Emergency doctor at Jamestown Regional Medical Center faced COVID challenges
Challenges magnified for the Emergency Department as the pandemic peaked in Stutsman County last fall.
Editor's note: This story is part of the 2021 "Essential to Jamestown" special edition of The Jamestown Sun. The annual Progress Edition features stories on essential workers, agencies and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Scott Goeckle, Emergency Department physician at Jamestown Regional Medical Center, studied the literature available about the coronavirus and COVID-19 before the disease was ever confirmed in the area.
"There was a lot of uncertainty at first," he said. "With uncertainty, there is an apprehension of how we'll tackle it."
The first confirmed positive test for the coronavirus in Stutsman County occurred on April 8, 2020. On a national scale, there were more than 30,000 positive cases reported that day.
"Our early numbers were lower," Goeckle said. "We figured sooner or later, we'd see it hit the rural areas."
It wasn't until September that Stutsman County reached its first peak of more than 150 active cases.
"We really didn't change much," Goeckle said, referring to activity at the Emergency Department during the lower coronavirus levels in the region. "We kept ourselves safe, but we did all the things we normally do in the emergency room."
Through June and July, the number of active cases in Stutsman County rose and dipped sometimes reaching as high as 25 people, sometimes dropping as low as a single active case in the county. It allowed Goeckle and the Emergency Department to get comfortable with the procedures of dealing with a viral pandemic.
"It becomes routine," he said. "You feel a little safer now, you know what you do."
Then came October and November. On Oct. 1 there were 31 active COVID-19 cases in Stutsman County.
On Nov. 17, the county peaked at 528 active cases.
"We were seeing eight to 10 COVID-19 patients admitted every day," Goeckle said. "We were seeing about three every overnight emergency room shift."
The peak in Stutsman County and North Dakota preceded the national peak which occurred in January, although the public was already well educated about the coronavirus in November.
"It helped that people were knowledgeable," Goeckle said.
Even while dealing with a pandemic, the normal Emergency Department situations of accidents, heart attacks and all the other ailments that bring people to a hospital continued.
"We had to be very cautious," Goeckle said.
One of the precautions included changing sterile gowns anytime a medical staff person moved from one patient to another. It slowed the process and made seeing patients take more time.
Those weren't the only precautions Goeckle and other members of the Emergency Department practiced.
"We tried to be very safe at home," he said. "I tried to limit contact with family, especially older family."
That added to the stress of providing medical care through a pandemic.
"It is kind of hard without direct contact with family," Goeckle said, "but it is better being safe."
Goeckle said the pandemic is not over, but possibly the worst is behind us.
"Thank God we've got immunizations now," he said, referring to the vaccines available for the coronavirus currently being distributed in the area.
But for someone with medical training and curiosity to study the world of viruses and disease, there is always something to study and prepare for.
"I was afraid something like this would happen," Goeckle said. "I initially thought Ebola would be an issue."
Ebola is a virus of African origin. A vaccine was approved for Ebola virus disease in 2019.
That doesn't mean another pandemic isn't possible including the possibility of a disease that is not even known yet.
"It is the unknown that is scary," Goeckle said.
Working at an Emergency Department carries its own level of stress which Goeckle has coped with through a 15-year career at Jamestown Regional Medical Center.
"This was different, a different way of practicing," he said. "It was different to look at how to attack the pandemic at a community level."
Mike Delfs, president and CEO of Jamestown Regional Medical Center, said the challenges of a pandemic were new to Goeckle and the other physicians at the hospital.
"Here is a guy that is really decent and has seen a lot of tragedy over the years," Delfs said. "This stuff gets him emotional. That says a lot about how hard this has been to work through."
Those challenges have not changed Goeckle's enthusiasm for doing his job as an emergency room doctor.
"After we've come through this thing, I'd like to continue to help people," he said. "But this has to make you think about the future."