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.
In a town the size of Jamestown, caring for patients is not only professional it’s personal. During a pandemic, that is abundantly clear.
“I think one of the toughest things is that because of the size of our community we just know these people,” said Deb Falk, registered nurse and clinical manager of medical, surgical and ICU at Jamestown Regional Medical Center who oversees 32 nurses and unit clerks. “They’re family members and they’re neighbors and they’re friends. So when they’re really sick and at times we had to transfer them to a higher level of care facility because of the nature of their illness that was really tough too for the nurses.”
Falk said JRMC prepared for the coronavirus pandemic.
“At the very beginning I think that our hospital did a great job just with all the planning and the teams that got together so that when we started having our influx of patients we felt like we were prepared as far as our equipment and supplies and our people resources,” she said.
A lot of research, education, training and cross-training occurred, putting protocols in place, proven protocols from other places. That ultimately helped the community that JRMC serves, Falk said.
JRMC did not transfer many patients with COVID-19 to other facilities, Falk said. Most were cared for here and those who were transferred required certain specialists, she said.
“I think the most difficult thing for our patients was that anyone with COVID - they’re not allowed to have visitors,” Falk said. “So there’s that separation anxiety and the loneliness factor.”
The health care workers caring for them were wearing gowns, gloves and masks in their contact with the patients, Falk said, also adding to the isolation.
“We did manage with those patients that were separated from their family members to take some iPads in the rooms and get them connected,” she said. “That was great that we had those resources available. I think it was hard not on the patients but on the family members because they couldn’t see them.”
For the nurses providing care, there were difficult moments.
“This was a patient who was very sick and he had COVID and the family member could not come up to see them while they were in the hospital,” said Lili Ruby, a registered nurse. “So we set up a Zoom meeting with (JRMC) Home Health who could go in to set up a Zoom meeting for that patient's family member.”
Ruby stayed in the room with the patient.
“It was hard, it was rough having to relay the messages between the patient and the family member just since that was their last conversation they had together,” she said. “It was hard and I’m glad that we were able to do it, it was really kind of short notice ... and I’m thankful we were able to do it.”
Falk said the patient died a few hours after that last conversation.
Lisa Schrenk, a nursing supervisor who also works as a nurse on the patient care unit, said there was a patient being transferred to another facility and they set up an iPad in his room so he could speak with his children before leaving. That was also difficult, she said.
“It’s tough being their family on top of their nurse,” Schrenk said.
Visitation at JRMC remained restricted in mid-March: the same single person during a patient’s stay and no visitors for COVID-19 patients.
“It was really hard on the nurses and still is to enforce visitation,” Falk said, “and try to get people to understand the reasons behind (it) and that falls on the nurses to do for the most part, because people would come up and we’d have to turn them away.”
The restriction is for people’s safety.
“And it’s hard to get people to understand that,” Falk said.
The biggest surge in COVID-19 patients for JRMC occurred at the end of November and beginning of December, Falk said. At one time there were 21 patients at JRMC and 12 of them had COVID-19.
“There were times that we had over half of our patients on our unit were COVID patients and we separated them on the unit on different sides of the unit so you maintained basically a COVID hallway and then the other patients were on the other side of the floor,” she said. “And then we also had nurses taking care of those patients, that’s all they did for that shift.”
Staff from other departments also pitched in to help. Schrenk said nurses would pick up extra shifts, knowing others would do the same.
“Some of them would work their 8 to 5 in (the) clinic and then they would work the overnight on Deb’s (Falk’s) floor,” said Katie Ryan-Anderson, marketing manager at JRMC. “It was pretty remarkable how Deb’s team and the nurses in general really stepped up to care for this community.”
Ruby said there was also a lot of help from other departments, even doing simple things to help which helped the nurses with their work. And donors sent food to the hospital for workers.
Outside of work, nurses were also taking care to protect people in their lives, said Falk, who didn’t check in on her own elderly mother in person as often to protect her. She would change clothes immediately before leaving work or immediately upon getting home. She didn’t go to Walmart for 11 months.
Falk, like other nurses, stayed away from other people and took other precautions, she said.
“My husband actually even made up a bedroom downstairs so if he needed to go down there we already had our house separated so we could segregate ourselves,” she said. “And a lot of people were doing that.”
The nurses also were a support system for each other, Falk said.
“... they’re family to each other too,” she said. “They’re really good friends and they have their social group as well. So they at least had that, to talk to these people and vent and share.”
Falk said what stands out to her through the pandemic was the teamwork at the hospital.
“From the administration all the way down to our housekeepers and just everybody, every department, we had a plan and the plan went off without a hitch,” she said. “And as things changed, we changed with them and adjusted really well. I just can’t say enough about of how proud I am about them. It was just amazing.”
She said every employee was engaged in finding out what he or she could do.
“And I’m really really proud of my team up on the unit for understanding all the extra hours that they were working and knowing that it was tough for them to be doing what they were doing,” she said.