Rising above: Witham nurses overcome challenges of COVID-19 pandemic

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Witham Health Services nurses said the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all health care workers, including in Boone County.

Rebecca Bradley, 38, director of Witham Health Service’s emergency department, said doctors, nurses and staff have confronted the disease not only at work but in their personal lives as well, resulting in a continuous battle that weighs on them emotionally.

Yvonne DeBard, 56, cardiac clinical director at Witham Health Services, said the hospital’s staff is tired and under immense pressure. She said some nurses and employees are contracting the virus and even more are quarantining because of possible exposures, which has limited staffing.

Boone County is experiencing another surge of COVID-19 infections, but Witham nurses believe they are up to the challenge. When the pandemic began, Bradley said the hospital had to solve the problem of how to care for patients who contracted the virus with organizing and planning.

“There were so many unknowns in the very beginning,” Bradley said. “We were basically throwing everything we could at what we didn’t know in hopes of taking care of everything we needed to take care of.”

Early in the pandemic, Witham saw more deaths than it has in recent months. The Boone County Health Dept. has reported eight COVID-19 deaths since mid-July. Between the start of the pandemic and mid-July, the BCHD reported 50 COVD-19 deaths. However, health experts have warned that the reporting of COVID-19 deaths often lags behind case surges, and Witham is seeing more cases compared to the first few months of the pandemic.

“What’s different now is we have a stronger grasp on what we’re doing, what the community is doing and what we expect,” Bradley said. “Even if this next big surge of patients comes, we are more ready for it now than we were in the spring.”

But even with additional knowledge, there is still much the medical community does not know about the disease amid rising cases.

The hospital’s ICU beds have been filling quickly with COVID-19 patients. New patients are often admitted as soon as others are discharged, but Witham health officials said they can add more beds if needed.

Gene Davis, 50, director of infection control at Witham, said the hospital’s COVID-19 ICU bed capacity changes daily, and often hourly. Sometimes they are filled, and other times discharges leave several beds open a few hours later. As of Nov. 23, Davis said about 68 percent of the hospital’s ICU beds were in use.

Bradley said more COVID-19 patients are coming through the hospital’s emergency department, but she said nurses and other staff have adjusted to the requirements of the pandemic.

“Emergency nurses, they are very well trained in personal protective equipment,” Bradley said. “They know how to use it. It’s something they’ve always been comfortable with but wearing it for 12 hours a day isn’t an easy task. But they have grown in such a fashion that it’s second nature to them.”

Yet some nurses feel their biggest adjustment has been the side effects of mitigation protocols, a lack of human connection compared to what they are accustomed to. Face masks, protective gear and other safety protocols have created a barrier between nurses and patients.

“Wearing an N95 (mask) is different from wearing a cloth mask or procedure mask,” Bradley said. “It’s tight on the face. It leaves marks. It’s hard to carry on a conversation through, so it’s even more of a barrier. It’s hard to lose that human connection when that is one of the main drivers for a nurse.”

Davis agrees.

“We realize that people, human beings, need contact, especially in some of the most difficult times in their life,” Davis said. “They need that human contact. It has created barriers. It has limited our ability sometimes to have that human touch, but it is also important.”

Michelle Birt works in a lab at Witham Health Services

No end in sight

The stress of working through a pandemic with no immediate end in sight has exacted a toll on health care workers. Rebecca Bradley, director of Witham Health Service’s emergency department, said all areas of the hospital have been affected. Yvonne DeBard, cardiac clinical director at Witham Health Services, said 12-hour shifts, three days week, were standard weeks for nurses before the pandemic. But now, nurses are working 12-hour shifts four or five days a week and working weekends.

“You can shut down a county, you can close restaurants and hair salons, but you can’t shut down a hospital,” Bradley said.

“It takes its toll some days,” DeBard said. “I’m generally a pretty laid back, calm person, but there have been days where the stress levels have been over the top.”

Gene Davis, director of infection control at Witham, said staff has turned inward to cope with the stress, learning to support one another during what he calls an unprecedented time in his nearly 30-year medical career. He also appreciates the community support staff has received.

“I think that Witham has been very blessed,” Davis said. “We have a great team of people. We have a great support network, internally. We’re a small hospital, and our motto is ‘Small hospital, big medicine.’ And we are a small enough hospital that the people that are working together are more than just co-workers. We’re a family, so some of our best support that we’re getting is the support we’re getting from each other.

“That’s what is pulling us through this, and I know that’s probably what’s going to get us through to the end of this.”


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