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Rural Colorado doctor recovering from long-haul COVID as his hospital sees surge in cases

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Posted at 10:11 AM, Aug 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-24 20:04:57-04

CHEYENNE WELLS, Colo. — Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed by patients as cases of the delta variant surge across the country. In some of the larger hospitals, staff are putting up emergency room tents in parking lots to have enough beds for people sick with COVID-19.

But for small hospitals in rural communities, resources and staff are fewer, and a surge in cases can be even tougher to handle.

For Dr. Kurt Papenfus, who is recovering from long-haul covid symptoms, he's the only doctor in a rural Colorado hospital. When he got sick last year during a surge in cases, it put a huge strain on his hospital staff.

“I was very healthy, you know, climbed a bunch of mountains, you know, big Himalayan peaks, Everest and just kept going and going and going. And I really thought, 'Well, if I get COVID, I should be okay.' But for whatever reason, it really hit me hard.”

Nine months after being hospitalized twice, first with COVID-19 and then pneumonia, the aftermath of the virus lingers.

“Man, it took months to get better,” he said.

He’s spent most of this year off work doing speech therapy and regaining his strength. He’s battled memory issues and recovering fine motor skills, but he was eventually cleared to come back to work.

“I never really felt old before, you know, when I hit my 60s, I started slowing down, but after COVID, I finally started feeling kind of old. People that get whacked and spend time in the ICU come out different.”

For Dr. Papenfus, with his second chance came a new perspective.

“I was so busy, that was a forced time out. And then, you really had to think about things,” he said.

His time away from work only made him want to come back stronger, because he is the main doctor at the Keefe Memorial Hospital in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado.

“When people die, you know them, and you know them personally. In the big cities, you know, people are dropping dead, and you don't know them. There's not that emotional attachment. That's the hardest part, I think, of being a small rural doc,” said Dr. Papenfus.

He is one of few doctors serving 2,000 square miles. Before he got sick, he was working twenty 24-hour shifts in a month. Now, he has scaled back and is doing six 24-hour shifts per month to help him stay as healthy as possible.

“If you're a doc, if you don't take care of yourself, how are you going to take care of anybody else? This lesson Dr. Papenfus learned from his hospital bed in Denver, three hours from his hospital and home, as his own community saw their worst surge of the entire pandemic.

“I'm hearing about all these people getting sick, and some died here. And I'm the doc here, and I can't be here. When they really needed me, I was taken out by COVID.”

Now, as cases begin to rise again, he’s here and ready to help.

“You know, it strikes closer to home because you've been there. You've done that,” he said.

He’s hoping he can use that knowledge to help this small hospital that has just eight beds. His community is also seeing a spread of COVID infections, mostly among the unvaccinated.

“You're stepping into our little COVID surge. We watched it come from Missouri, where there was a big outbreak and watched it slowly work its way up the interstate, you know, west along Kansas, and now it's here.”

But this surge isn’t only different for Dr. Papenfus, it’s different for the hospital. This time, they have ample supplies and PPE, and they’ve built a team of doctors, so Dr. Papenfus isn’t all on his own.

“That is something that we have worked on recently and is a little bit different from when he was out before,” said Keefe Memorial Hospital Interim CEO Claressa Millsap. “And that is just having a really stable physician group and having that team for him and a team together that can deal with what we're dealing with now.”

Other small hospitals around Colorado are feeling that surge in cases return. “We are absolutely seeing a surge right now,” said Carrie Owens, the Chief Operating Officer for Lincoln Health, a critical access hospital with 15 beds. “We had been hovering well below five percent positivity rate, and within the last two weeks, we have now jumped up to 11 percent positivity.”

Owens said 100% of the cases are amongst the unvaccinated, and they do not have ventilators to help sicker patients.

Dr. Thomas Tobin is the Chief Medical Officer and is an emergency medicine physician at Community Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado.

His hospital is a 52-bed facility. He said he’s seeing a concerning upward trend in new cases. “Our sheer numbers have not reached the same levels, but unfortunately, the severity of the illness is much higher. And so the acuity of those patients is taking more resources,” said Dr. Tobin.

He said, like Dr. Papenfus, the one plus this time around: PPE is available. "Not have to worry about where the next mask is coming from, or gown, is obviously much nicer," said Dr. Tobin. "But this is a disease that's turned into not even a marathon. It's an ultra marathon. And it's taking its toll both mentally and physically on staff. There's no way you can continue to take care of these patients without seeing the toll it's taking on all of us that are involved in health care," he said.

That's one big reason Dr. Papenfus is leaning on his team more than ever before. Yet, even with the best preparation comes the challenge of not knowing what’s next.

“It's still evolving,” said Dr. Papenfus. “COVID doesn't care who you are. You know, this whole kind of artificial red-blue divide, you know, COVID doesn't care. It'll get you no matter what.”

Being so far away from bigger hospitals, Dr. Papenfus knows he can’t do it all.

“We're limited. We don't have an ICU. One really sick person would pretty much wipe out our nursing staff,” said Dr. Papenfus. “We don't have really a deep bench, and that's a concern.”

That’s why he hopes his neighbors will see what he went through.

“It's real. It's out there. It wasn't my imagination that put me in the hospital, it was COVID.”

This doctor hopes with more knowledge and information coming out about the virus and the vaccine, there will be more acceptance for the preventative measure in his community and others around the nation.

“I think there's light at the end of the tunnel for sure. We'll come out of it, probably different, hopefully wiser,” said Dr. Papenfus.

He is comforted that through this time, no matter how tough it gets, he is feeling well enough to help his community through whatever the virus brings.