‘Like nothing we’ve ever seen before’

Dani Heyrend, medical assistant at Evanston Regional Hospital, has spent the last several months working the COVID-19 drive-thru curbside testing area at ERH in addition to her regular pre-COVID duties. (COURTESY PHOTO)

COVID taking toll on healthcare heroes

EVANSTON — As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, a full year after the first case was diagnosed in the United States and almost 10 months after the first case in Uinta County was identified, the impacts on healthcare personnel have been, and continue to be, enormous. For two healthcare employees at Evanston Regional Hospital, those impacts go far beyond simply an increased workload.

Melissa Badertscher is the lead medical laboratory technician at ERH. Dani Heyrend is the Work Healthy Program Manager and ERH Occupational Health Program Manager. Both have seen firsthand the impacts of COVID-19 on the community, patients and their coworkers, and both have dealt with the stress and realities of the pandemic.

Badertscher said prior to the pandemic, a typical workday in the 24/7 ERH medical lab was still incredibly busy. Staff members consist of three day-shift lab technicians (including Badertscher and the lab director), two night-shift techs and four phlebotomists. A normal workday prior to COVID included anywhere from 8-10 hour shifts drawing and testing patient samples of blood, urine, stool, sputum and other bodily fluids, culturing samples for microbiology and testing blood bank patients for things like routine and emergency blood transfusions. The lab works with all areas of the hospital, including the ER, ICU, operating room, labor and delivery area, nursery and medical surgical unit, and patients can include those suffering from heart attacks, strokes, accidents and more, as well as the samples from the hospital clinic.

Badertscher said it’s difficult to recruit qualified lab technicians, particularly in rural areas, due to a lack of training programs.

“As lab technologists and technicians, our jobs can be high-stress, sad, even devastating when certain events arise, yet very rewarding,” she said. “We have our hearts invested in helping save our patients’ lives, helping to treat and diagnose them behind the scenes. We have amazing phlebotomists and they truly are the face of the lab. They are kind and compassionate toward all our patients and they love what they do. The majority of the time, they are who you see when you come in for outpatient lab or are admitted.”

Heyrend described a pre-COVID normal workday. “Patients were seen on a normal, regular basis with little thought to the possibility of deadly contagion except for during flu season, knowing what to expect for the most part with few emergent exceptions. Pandemics had always been in the back of my mind — healthcare workers have been aware for years that we were ‘due,’ but somehow locally we woke up one day in mid-March and COVID had become a stark reality. The enemy was COVID and the Tyvek suit and respirator became our armor.”

Both women said their workdays have changed dramatically in the age of COVID.

“It’s a hard thing to call anything ‘normal’ anymore,” said Heyrend. “Things change literally by the minute some days. … I’ve learned to trust what’s working locally and, more importantly, what’s working here at the hospital. We’ve got some really smart people that work here in our community, not just at the hospital but at the county and state level as well.”

Heyrend said most ERH employees have now taken on multiple job responsibilities above and beyond what was once normal. She herself has been working the COVID testing area at ERH since March, performing her “regular” pre-COVID duties after the drive-thru testing area closes for the day.

“You learn really fast about prioritization and time management when you’re faced with the possibility of a 12-plus-hour day, but unfortunately some days it’s unavoidable,” she said. “It really has become a team effort; there is a hospital-wide synergy that encompasses all departments. It has truly been a great thing to witness and be a part of; we have great leadership and excellent staff that are willing to jump in anywhere to get the job done. We are all personally invested and want the best for everyone in the community.”

Badertscher said the lab workload has increased enormously. “Our new normal workday is hard to describe. Our days range from 8-14 hours with the added paperwork, processing and testing. We continue to have our normal workload as before; however, the new increased workload with COVID has added many more hours to our plates.”

She said COVID testing has increased immensely with the surge in cases over the past two months and having COVID patients admitted is also adding to the workload. The specimens from curbside testing go to the lab to be logged, prepped and sent to the State Health Lab for confirmation testing.

“It’s all very time consuming,” she said. “We are staffed the same as before COVID, but the added tasks put a strain on us all.”

