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On a brisk October morning, two of the five children of Stacey and Eloise Stewart, Jr. made a two-hour drive to Billings to see their parents, who both are hospitalized with COVID-19, at Billings Clinic, Montana’s largest hospital and trauma center.

It was an historic day for Billings Clinic – the COVID-19 surge was breaking records.

The hospital’s 24-room Intensive Care Unit had been hovering at or near capacity, and the decision was made to activate its surge plan to place two critically ill patients in the same ICU room.

While Billings Clinic is expanding its ICU by adding four new rooms and has extended its capabilities to care for critically ill patients in other locations such as the Cardiovascular Unit, demand for ICU-level care was outpacing availability.

That morning, children of the Stewart family had been called by the ICU team to visit about their parents. Each parent was in the ICU on a ventilator in separate rooms down the hall from one another. Another critically ill patient was about to come out of surgery who also needed ICU care, so after careful review of many factors, it was determined that Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were the best candidates to be the first to share a precious ICU room. After visiting by phone with the family, by mid-day, a detailed plan to transform the room into a space to care for two patients was complete. Installation of the complex technology, physical infrastructure, and processes for care were finished, and the clinical staff was ready. A team of ICU nurses, outfitted in the necessary PPE, carefully surrounded Mrs. Stewart and guided her bed, along with the life-saving technology, down the ICU corridor to join her husband and share his room at the end of the hallway. United in the room, the couple became the first double-occupancy ICU patients since the unit opened. All of the technology worked as planned, and their intensive care continued, husband and wife lying silently in separate high-tech beds next to one another.

Meanwhile, hardworking staff from environmental services went to work immediately to get the newly available ICU room ready to be home to another critically ill patient.

A few hours later, two of the Stewarts’ daughters met with Deanna Evans, RN, a compassionate nurse leader of the ICU. The daughters had their other siblings on the phone listening to Deanna as they were also pasting photos onto a large card to be placed in their parents’ room. It was time for them to make their way down the hall to see their parents together in one room, fighting for their lives. For one of the daughters, it was an experience she knew all too well. Her husband had recently passed away from complications of COVID-19. Deanna thoughtfully explained what to expect and introduced them to the nurse who was caring for their parents. Because of staffing shortages due to high patient volumes and a number of staff quarantined, this nurse happened to be a traveling ICU nurse who is at Billings Clinic temporarily to help with the high volumes. According to Deanna, this particular nurse has years of critical care experience and is well qualified to handle the serious nature of how the virus is impacting their parents, especially their father at that time.

After they had time to visit with the nurse while standing outside their parents’ room, they took a few minutes to look through the window at their mother and father, projecting their faith and healing spirit through the glass. It was hard for the siblings to see their parents in this condition knowing they are a very independent, hardworking couple who provide for themselves and their family. Due to time constraints put in place to keep ICU visitors safe, they couldn’t stay long. They made their way back to the lobby of the ICU and visited a bit more with Deanna. They would soon call their siblings for an update and were planning to make the two-hour drive home that evening before returning to the hospital the next morning.

Although very private people, they decided as a family to share their story as a way to help convince people in Montana to take additional action to prevent the spread of this devastating virus. At the time of their visit to the ICU, Billings Clinic’s hospital was experiencing the highest peak of COVID-19 patients since March. On the same day, 130 of the Clinic’s staff were out of work on quarantine - 70 from the hospital. Billings Clinic is bringing in approximately 75 temporary staff from across the nation next week to help and is expanding capacity to serve the needs of the multi-state region its serves, but there are limits. More focus on prevention by members of the public are needed or more loved ones and bedside staff will be at risk. The Stewart family encourages our communities to “take this virus seriously and practice safety protocols by wearing masks, staying home when sick, washing hands, and practicing social distancing.” The family members went on to say, “This virus does not discriminate based on age or ethnicity.”

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