensive care. During those early days she thought she was dying. But she fought hard, she says.

And I have called COVID ‘devil’. I will not let the devil beat me. You know, it’s bigger than this. I’m out of here. Now … I have a testimony. This is part of my testimony. This is part of my story. “

But she can’t help but think about how she got sick just days before she was vaccinated.

‘I was so close, you know? I have fought the battle. I am determined, you know, waiting for April 5th. And here comes COVID. And so I tried to push it and quarantine it. I just almost made it. “

For health workers, the marathon continues as usual

In the hallway, Dr. Kenneth Thompson is doing rounds with a resident. He’s tried to keep the mood light, he says, and the nurses lovingly 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 few months ago, Thompson and his team lost one: Dr. Enrique Lopez, 67, another primary care physician, died of COVID-19 complications on Feb. 5.

“He was a good friend,” says Thomspon. “[He] picked it up in his office. Dr. Lopez’s wife also works at Sparrow, says Thompson. “She’s 33 years old here. I saw her last. She’s still working because she says,” When I’m not working, I’ll just sit at home and cry. ‘ ”

Thompson is silent for a moment. Then a resident pokes her head out of a patient’s room and waves him. “You have to become a hero,” he jokes as he walks away. “Okay, guys. Have fun. Wear a mask. Save a life.”

The Detroit Free Press, Bridge Michigan and Michigan Radio have teamed up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus at, Robin Erb at or Kate Wells at

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