AUSTIN (KXAN) — Eliana Gill, a 27-year-old registered nurse for Ascension Seton Medical Group Austin, was recognized Monday during Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State Address.

“She volunteered to be on the front line of the hospital’s COVID unit. Eliana is like so many health care workers across the state who did not hesitate to answer the call,” Abbott said.

On Wednesday, KXAN had the opportunity to sit down with Gill and find out what it’s truly like to treat some of the sickest patients in our area, combating a virus that has killed more than 1,600 Central Texans.

Initial Fears

Gill said she was drawn to nursing more than a decade ago, after receiving compassionate care for one of her own medical ailments. Since then, she has felt called to help others. She’s now a medical surgical nurse in the acute care unit and works frequently in the respiratory unit on the COVID floor.

When the pandemic first hit, she volunteered to work with sick patients as the first cases were coming in, wanting to help others who were struggling and scared.

Gill admitted she felt some fear herself.

“I was scared. It was terrifying. I was scared to bring it home, to give it to other nurses. But to me, it was more about helping those other people than the risks to myself,” Gill said. “It was another opportunity to help people who are scared and who are hurting, to heal and to find strength in times of adversity.”

Progress over time

She said the unit has changed over the last 11 months. At first, only a handful of do-it-all nurses were allowed in the COVID unit. But now, there are full teams of doctors, therapists and assistants on the floor.

It’s helped streamline the process. The medical workers can now predict patient needs more efficiently, and they can better manage their floor spacing. Gill said they understand when a patient needs to be transferred for more serious maladies or when the patient can be downgraded to a different floor.

“We understand how the trends work a little bit better and know what we can manage better,” Gill said. “We are better at analyzing a patient’s current situation, taking in how they are reporting, seeing their other measures and being able to make an appropriate assessment and determining where they can be safely cared for.”

Gill said Austin Public Health’s Alternate Care Site at the Austin Convention Center has helped ensure ICU bed space at the hospital is being saved for the most critical patients.

As of Wednesday, there are 47 patients being cared for at the Alternate Care Site. Last week, the three hospital systems reported the 483 ICU beds were 88% occupied.

While Gill couldn’t specifically comment on how many patients she is currently treating, she said it is around the same as the number of daily patients she was seeing during the summer’s peak.

“Right now, we have a lot more people who are sick, so it is more strain on the nurses, the doctors, the therapists, the clinical assistants,” Gill said. “So it is an extra strain, but we are still providing our goal of safe care.”

Losing loved ones

Gill recalled one patient who wasn’t able to recover. She said she spent three hours straight in their room, holding their hand, unable to separate herself.

“I was scared to leave, because I didn’t want them to pass once I left, but I knew it was imminent,” Gill said. “Every person who I have taken care of who has died will be with me, and I will remember them.”

She expressed sympathy for the family members who can’t enter the hospital to say goodbye. Gill explained every floor of every hospital is different. Some may allow families to visit, others will follow strict, no-visitation protocols. She said the hospitals will always try to pair families with patients, but said it is her obligation and moral responsibility to protect the health of everyone, including the family members who may not understand that they are putting themselves at a greater risk by even being there.

Optimism for the future

With two COVID-19 vaccinations being widely distributed, and a third seeking emergency use authorization, Gill was hopeful for the future. She and her fellow colleagues have all received both doses of the vaccine. She said she experienced no ill side effects.

She said the COVID-19 vaccinations are helping to lower hospitalizations and deaths.

Even still, she urged everyone to continue to practice some of the safety protocols health leaders have been consistently pushing, like social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand washing.

“It’s not going to be immediate. It’s going to take some time. But long-term wise, I think we are heading in a better direction,” Gill said.