In addition to the added workload, both women reported challenges with obtaining supplies and equipment needed to keep up with testing demands and stressed the importance of having enough personal protective equipment for staff members. Lately, staffing levels have been a concern as ERH staff members themselves have been out with illness, increasing the workload even more. Heyrend said an additional challenge has been adapting to the increased use of telehealth, both for healthcare providers and for patients. She said there was a definite learning curve with the increased reliance on what has become a “valuable tool in the toolbox.”

“Finding the right balance of healthcare, assuring our healthy and our sick patients that they are important, valued, and that we are here to help however we can, even if we’re not physically able to see them in the clinic, has been challenging,” said Heyrend. One of Heyrend’s pre-COVID roles was working with local employers on initiatives to keep employees healthy and working. “I’ve been thinking about how the pandemic impacts our local employers,” she said. “So many employers have been impacted by the pandemic. It touches every facet. One employee gets sick, which is scary in and of itself, but then it compounds staffing shortages, which in turn can cause more stress and injuries. We’ve developed close relationships with many employers and it saddens me to see them affected in this way. One of the things that gives me hope is looking forward to partnering with local employers to provide COVID vaccines to their employees and get back some semblance of normal.”

On a personal level, both Heyrend and Badertscher have experienced stress unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.

“This past year has been like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Heyrend. “Keeping the virus contained personally has been a constant worry. Did I wash or sanitize my hands enough? Did I don or doff my suit and respirator properly? Did I sanitize my work area properly? Healthcare workers are at a higher risk of spreading the virus and that weighs heavy on our minds most of the time. … I worry that I may inadvertently infect my family, a patient or a coworker.”

Badertscher agreed. “In my whole career, I have never felt as stressed as I do now. My anxiety has increased and my emotions. I don’t think I have cried this much in my whole 20-plus years that I’ve worked in healthcare. My biggest fear is taking it home to my family and being one of those who don’t make it through the virus.”

The ability to leave work at work is virtually nonexistent.

“It’s very hard to leave work at work,” said Heyrend. “We are so conscious of not contracting or spreading the virus that it’s literally impossible not to bring work home; it’s literally changed all of our processes.”

When asked about difficulties in leaving work at work, Badertscher explained the heavy emotional toll of COVID.

“I worry about my family and my friends,” she said. “I worry about the patients that I was able to help on my shift. When I’m in a room drawing patients through all my PPE, masks, etc., my heart aches for them. I see the fear in their eyes as they are so scared when they can’t breathe, scared they may not make it. They cry to you that they are sorry they are here and you reassure them that it’s good they came in to get help and that it’s OK, and we’re going to do everything we can for them.”

“Healthcare is hard,” she continued. “You see what this virus can do. The more it hits our little town, the more we see what it does to people — the differences in symptoms from mild to severe — to death. It’s heartbreaking, especially when it really hits close to home. Living in a small town, you know many of the residents; you have many friends, acquaintances and family members.”

As for what they would like the community to know about working in healthcare at the present time, they both stressed the need for community support.

“Healthcare workers need community support,” said Heyrend. “For us, this is not a political issue; it’s our job. There’s a job to be done and that’s taking care of patients, period. We can’t take care of our patients unless we take care of ourselves. We try everything we can to simply not get COVID, and that means doing everything we can while at work, at home and in the community. We’re going to limit our social outings and we’re going to wear masks. Agree with it or not, we’re doing it so we can show up for you when you need us. It’s that simple.”

Badertscher said, “In the beginning people were always thanking us for being here, being supportive. Now, it seems we get complaints or get ridiculed or yelled at. We understand that this is frustrating to every single person right now. We don’t like it any more than anyone else, but we are truly doing the best we can to help people. I wish people wouldn’t call this virus fake. It is not fake. When we see firsthand how it affects people and their families, our coworkers and their families, it tears at our hearts. I don’t live in fear, but I do live more cautiously.”

Heyrend closed by emphasizing how committed healthcare workers are to their jobs and helping others.

“I want the community to know just how much they are loved by their healthcare workers and the personal sacrifices they are making for them,” she said. “We have some true heroes in our community who have sacrificed everything to serve them. It has been truly awe-inspiring to watch.”

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