When we last talked with Lynn Hutchinson, a nurse working the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, it was July, and Sedgwick County was in the middle of its first big coronavirus wave.
"I think the last time I talked to you, I remember saying I wish I could get on my roof and yell, 'Wear your mask!'" Hutchinson recalled.
"Well, I apparently didn't yell loud enough."
Apparently not. A second wave of COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed hospitals in Wichita and across Kansas. When we talked with Hutchinson in July, there were 58 Covid-19 patients in Wichita hospitals, including 31 in intensive care. This week, it’s 241 patients with 78 in the ICU.
"It's more than I ever imagined," said Hutchinson, noting that St. Francis has had to open a second COVID-19 ICU since July.
"The last time we talked, I didn't think … that it could get any worse, and it's bad," he said. "I mean, the amount of people on ventilators now, they just seem sicker."
That has meant grueling, unrelenting work for Hutchinson and his colleagues at Ascension Via Christi — and health care workers across Wichita — under increasingly difficult circumstances.
Nearly 200 people have died in Sedgwick County since the pandemic began.
"I was thinking the other day, I don't know how much more my soul can take because … I get so sad and frustrated and the amount of deaths that we've had," Hutchinson said.
"We try everything and then we have to say, 'Well, we're going to have to put you on the ventilator,' and knowing that they may not come off. And then we have to tell them, 'You know, you may not come off of this ventilator.'"
Even when a patient does come off a ventilator, Hutchinson says, "you just want to start celebrating."
"But you do it cautiously because there's always a chance they may go back on it again."
Hutchinson has been a nurse for more than 30 years, so he’s seen death before.
"When you have a death, you … think about it for a little bit, and then you're like, ‘OK, I got it. I’ve got to go on, I've got to go treat this other one.’ Because there's other patients now, unfortunately, waiting for this bed.
But he says the number of deaths caused by the virus has affected him.
"I just kind of look up, and I kind of sometimes start questioning my faith and God, ‘Why is this happening?'" he said. "It's taken a toll on me that I didn't think it would when it first started.
"It's just heartbreaking. It's just very heartbreaking."
Hutchinson says he deals with the stress of his job in different ways. He stopped watching news on television, and he spends a lot of time on Facetime with family.
He also did what a lot of people have done during the pandemic: He got a dog. A miniature Schnauzer named Penny.
"So that's been a nice relief, something to keep your mind off," he said. "When you have a bad day, they always say an animal doesn't care. They're just happy to see you."
COVID-19 vaccinations should begin this month, and Hutchinson hopes those will be the first steps in ending the pandemic. But he worries that whether to get vaccinated will take on the same political overtones that surrounded the debate about wearing a mask.
When the pandemic might end is uncertain. But Hutchinson says he is certain of his role in it.
"I feel like God, and I'm not a religious man … but God put me ... here for this reason, and I was glad I could help be a part of this."