SIERRA VISTA — You cannot talk about Molly Johnson without talking about COVID-19. It is practically and ironically her entire life.

Ask her — and only if you ask her — she will tell you that COVID-19 is not gone; we should not be pretending that life is back to pre-COVID days, she said.

“It’s still very much here and kicking our butts,” she said.

Johnson has reason to say this. As a registered nurse assigned to the intensive care unit at Canyon Vista Medical Center, she sees daily the results of the infection, and it is horrific.

A bad day

She tells the story about one patient, but clearly it still affects her.

“(As a nurse) I’ve had really bad days,” she said. “I’ve been in a couple of pediatric codes in the emergency room. Those are absolutely terrible, but the day that broke me, we had lost four or five patients within a week’s span, and one of them was in their early 50s ... and it was pretty rocky. It was touch and go, and that person was here for, like, more than 20 days.”

The patient had multiple medications and protocols and because they were so sick had a dedicated, one-on-one nurse.

“I was in the room all day ... and the blood pressure just kept dropping and everything we did, it wasn’t working,” Johnson said.

The medical center does not allow visitors but will make exceptions, especially in end-of-life situations. However, it must be approved by the center’s administration. In this case, it was the person’s spouse and two children, who were in their late teens and early 20s, and they could not go into the patient’s room. They had to stand in the hallway and watch from a window as their family member died.

“We let them talk to (the patient) over the phone and we stay in the room with the person as they pass,” Johnson explained. “I’ve held way too many people’s hands that way. That person’s spouse, in particular, they were very emotional, and having to listen to that and see the kids crying, and everything we did didn‘t work, that was my worst experience so far.”

Johnson has been nursing for 10 years, almost all of that time with Canyon Vista. As with most medical professionals, she is tired of COVID, tired of treating patients with COVID, tired of the sad fallout of COVID.

A good day

A good day, in fact the best day, she said, was when one long-term patient transferred out of the ICU on a stretcher — not a wheelchair — to a rehabilitation center. That was a good day because the staff, Johnson included, saved someone’s life.

“Recently we had a patient in their 30s that was here for a very long time and ended up getting (medically) paralyzed,” she said.

The staff tried all sorts of treatments and it got so discouraging Johnson said she did not want to go back to work to face another day of unsuccessful treatments on someone so young.

“Then I came back and they were doing better and we actually got to see that person get discharged to an acute rehab,” she said. “We lined the halls and clapped and cheered as they wheeled out on a stretcher. That was definitely the most rewarding thing, and I think it came at a time when a lot of us were feeling pretty low, so that was awesome.”

Cochise County and the pandemic

It was tough going for the staff at the beginning of the pandemic.

“(COVID patients) were sicker than any patients we had ever seen,” Johnson said. “It was just every day, and they’re so sick. It was crazy. They’d be fine, and it would seem like they’re getting better, and then the next day they’re coding, and we were like, ‘What?’ ”

Finding her calling

Johnson didn’t grow up thinking she would like to be a nurse; it happened later, when she was casting around for ideas about what to do with the rest of her life. Somehow she hooked into the idea of nursing.

“My then-boyfriend (now husband) suggested it because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why not? I’ll give it a shot.’ It ends up I love it. It’s exactly what I was meant to do.”

Johnson doesn’t treat just COVID patients. Even while Canyon Vista is overrun with them, there are still the usual problems people have: heart attacks, strokes, cancer.

Canyon Vista’s ICU is on the second floor and when you step off the elevator and turn left, you are greeted by the lovely vista of the Huachuca Mountains.

Inside a nearby set of double doors, however, is another view: that of closed doors and drawn curtains, and people dressed in scrubs, masks, goggles, gowns and gloves moving about with purpose. It’s clear the staff is close and truly work as a team when Johnson hugs another nurse and greets him with feeling when she sees he has returned from vacation. The staff work hard together and, therefore, become close. They know one another well, both faults and talents, and value teamwork.

“Molly is a great resource to our unit and other units if she ever floats,” said Matt Schutze, an ICU-dedicated RN and Cochise College grad. “She can do multiple jobs ... (and) has a very extensive knowledge base with cardiology stuff. She is a really good team member and is really valuable to us.”

Johnson acknowledges how close everyone is, and it’s what has helped her get through the difficult times. She won’t say she has PTSD, but she has not been unaffected.

“I don’t know anybody that I work with that has gone through this unscathed,” she said. “This has definitely been the most stressful my job has ever been and the most heartbreaking, for sure, because I’ve seen more deaths in the last year and a half than I have in my entire 10 years combined. You put so much work and effort into taking care of them and really giving it your all, and then it’s just not enough. That is really defeating.”

Still, all her colleagues worked hard to come together for their patients.

“I’m really proud of my team,” Johnson said.

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