Two sisters lean on each other as they treat COVID patients in St. Mary’s Hospital ICU

MADISON, Wis. — Behind the masks and different last names, you might not notice the connection between nurses Andrea Jarstad and Michelle Davis.

For the last 13 years, the sisters have worked side by side in SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. They both followed in their mother’s footsteps. She was a nurse at SSM Health for more than 40 years.

But it’s that strong connection to family that has made the last year especially difficult for Jarstad and Davis.

“Somebody may, even just dropping their loved one off at a hospital, may never see them again. There’s really nothing that can prepare you for that,” said Jarstad.

The two have taken care of many COVID patients, often young and without underlying conditions. They say many times by the time patients end up in the ICU, they need to be intubated.

“We see them on ventilators for weeks sometimes,” said Jarstad. “When they need it, they really need it.”

She said the hardest part is trying to explain a patient’s worsening condition to family members.

“Families cannot come in to see their loved ones to talk to them, to hug them and kiss them or whatever it is,” said Jarstad. “They see their loved ones on a camera and think to themselves ‘This is it.’ And this is how people are saying goodbye.”

But no matter how hard it is inside, they know outside of the hospital that people will never understand.

“We see if up front, we see extremely sick people. And if you don’t experience that, it’s just not going to seem quite as real,” said Jarstad. “What a different world it might be, (if people could) just see how sick people actually get.”

Week after week, the two lean on each other as more patients enter the ICU. And they know this is not over.

“We don’t know years down the road, the effects of (COVID), and that part is scary too,” said Davis.

While Davis sees the daily struggle as the “new norm,” Jarstad is still disappointed to see the way many people are treating the virus by not wearing a mask and social distancing.

“Will it get better? Yeah sure, it will one day. It just seems like it’s kind of far away,” said Jarstad.

She said thinking of all of the family members who never got to say goodbye to their loved one, is something she will never forget.