Opinion | In pandemic, a small Michigan hospital staff counts on each other

Shelly Johnson and Jordan Sall

Shelly Johnson is chief operating officer and Jordan Sall is a hospitalist and chief of staff at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial in Fremont

On National Doctors’ Day, our small hospital in a rural West Michigan community got a sense of what’s ahead in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not the anxiety. Not the panic. Not frustration or anguish.

Instead, Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial and our staff experienced a profound display of solidarity from our community, when hundreds of people came out to show their support for us. In the rain, during shift change at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, our friends and neighbors lined the streets and parking lots surrounding Gerber Memorial in Fremont,. They blared their horns and flashed their lights. Every one of us who works there understood that even as they observed social distancing by staying in their cars, our community stood shoulder to shoulder with health workers in confronting the worst pandemic America has seen in generations. It’s a crisis that will touch every corner of our nation, including here in Newaygo County, population 48,000, nearly 690 of whom work at our hospital.

Newaygo County isn’t the only place seeing a community reach out to its health workers. In Muskegon 20 minutes away, an anonymous donor dropped off 2,400 N95 masks at the Spectrum Health Integrated Care Campus. A small local business, Scott’s Body Shop, gave hundreds of masks to our sister hospital in Big Rapids. In Hastings, 1,000 N95 masks were donated to Spectrum Health Pennock Hospital. At Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, staff members have received donations of gloves, bottled water and pizza. Our neighbors are making masks and sending cookies to our colleagues at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital. Local hotels are setting aside entire wings for staff that must self-isolate. Laundromats are offering to clean whatever we need.

Our communities’ generosity comes as health workers brace for COVID-19 with a sense of urgency and prepare for an invisible enemy that threatens the health and the lives of our friends, families and neighbors.

As Gerber Memorial waits for the expected peak of the pandemic in May, every day is a drill for our front-line staff, from physicians and nurses to respiratory therapists and the custodians who keep rooms clean. People have likened the fight against COVID-19 to preparing for battle. On all three of our hospital floors and across our ambulatory spaces, that analogy is appropriate.

This is not business as usual. Everyone is innovating, seemingly every hour. With detailed floor plans lining our command post in what used to be our largest conference room, we can see where we can expand space, what rooms we can convert to makeshift intensive care units, where we can safely place army cots in the storeroom we never thought we’d ever need.

What had once been the bay where our three countywide ambulances delivered patients at our emergency department is now a massive triage tent to care for people with respiratory symptoms. People with regular emergencies bypass the triage tent.

Staff that can work from home stay at home. Providers see patients virtually. Clinics are consolidated and moved away from the hospital. Meetings are done online, and the command post starts the day with a recap of the past 24 hours. We try to anticipate what we need to prepare for the day. No issue is too small or too large.

We discuss the best ways to get trash out of a COVID-19-positive patient’s room that would keep our colleagues as safe as possible and minimize exposure. We plan for the wholesale conversion of floors into intensive care units.

We count masks, gloves, ICU beds, staff. Every day, several times a day.

We think through things many hospitals may not need to. As a critical access hospital, community health and caring for underserved populations are priorities. In quieter times, we pour resources into reducing diabetes and smoking rates  and connecting underserved populations with health care. Now, we’re working with community partners to figure out where COVID-19-positive patients who are homeless can go to be safe.

To prepare for a surge when every hand on the floor will be required to care for an overflow of patients, we train our colleagues to do things they either haven’t done in a long time or haven’t done at all: Screening visitors and staff, intubating patients, applying compression, putting on personal protective equipment correctly.

With every one of them, we ask for their help by socially and physically distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19. This buys hospitals much-needed time – time to test, time to care for patients, time to find a treatment, time to pace our ventilators, time to save lives.

Health care workers become health care workers because we believe in our mission, to inspire hope, improve health and save lives. That’s what we see every day as our small hospital hunkers down for what we know will be a long and difficult fight. In our hearts, we know we have each other – the 690 in our hospital and the tens of thousands more beyond – and we will get through this pandemic.

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