El Paso, Texas is currently dealing with one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus in the country with over 82,000 cases in a population of 951,000. That means around one in every ten people now has the virus with many more cases sure to come. Experts say the border city is now in the middle of its third outbreak or “wave” since the beginning of the year as seriously ill patients continue to stream into the University Medical Center of El Paso.
Lawanna Rivers, a travel nurse, recently shared her experience on the job in a nearly hour-long Facebook Live video published on November 7th. She says the facility created a “pit” for the sickest COVID-19 patients, where they were essentially left to die.
The Deadliest Assignment Yet
This isn’t Lawanna Rivers’ first time dealing with a deadly outbreak of COVID-19. She’s served five postings over the course of the year, and her time at the University Medical Center of El Paso has been the worst by far. As she says in the video, “Out of all the COVID assignments I’ve been on, this one here has really left me emotionally scarred. The facility I’m at has surpassed the one I was at in New York.”
In addition to the usual safety concerns, she was outraged over her superiors’ lack of concern for those dying of COVID-19. She says the patients least likely to survive the disease were moved to a “pit”.
“My first day at orientation, I was told that whatever patients go into the pit, they only come out in a body bag,” Rivers said.
According to her, nurses were told they could only revive patients in the room three times using CPR before finally letting them die. She recalls one experience in which a worker wheeled a dead body into the room after the morgue was full.
“The morgue was so full of bodies that they had run out of room, so once the doors opened to the pit, they came wheeling in a body already in a bag,” she said. “Lined them up with the rest of our alive patients because they had to store the body in there, because the morgue was out of room. They’ve had to bring in freezer trucks because there’s so many bodies.”
Even with so many years as a nurse under her belt, the experience was haunting. “I’ve seen so many (more) deaths in this last month than I’ve seen in my entire 13-year career,” Rivers added.
It wasn’t just the facility’s disregard for human life that upset Rivers. She says during her entire time on the ward, she never saw a doctor go into the pit. “The doctors don’t even step foot in those COVID rooms to see those patients,” she said.
This created a sense of inequality in the workplace where nurses were seen as disposable and the doctors were kept at a safe distance. As Rivers added, “We as nurses, it’s OK for us to be exposed, but you as doctors, you don’t even come in there. You can’t get exposed, but we can, and you all are making all the money.”
Despite the risks, Rivers volunteered to work in the pit every day she was on the job. Sadly, almost all of the patients were beyond the point of saving.
“I have never experienced, and have no words, for what I just experienced in El Paso, Texas,” she said. “If those doctors there would aggressively treat those patients from the beginning, a lot more would make it.”
She also describes an instance in which one of the doctor’s wives was treated as a “VIP”. Rivers says the woman was also the only one to come out of the ICU alive during her month on the floor.
“They pulled out all the stops for that woman — it was nothing that they didn’t do for that woman. And guess what? She was the one patient that made it out of the ICU alive and was able to downgrade to a long-term acute care. So, you mean to tell me because she’s a doctor’s wife, her life meant more than any of those other patients?”
Rivers remembers feeling that she would’ve died if she had contracted the disease in Texas, considering the recent surge.
Her video has since gone viral, attracting attention from various news outlets. The hospital has issued a statement in response to the backlash.
“After watching the video, while we cannot fully verify the events expressed, we empathize and sympathize with the difficult, physical, and emotional toll that this pandemic takes on thousands of healthcare workers here and throughout our country,” said hospital spokesman Ryan Mielke.
Rivers’ story is a shocking reminder of how horrifying this pandemic can be for front line workers.