Billings Nurse in Hospital with COVID, Fighting for Her Life

When Ellen Edlund was diagnosed with COVID-19, she went from provider to patient

By PHOEBE TOLLEFSON, The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS — In late November, like so many health care workers across the world, Ellen Edlund was diagnosed with COVID-19 and went from provider to patient.

Tuesday marked Day 15 in a hospital bed at Billings Clinic, where she’s worked for more than 15 years as a registered nurse.

Edlund is on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machine that pumps her blood outside of her body, adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, to allow her lungs to rest while her body battles the disease. There are just two ECMO machines in the ICU and they require specially trained staff to operate.

Her sister and best friend have been off and on the phone with Edlund’s doctor, Erin Rains, for updates. An online fundraiser has collected nearly $20,000 so far in donations to cover household bills and medical costs not covered by insurance.

Edlund’s best friend, Kelly Duffy, is also a registered nurse at Billings Clinic and has known her since they met on their clinical rotations 20 years ago. They consider each other family.

Duffy said Monday was the first day she’d seen her friend in two weeks, hooked up to a machine, “fighting for her life.”

“It’s terrifying,” Duffy told The Billings Gazette.

Edlund is an avid skier, and likes to hike and walk. Duffy said she wasn’t surprised her friend contracted the disease, given that she works in health care. But she wouldn’t have guessed Edlund would become so ill.

“It’s such an unpredictable road that we’re on right now, and that’s really hard,” Duffy said.

Edlund was admitted to the hospital roughly a week after her diagnosis. Rains, the ICU doctor, said Edlund was well informed about COVID-19 and had “a very healthy fear” of it. Her current work is in radiology, but she used to work as an ICU nurse.

The day before she was put on a ventilator, Edlund asked her doctor if she was going to die.

“I looked at her and said, ‘Ellen, I am going to do everything in my power and everything that we have so that you don’t die,’” Rains said. “But it was tough, because I couldn’t honestly tell her that she wasn’t going to die because I don’t know. And because people that get as sick as Ellen have a horrible prognosis when they come to the ICU.”

Rains said that among patients in the U.S. who require a ventilator in the ICU for COVID-19 treatment, their chance of dying is “up to 80%.” Some studies have shown higher survival rates, including a study published in May showing 36% of COVID-19 patients who were put on a ventilator died, The Washington Post reported.

That Friday night after Edlund asked about her prognosis, Rains ended her shift with Edlund breathing on her own. By the time she returned to work Saturday morning, Edlund had been put on a ventilator.

Rains said the severity of the coronavirus hits home when medical professionals are put in the position of treating their colleagues.

“But Ellen’s story is not unique, and we give this same care to everyone who walks through our doors in the ICU,” Rains said.

Duffy, Edlund’s friend, has been in touch with Edlund’s bank to make advance payments on her mortgage and utilities. During the process, she opened up her friend’s checkbook and saw more charitable donations than she realized her friend was making. She knew her friend was generous but didn’t know the extent.

It’s nice then, to see money pouring in on Edlund’s behalf, Duffy said.

“I’ve never met anyone with more friends in my life,” she said. “The love is just off the charts.”

Nurses and other frontline workers have suffered significant losses since the pandemic hit. A nurses union, National Nurses United, issued a report in September saying more than 1,700 health care workers had died from COVID-19, with 30% of those deaths occurring among hospital workers and 70% among professionals in other settings, such as senior care homes.

The report also notes that while 24% of the registered nurses in the U.S. are people of color, they’ve accounted for 58% of the deaths tallied in the report, reflecting broader disparities that leave communities of color harder hit by the pandemic.

As of Monday, Billings Clinic had just four of 56 ICU beds open, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Since Oct. 9, Billings Clinic has discharged 454 COVID-19 patients.

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