When Michelle Liechty showed up at St. Mark's Hospital just before Christmas in 2021, Dr. Jared Johnstun said his team didn't expect her to make it.
"Everything pointed towards her being someone that would ultimately die from COVID," he recalled Wednesday, explaining that by then the hospital team had helped enough coronavirus patients to have a good idea of how cases like hers would pan out.
Despite that, health care workers kept a positive attitude, especially in front of her and her family, and tried their hardest to help her survive — just like they did with every COVID-19 patient.
Three times Liechty died in front of health care workers, including Johnstun, and they were able to revive her. She not only lived after those episodes, but she kept improving and continued to have a great attitude. She walked out of the hospital earlier this month on March 1 — 70 days after being admitted. She spent 41 of those days in an intensive care unit.
"To me, Michelle represents all the hard work that we did, all the heartache that we lived through, and all the personal suffering that the ICU team lived through — that it's important to someone, that it made a difference, that not everybody just died. And I love the fact that we were able to help somebody get fixed to the point that she's going to go out and make a difference in the world. So I feel hope, I feel sorrow and I feel justice," said Johnstun, who is a pulmonary and critical care doctor at St. Mark's.
Health care workers at the hospital gathered Wednesday for a ceremony to commemorate two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, to celebrate people who were released from the hospital, to remember those who died while in their care, and to honor the health care staff that has worked long, hard shifts over the last two years.
"We would go to work and fight every day knowing that the majority of our patients weren't going to live. We still had to go and fight. The way that we got through that is we learned to rely on each other, we learned to draw strength from each other, and we learned to fight as a team together," Johnstun said.
Rev. Nancy Cormack-Hughes, director of spiritual care at St. Mark's Hospital, said prayers as part of the ceremony on Wednesday. She noted that not only has it been two years of masks and virtual meetings, but for those at the hospital it has been two years of "the COVID unit" and "the COVID corner," two years of an overflowing ICU, and two years of helping patients and families through sorrow and grief.
"We're here to remember. We're here to grieve. And we're here to enter into a new era — a new era of hope, knowing that there is a light shining strongly at the end of our very long tunnel," she said.
Liechty's daughter, Mariah Liechty, said her mom was often not aware of the chaos and pain around her, but she did feel the presence of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and others whom her mom called "Michelle's angels."
She said that she was told that the hospital stay would be a roller-coaster ride, with plenty of ups and downs, but she still did not imagine what the extent of that ride would be, or how the battle for her mom's life would continue even after her body fought off COVID-19.
"The team of medical professionals here at St. Mark's Hospital showed her and all COVID patients the utmost humility and adornment, becoming an extension of our family. They love their patients something fierce," Mariah Liechty said.
The mother and daughter were both joyfully greeted by many health care workers at the ceremony.
Johnstun said through figuring out how to treat COVID-19 patients, health care workers at St. Marks learned how to fight together as a team. He said the pandemic changed him as a doctor, specifically in how he approaches patients' families and his job in general.
"The world will never be the same, and I absolutely won't be the same. I don't think anyone that's lived through this, from a health care standpoint, will be the same," he said.
He said that he thinks health care workers will talk to their grandkids about living through the last few years similar to how he has heard people talk about their time living through war.
One thing Johnstun said that he learned is that hospitals can have even the latest technology, but there are still times when there is just nothing that can be done to save someone who is dying. He also said he learned how to help families and patients approach death, knowing that there is nothing they can do to stop it.
Johnstun said that throughout the pandemic, he was sent to other states when they needed help since there is a shortage of critical care doctors and pulmonary doctors. During spikes of COVID-19, working only 16 hours would be considered a good day, when shifts are scheduled to be 12 hours, he said, adding that he and other doctors would frequently pick up extra shifts, leading to 24- or 36-hour shifts.
At this point, he said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the community has taken enough steps that COVID-19 will stay under control in any future variants.
Nicki Roderman, the chief nursing officer at St. Mark's Hospital, said the last two years have been challenging as nurses, doctors and support staff have needed to adapt and change, doing things differently than ever before. She said, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, things were changing constantly it was frustrating.
"It's a whole team, and it takes a whole village," she said.
Most of the people who were working at the hospital in the COVID unit or the ICU at the beginning of the pandemic are still there two years later, she said, and the staff seems stronger because of the hard years they went through together.
"Health care workers are here for a purpose. We are all here for the patients. We are not here for anything else," she said.