Houston ICU nurse pens heartbreaking letter on COVID pandemic: 'I feel empty'

HOUSTON, Texas -- On a typical day, you can find Jennifer Steenburg walking the halls of Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital with joy paired with a gleaming smile.

That smile, however, has since faded as a new wave of the virus sweeps through Houston.

The suffering and death associated with the COVID-19 pandemic often plays out behind closed doors. Sick patients fight to recover in hospital beds, and doctors and nurses see their pain up close.

Steenburg is the nursing director at the hospital in southwest Houston and is seeing the heartbreaking impact this new wave is having on her patients.

"I feel empty," she said.

The nurse felt compelled to share her frustration to the world by writing a letter to the editor of the Houston Chronicle.

In it, she describes her day-to-day life as "exhausting" and said she and her team feel anger, fear, trauma and despair as each day goes on.

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She describes her day-to-day life as "exhausting" and said she and her team feel anger, fear, trauma and despair as each day goes on.



On Monday, ABC13 spoke with Dr. George Williams, an associate professor at McGovern Medical School at UT Health.

He treats COVID-19 patients inside an area hospital's intensive care unit.

Williams spoke candidly about the experience and said if people got a real look at the pandemic, they would get vaccinated.

"If people could see that, if laws allowed us to take cameras and plant them in the ICU, for you to see what I get to see, I'm certain more than 98% of people would say, 'I don't want that to happen to me. I'm going to do something simple like take a vaccine,'" he said.

READ MORE: Houston ICUs 'like a war zone' amid COVID surge, doctor says

Steenburg shares that sentiment. In her letter, she writes in part, "What makes this wave especially traumatic is that we were so close to seeing an end to this pandemic - or at the very least, getting COVID-19 under community control."

She calls it going back to "a nightmare scenario," as ICU beds are becoming scarce and staff shortage becomes a growing concern.

"Nurses are angry, and rightfully so, because all of this could have been prevented," wrote Steenburg.

You can read Steenburg's full letter below:



"On any given day, you can find me at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, smiling and laughing with my team members on the outside. But inside, I feel empty.

I'm exhausted. All nurses are exhausted. Since this fourth surge hit Houston, we have felt anger, fear, trauma and despair. We are defeated and burnt out. I have cried every day for a week. What makes this wave especially traumatic is that we were so close to seeing an end to this pandemic - or at the very least, getting COVID-19 under community control.

Just last month, around Independence Day, our inpatient numbers were down to the lowest they had been since the pandemic began. The CDC had recently relaxed its recommendations for fully vaccinated individuals, and we were enjoying hugs, public outings and unmasked dinners in restaurants again - among so many of the other simple joys we had lost these past 18 months.

But then, the delta variant began spreading rampantly among the unvaccinated in our community. Now, we are back in a nightmare scenario - working long hours, with little time for family (or anything else), and with ICU beds being stretched throughout Houston and beyond.

Nurses are angry, and rightfully so, because all of this could have been prevented. For 18 months, we have been fighting misinformation - be it about masks, the virus itself, or the vaccines. Now, we must watch as more patients lose their fight against COVID-19, knowing there is a vaccine out there that could have saved their lives.

Nurses have been asked by critically ill patients, between labored breaths, to give the COVID-19 vaccinations shortly before the patients are placed on ventilators and, unfortunately, at that point, it's too late.

This surge is causing family members who are hospitalized together to have to say their final goodbyes over FaceTime. We have also had some patients improve, and only then learn that their family members had succumbed to this terrible disease.

We are not supposed to die alone, and as an ICU nurse, that is one of the hardest things about this virus. Pre-pandemic, once we had done everything possible to save someone's life but determined we couldn't save them, we could at least provide the company, comfort and kinship of family in those final moments. In the current COVID climate, sadly that is not an option.

Earlier this week, Memorial Hermann Health System announced that it would be making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for its workforce - a decision I support and commend. As health care providers, we have an obligation to set an example for our community."


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