‘The resilience that they developed’: Local health care professionals talk about the past year
It has been over a year, according to Dr. Christina Lasich, chief medical officer of Western Sierra Medical Clinic, since awareness of COVID-19 began to impact her work.
In January 2020, questions about symptoms and recent travel became important in identifying any potential contacts with the virus in light of its spread overseas, said Lasich.
On the period that followed as the pandemic took hold in the U.S. and orders to shelter in place began, Lasich said, “There’s obviously going to be a lot of fear and uncertainty initially, and that is what we experienced as a team.”
“But then, we were trusting in our team approach as health care professionals, trusting in each other, and trusting in the scientific world in general to help us navigate the pandemic.”
Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital ICU Director Katheryn Kray described the earliest days of the pandemic as forcing an “almost overnight” shift in every aspect of admitting and transporting patients, as well as keeping staff safe, as all were “bombarded” with new information.
“Not only were we dealing with trying to be compliant and be as safe and appropriate in the delivery of our care as possible, but we were also addressing the anxiety in the staff of getting quite a bit of information … without a lot of knowledge around their risk and how to manage that,” said Kray.
Lori Katterhagen, chief nurse executive officer and chief operations officer at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, recounted the “very powerful moments” the hospital nursing staff became a part of while patients’ families were not allowed to be present, from arranging virtual communication to holding the patient’s hand as their families said their goodbyes.
“The nurses became the family … or the intermediary for the family,” said Katterhagen, praising the nursing staff’s creativity in finding ways to help patients feel more comfortable.
Kray called this transition to working in an already difficult job “on a much more serious and magnified basis” a privilege, although noting that “it also has an emotional burden associated with it.”
“We’ve had to be very fluid and flexible in our workflows and how we deliver care,” said Lasich.
At Western Sierra Medical Clinic, she explained, some adjustments that have persisted so far include screenings at the door, requiring masks, and frequent hand washing.
“(We) continue to be cautious, knowing that, yes, although we have members of our staff that are vaccinated, a number of our patients are not — so we still need to maintain exposure control,” she said.
Kray, who works not only with the ICU and Emergency Department nursing leadership but with ambulance management, said, “There’s no real part of the delivery of care that has not had to be examined and adjusted often.”
This, according to Kray, has ranged from masking, and the handling of trash and linens, to how to handle emergency situations where the COVID status of the patient is unknown.
One change which came later in the pandemic, said Katterhagen, was the requirement that all patients admitted to the hospital be tested for COVID-19.
This, she explained, is meant as a safeguard against instances seen last summer, in which patients infected with COVID-19 were not necessarily presenting with typical symptoms — coming to the hospital due to an “upset stomach,” for example, rather than shortness of breath — and therefore were initially not isolated.
As recently as last summer, said Kray, testing every admitted patient was not possible due to limited testing resources. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want to, it was that we couldn’t,” she said.
Katterhagen said the screening process and mask usage are two changes she does not see as going away “anytime soon” at the hospital. “There are just too many vulnerabilities,” she said.
Reflecting on hopes for the future, Katterhagen recounted the first vaccine clinic among their staff in late December, saying, “I still remember just the palpable hope in the vaccine clinic, just that pure seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“When we get more vaccine released, I think that that calmness that I think everyone’s searching for, that sense of normalcy … is hesitantly building,” said Katterhagen.
Kray noted it can be difficult for hospital staff to reflect on the effect the pandemic has had on them while still being “in it,” but said, “The resilience that they developed is pretty remarkable.”
“Our processes are working, and more importantly, the people executing the processes are doing a really good job,” she said.
Referencing the saying that, “if you’re not being challenged, you’re not growing,” Lasich said the past year was an “ultimate growth opportunity.”
“That will provide us greater buoyancy as we move into the future, and as we continue to look for ways to improve our ability to work together as a community of health care providers, a community as a region, and on the world level,” said Lasich.
Victoria Penate is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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