Emergency room doctors at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville couldn’t save a relatively young, extremely sick patient who came into the ER with COVID-19.

That’s a foreign feeling for doctors in the emergency department, said John Russo, vice president of medical affairs.

“There was really nothing we could do, and that’s foreign to most of us in the ER,” Russo said. “... We haven’t in the past seen people so young, so sick, and feel like there’s nothing we can offer.

“At least in that instance, it’s more of a helpless feeling than we’re used to.”

Russo and Stacey Woodman, director of the emergency department at St. Mary’s, agree the coronavirus pandemic has led to patients arriving in the emergency department much sicker than usual, whether they have COVID-19 or not.

The emergency department’s census is generally lower now than it was about a year ago, but patients who are coming in are sicker than usual, Woodman said.

That’s happening, in part, because people are postponing medical services in relation to the pandemic, Woodman said.

Some people are avoiding health care facilities because of perceived risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Others had services canceled or postponed while hospitals suspended elective procedures this spring, causing delays for patients nationwide.

“If you wait too long and you don’t get the care that you need in a timely fashion your mortality goes up quite a bit,” Woodman said. “... We have had some situations where people have waited much too long, and they end up coming to our ER either pulseless and non-breathing or they get here and they go downhill really fast.”

It causes strains on emergency departments because sicker patients require more care and more resources, Woodman said.

A few months ago, Woodman said, the emergency department simultaneously saw two people who did not have pulses and were not breathing, which is rare for St. Mary’s.

A lot of work had to be done, but both patients had “great outcomes,” Woodman said.

“When we get in those predicaments, it is all hands on deck,” Woodman said. “It’s everybody who works here that’s chipping in, it’s people that they don’t work in the ER, they are not used to the workflow, but they come down, and they do what they can.”

Local health officials urge the public to seek regular medical services. They want people to know safety precautions are followed and health care facilities are safe places.

It is critical, especially now, to congratulate and recognize staff when good things happen, Woodman said.

Department leaders have been leading emotional debriefs with staff to help them move through the traumatic experiences of caring for critically ill patients or patients who die in their care, Woodman said.

Russo said he and others have tried to show more empathy to staff and wants everyone to understand that they are all in this together.

“I wish that everyone could come in for a day and shadow us and see what we see and the patients who are hospitalized with it (COVID-19),” Russo said. “The reality is that people are truly sick with it.”