By Alan Gionet

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – Kathleen Combs has been in some of the most uncomfortable places of our times. She has now spent 19 months working in UCHealth Hospital’s COVID ICU.

“My world is still fully COVID,” said Combs. She has worked in ICUs for 18 years and been a nurse for more than 20. When the hospital asked for volunteers in March of 2020, when the understanding of COVID-19 was a fraction of what’s now known, with knowledge of pulmonary issues, she figured she was right for it.

“I’m one of many. I’m not the only one,” she said.

(credit: CBS)

All over the country there are shortages of nurses. People doing some of the hardest work caring for the sick in the pandemic. They’ve been through shortages of PPE, and staff. Through hope when vaccines came out and now disappointment when people refuse to get them.

“A lot of sadness, a lot of sick people, a lot of death. And unnecessarily so at this point,” she said. “It’s emotionally draining to me now.”

Combs says a great percentage of critical COVID patients now are not merely in disbelief, as she’s witnessed with cancer patients over the years, but disbelievers.

“It’s hard though, when you know that you’re doing good for the patients, but they’re yelling at you,” she said. “They’re telling you it’s not real. They’re telling you that you’re a murderer.”

Some believe the hospital is making them sick.

“’I can’t breathe,’” she hears them say. “Exactly. That’s because you have COVID. ‘Well no I don’t have COVID, that’s not real.’ I’ve had these conversations with people.”

Then there’s blame — on the hospitals, doctors and nurses.

“That it’s created by somebody else or created by the media or the government or what not. I’ve never experienced that… There are those who just absolutely will deny it all the way until the moment when they’re no longer alive.”

In addition to the people with the infection, the families are also angry, even as she holds pads close to their loved ones so they can communicate.

“We get threats. We have people yell at us, on the phone. They’re not nice.”

Their claims go to extremes, including allegations of harm.

“That we are the cause of them getting sicker and dying. That we are causing this.”

A year ago, we spoke with Combs earlier in the pandemic. People were still getting used to how things were different, even in ICUs.

(credit: CBS)

“I walk in a room with this crazy getup on, and they look at me like I’m, I’m from another planet and I don’t blame them,” Combs said in November of 2020. Then some were resistant of masks. “It doesn’t care. It doesn’t care who you are, it doesn’t care what you believe, it just takes over the body,” Combs added.

Are some regretful of not getting vaccinated? Not many now. There were more in the springtime. The demographics have also changed. The unvaccinated going into hospitals are getting younger. There are fewer minorities than last year, the front line workers who more often live in congregate housing and were hit hard in the early days of the pandemic.

Nurses have long dealt with the results of people’s poor choices; some cancers, some liver disease. Disbelief she has seen with cancer is about getting sick, not the existence of the disease.

“We don’t ask. Hey were you vaccinated? Why weren’t you vaccinated? I don’t care. Whatever reason that you chose not to get vaccinated. I’m really sorry that you chose that, but it doesn’t affect how I’m going to treat you as a patient and as a human being.”

Misinformation now ignites her though.

“People who are just not able to understand and just share information because they read it on the internet to the highest level of officials who should know better. Shame on those officials who should know better.”

Vaccination works. The people in the ICU if they are vaccinated are not the most seriously ill.

All of it takes a toll.

“I shed tears at the hospital. I’ve shed tears at a patient’s bedside as they take their last breaths… I’ve shed tears for them as I’ve put them in the bags and say I’m sorry this happened to you.”

Combs says she remains concerned about the future if we’re going to get into a habit of trusting vaccines. She fears we could see a rough winter ahead if people are not interested in the flu shot.

Alan Gionet