She served the U.S. overseas. Now she’s fighting an enemy at home: COVID-19.

Published: Nov. 11, 2020 at 3:53 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - A veteran in Marathon County served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy overseas. Now she’s fighting an enemy on our shore: COVID-19.

“My entire life it was 'I’m going to be in the army. It was army, army, army,” said Carolyn Sienko.

Just about everyone in Sienko’s family spent time in the military. She can recall visiting her father at his job in the army from age 4. After attending UW-Madison, she served in the Navy for five years, spending most of that time in Japan.

“When I was based in Japan, we were the tip of the spear, we were the ones right there ready if something was happening with one of the other foreign nations,” she recalled.

Once ready for combat, she’s now ready to care. Her desire to serve on a team led her to nursing school.

“I don’t like seeing other people hurt, and I want to be able to fix it if I can. That feeling of wanting to make a difference is what I wanted to feel,” she said.

She’s worked in Aspirus Wausau Hospital’s COVID unit—her choice—as a Registered Nurse since July. Once again, she’s found herself as the first line of defense.

“It’s sort of being at the front ready to go in both settings,” she said.

But this time, the enemy is invisible, takes no prisoners and the fight is emotionally gut-wrenching.

“I’ve gone in my car and just sat there sobbing after work. And it’s hard, it just wrecks you,” Sienko said of watching her sick patients grow sicker, some dying.

She described the agony of facilitating some patients' last contact with loved ones before dying.

“You’re standing there watching someone have their last conversation with their wife, that’s as face-to-face as they can get at that point and just in the corner just crying because you can’t do anything, and you’re part of this emotional, personal, intimate moment,” she said. “Having to be the one to turn off that video call when everything inside of you is screaming that you can’t be the person to end this because this is the last time this woman could be seeing her husband.”

Sienko says even experienced health care workers are struggling to see so many people die.

“Emotionally, there are people that have been working here for years and had never seen a death. And they’re seeing their first deaths now, and it’s kind of just becoming part of the workday,” Sienko said.

Sienko wishes it were a battle everyone felt called to fight with her, saying how easy it feels to her to wear a surgical mask compared to the N95 attached to her face for hours and hours during a shift.

“Make our lives easier please, wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands, because frankly it’s been hard coming in and not knowing which of my patients are going to die, or have already died,” she said. “Not everyone who comes into the hospital dies, that’s not what I’m saying at all. But it’s just really hard coming in every day and wondering, ‘Is this person still here?’ Some of them, they turn really quickly,” she said.

Sienko says she never thinks about giving up on her team at Aspirus, even as units fill with more patients than ever before.

For the latest COVID-19 hospital data, click here.

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