I arrive at work, the emergency department at Harris Regional Hospital. All the rooms are full, the waiting room has 10 people in it, there are two ambulance crews in the hallway waiting to unload patients into rooms that don’t exist. The hallway beds are full. On almost every door to every room “POSITIVE RESULTS” is the sign.

When the pandemic started there were some nice laminated signs that said something about COVID-19, but we have run out of those and now there are just the ones that someone hastily threw together with the little red cross and “POSITIVE RESULTS.”

I have walked in busy ERs many times in my career, but I have never seen anything like this. Not only is the hospital full, but none of the larger facilities are taking patients. Not Asheville, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Gainesville, Knoxville … not anywhere.

“We can add you to the list … but probably a couple of days before we may have a bed,” we’re told.

I look at the national COVID map and think maybe I could find a bed in the light yellow states. My ER is now an ICU where we are stretching our abilities like never before. Staff have stepped up to the challenge, and what strikes me the most is not the patients, but the staff. The friends and colleagues I have worked with here for these past years are awesome. They are dedicated and more than competent in their jobs, but I have never seen them like this.

They are tired and demoralized, with many now getting COVID. We are starting to feel like we are approaching a breaking point, and it is all because of COVID.

I call up to see if there are any beds in the hospital and sometimes there is the grim statement that there may be a bed because a COVID patient is probably going to die. They also mention that this one has been particularly hard on the nurses because they have really formed a relationship with this person because they have been in the hospital for over a month.

I look up some of the patients I admitted and so often they have been moved to the ICU. I think to myself “that person was so nice” and I worry they might get worse.

I ride my bike home through town and everything seems normaI and I see the disconnect. I realize that nobody but us really knows what is happening to the health care system and how dire it is becoming.

I come home totally exhausted and happen to look at The Sylva Herald. It catches my eye that the obituaries used to be less than a page and now it’s two. Sometimes I recognize someone I treated for COVID, but otherwise I can only assume that this is mainly COVID-related.

Why am I writing this? I always say it’s not that we are looking for sympathy, but we are now and I am asking the community to show us sympathy by doing everything to stop getting sick. There is no cure for this and treatments are all marginally effective.

If you are sick then come to the ER, but now is the time to do everything you can do to not get sick. Stay home. Stop swapping air. Stay safe. Get the vaccine when you can. Give us a break. 

Dr. Ben Guiney is a member of the Sylva town board and a physician in the emergency department at Harris Regional Hospital.