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ABC 24 News given rare access inside COVID-19 ICU ward at Methodist Hospital

"If you fully let all of the emotions and feelings and tragedies sink-in and affect you every single time, I don't think you can do this kind of job," said Dr. Eick.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Local news cameras are rarely allowed inside Memphis area COVID wards. Safety and patient privacy are a couple of significant reasons why. But Methodist University hospital recently allowed ABC 24 News Anchor Richard Ransom inside its COVID ICU unit.

The hospital system has treated more than 26,400 patients since the pandemic started and has a 95.5% survival rate. But that’s still nearly 1,200 deaths in what has been a traumatic time for the hospital’s frontline workers.

One of them is Dr. John Eick.

"Yeah, I'm very happy to see many empty beds as we walk through here, particularly in this pod which has been the ICU," as he walked down the halls of Methodist’s COVID ICU.

He and the many other doctors and nurses dealing with the heartache and stress of dealing with COVID-19 deserve a break from the constant influx of new patients. They’re glad the tide seems to be turning.

But don’t for a minute think they have it easy just because more COVID rooms are empty. Many others are still full, and in the ICU, that usually means patients are on a ventilator. And if they’re on a ventilator, that usually means they won’t make it out alive.

"I think the worst day I can remember is having a young woman who was getting sicker and sicker and having to have a conversation with her about if she were to go on a ventilator that she probably wouldn't survive, then leaving her room,” Dr. Eick said. “And then I realized her husband had just been admitted and was even sicker than her and already on a ventilator and not going to make it and having to figure out how to tell her he was here."

That patient was in her 40s. Dr. Eick has lost patients in their 30s with no underlying health issues. That’s what COVID does. Yes, older and obese patients, or those whose health is immunocompromised, are most likely to get very sick or die. But not always. Losing patients has become such commonplace, Dr. Eick said frontline workers such as himself have learned to compartmentalize their emotions – trying not to take home what happens at work.

"I’m certainly not encouraging bottling everything up, but if you fully let all of the emotions and feelings and tragedies sink-in and affect you every single time, I don't think you can do this kind of job," he said.

That’s especially true since this Delta surge, because more than 90% of these patients being treated are unvaccinated.

"I've had a number of patients die over the past month that could easily have been preventable,” Dr. Eick said. “So, that part has been the hardest to me, is being a little demoralized by it coming back when we thought it was going away and having more people dying."

He blames all the misinformation and mistruths for discouraging so many people from getting a safe, life-saving vaccine. Although, there are exceptions.

Dr. Eick said, “There are a number of people, like a patient I saw today, who was interested in getting the vaccine here before she leaves just because she's homebound and hasn't been able to get out."

There are some rare moments for levity. Since families aren’t allowed inside a COVID ward, FaceTime has become the only way to see loved ones. On the day ABC24 News was there, a relative had arranged to have birthday balloons delivered and nurses were all too happy to sing “Happy Birthday.”

It was a little unsettling to walk down these hallways, to see the patients on ventilators and to think how many lives COVID has taken almost on a daily basis.

Dr. Eick hopes we don’t take our foot off the gas, that the unvaxxed will get vaxxed, although he tries not to judge those who don’t.

"The way I try to approach it is, it's not my job to be the detective and figure out whether or not they received the vaccine or make them feel ashamed of that at all. It's to take care of them while they're sick and while they're here,” he said.

Right now, the COVID unit at Methodist University Hospital takes up a full floor plus two-thirds of the floor above it. Dr. Eick told Richard he would like nothing more than to see the Unit close for good.