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Serving on a new kind of mission

Martha Lystad poses for a photo in her personal protective equipment. For Lystad, this mission to New York City was an honor and a humbling experience. (submitted photo)

Greenbush Altru Clinic Family Nurse Practitioner Martha Lystad (second from right) poses for a photo with her medical team on her last day at the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx (New York City). There, she helped COVID-19 patients as a nurse practitioner in a 10-bed step down ICU unit. (submitted photo)

Greenbush Altru Clinic Certified Family Nurse Practioner Martha Lystad poses for a photo while on a day off walk in New York City, as the Statue of Liberty stands in the background. An Army Reserve Nurse Corp Officer, Lystad would get called out on a Department of Justice mission, one assisting FEMA with the pandemic and taking her to New York City. She began providing care to patients in a step down ICU unit in late April and returned home on June 5. She is currently finishing out her two-week quarantine. (submitted photo)

Today (June 17, 2020), licensed nurse practitioner Martha Lystad is quarantined in her family cabin near Sandy Shores near Williams, Minn., but less than two weeks prior she was at the American epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic— New York City. It was an experience that provided many challenges and new experiences.

A Baudette native, Lystad has spent her entire adult life in the nursing field, starting out as an licensed nurse practitioner (LPN). Right out of high school, she went to nursing school and has served as a nurse for over 30 years and as nurse practitioner since 1994.

Currently, Lystad, PhD, FNP-BC, serves as a Certified Family Nurse Practitioner at the Altru Clinic in Greenbush. Serving also as an Army Reserve Nurse Corp Officer, she would get a warning that her unit, the 452nd Combat Support Hospital, might get called up into action due to the pandemic.

“It happened very fast,” Lystad said. “So less than a week from being notified, we might be going on a mission, we were in Milwaukee preparing for the mission.”

She would fly out of Grand Forks to Milwaukee on April 1, as part of an effort by the Department of Justice to assist FEMA in the pandemic. She would spend a couple weeks in Milwaukee due to her task force’s mission not being defined early on, continuing to evolve thanks in part to the needs of some areas. While in Milwaukee, they were doing training on ventilators and brushing up on some critical care protocols used with respiratory distress syndrome— COVID-19 falling under that umbrella.

Lystad and her unit would eventually get their mission and travel to New York City to aid in the pandemic effort there, arriving on April 14. Asked about her feelings when she heard she was getting called out there, Lystad explained how there was a particular level of fear due to the uncertainty of the entire situation.

“The virus for some people… it makes them so sick, where other people had symptoms of basically like a bad cold,” Lystad said. “So it was a little bit scary, not really knowing what we were going to walk into and how sick the patients we would be taking care of were going to be.”

She and her unit would start in on the in-processing stage at the hospital they would be working at, the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, on April 17. It had been more than 25 years since she had worked in a hospital, putting her out of her comfort zone.

At this hospital, they began providing care to patients in a 10-bed step down ICU unit—expanding one of the hospital’s ICU units— on April 19 or 20. It was a 24/7 operation, Lystad said.

While there, she served as a nurse practitioner and was in charge of one to three patients at one time. She reviewed these patient’s daily labs, ordered additional labs if necessary, watched out for whether or not they were developing a secondary infection and whether their kidneys were working. As Lystad explained, while most people with this virus are hospitalized due to this virus’ effect on their lungs, leading to low oxygen levels and causing viral pneumonia, this virus also can cause other medical issues.

“We had patients that had a pulmonary emboli(sm) or blood clots in their lungs as well as pneumonia,” Lystad said. “We had some patients that (saw) their kidneys shut down from the medications that they were on.”

Monitoring patients’ blood sugars and fluid balance was also part of her job, as several of her patients were diabetic.

A majority of the patients who came to her team were on ventilators. The step down ICU unit would work to retrain their lungs once the infection was gone.

“These people were on the vents for a month or longer in some cases and so you just can’t shut them off,” Lystad said. “They had to be weaned off and get their lungs to learn how to breathe on their own again and just things like that essentially.”

Asked what was the most difficult part about this experience, Lystad first explained how sad it was to see all the trauma her patients’ bodies were going through and not understanding why this had happened to particular people. Many of the people they took care of in their step down ICU unit were in their 40’s and 50’s.

“Why did this happen to this young, what appeared to be fairly healthy person? And, thinking that that could be me. I’m in that age (group), or it could be my husband, or my brother, or brother-in-law,” Lystad said. “… Why did this virus hit them so hard? So wrapping that emotional component around just trying to get them a little bit better every day was mentally and emotionally exhausting.”

Lystad said those in this area are fortunate to live where they live, allowing for a certain level of social distancing. She said one may see people on Facebook or on the news say this virus is not a big deal. For many people, it isn’t deal, she said, but for those it impacts, that is not the case.

“For maybe 90% of people, it’s not that big of a deal. But the people that it is a big deal for, it is life-changing,” Lystad said. “The amount of time it’s going to take these people to recover from the critical illness, it’s going to change their lives.”

Lystad flew back home to Minnesota on June 5. She is currently finishing out her two-week quarantine at the family lake cabin before she can return to her home in Roseau. She continues to be on military orders, still with paperwork to finish— a step she is completing virtually. She is ready to return to her relatively quiet clinic in Greenbush.

“It’s just such as different pace working in that ICU unit,” Lystad said. “And one of the doctors we worked with there was like, ‘So now you’re ready to come back and do ICU, right?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m wired that way to do this with that kind of intensity day in and day out.’ I prefer the outpatient side where, yes, you have sick people, but they’re chronic illnesses that are pretty well balanced.”

Despite all the challenges this mission provided, she was proud to have served on it.

“This was a mission that has never been done before, so it was really an honor to be involved with it,” Lystad said. “… It was very humbling to be part of this mission.”

To see the complete story, read the June 17 issue of The Tribune in print or online.

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