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Cheyanna Stierman admits she was scared when she embarked on her journey across Iowa to deliver care to critically ill COVID-19 patients.

“It was scary being five hours away and being on my own,” she said.

On May 17, Dubuque County had 264 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Across the state, Woodbury County was in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak already confirmed in 2,215 people and that had hospitalized 84.

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May 17 also was the day Stierman, a 27-year-old registered nurse at MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center, left home for a two-week stint caring for critically ill patients at MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center — on the front line of Woodbury County’s outbreak.

“They were being hit hard in Sioux City,” she said.

‘Step up and answer the call’

Tracy Larson, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer for MercyOne Siouxland, said her hospital was “blessed to be supported” by Stierman during the height of Woodbury County’s COVID-19 surge.

“She and our other health care colleagues did exactly what we do during times like these — step up and answer the call of our community,” Larson wrote in an email to the TH.

Woodbury County had experienced a surge of infections in the spring tied to an outbreak at a Tyson Foods beef processing plant nearby in Nebraska.

Stierman said that, in mid-May, patient census numbers at MercyOne Dubuque were relatively low, so she volunteered to be dispatched to a relative hot spot.

She chose to embark on the deployment despite some personal misgivings, including leaving her fiance, Charlie Saul, and their 6-year-old son.

“I didn’t want to leave my family for two weeks,” she said. “I hadn’t been away from my son for that long.”

A graduate of Maquoketa (Iowa) High School and Northeast Iowa Community College, Stierman is a member of the resource pool of nurses in Dubuque. She works in units as needed.

“At that time (in mid-May), I hadn’t had any COVID patients,” she said.

Her first day in Sioux City provided instant experience in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“They had three whole floors of COVID patients,” Stierman said.

MercyOne Siouxland had coronavirus patients in an intensive care unit, a second unit with critically ill patients and a third unit of not-as-seriously ill patients.

“Here in Dubuque, we just had a couple of rooms with COVID patients,” she said.

Stierman mostly worked with those critically ill but not admitted into the intensive care unit.

“It was hard,” she said. “Here in Dubuque, we try to have a nurse with a couple of COVID patients at a time. In Sioux City, (individual nurses) had six COVID patients at a time that were all (in critical condition).”

The level of personal protective equipment that Stierman wore reflected the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus.

“I had to wear PPE for 12 hours straight. It was exhausting,” she said. “The first time I put on an N95 (mask), it was kind of claustrophobic. It hurts your face after 30 minutes.”

Stierman wore double gloves, two masks, hair nets, protective eyewear and booties during her 12-hour shifts.

She worked a total of six such shifts during her Sioux City deployment.

“It was very stressful,” she said. “I always had to give myself a little pep talk before going in, but (MercyOne Siouxland) made us feel so appreciated, and that helped a lot.”

‘Never seen people get this ill this quickly’

Stierman was one of a handful of Dubuque nurses to assist in COVID hot-spot locations.

Two UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital nurses, Greg Simpson and Natalie Fangman, cared for patients in the intensive care unit at UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, during a coronavirus surge in Black Hawk County in April.

Skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the county were linked to an outbreak at a Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Waterloo. Black Hawk County went from 35 COVID-19 cases on April 8 to 1,644 cases on April 28. Simpson and Fangman cared for patients in Waterloo during the last two weeks of April.

“It was busy in their ICU there,” Simpson said. “They had a lot of the people from the meatpacking outbreaks at the time.”

Simpson worked two weeks at Allen, first 12-hour night shifts and then 12 hours during the day.

“You saw how devastating this disease is and how rapidly people can decline,” he said. “I’ve never seen people get this ill this quickly.”

Simpson said that in his quarter-century of critical-care nursing, he has seen ill patients take a turn for the worse over several hours.

“With COVID patients, they were taking a turn for the worse in a matter of minutes,” he said. “This virus is just so terrible.”

Fangman has worked at Finley for three years.

In a piece on UnityPoint Health’s website, she said she welcomed the opportunity to help at Allen.

“I wanted to find a place that I could help in any way possible,” Fangman said.

‘Telling my friends to be safe’

Stierman was the only MercyOne Dubuque nurse dispatched to a hot spot.

She was relieved to come home when her deployment had ended.

“I was so happy,” she said. “I learned so much, and when our numbers (of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Dubuque County) started increasing, I felt so prepared.”

Stierman also arrived home with a message she often repeats.

“I’m telling my friends to be safe, wash your hands and wear a mask,” she said. “This (pandemic) is real.”