2020 Person of the Year: Health Care Workers & First Responders – Heroes of COVID-19 battle, serve, sacrifice

From The Herald Bulletin

Anderson, Ind. – Putting their own lives at risk, Madison County’s health care workers and first responders have been on the front lines of the county’s fight against COVID-19 since March.

For their service and sacrifice, The Herald Bulletin editorial board has chosen these public servants as the Community Person of the Year for 2020. It’s the first time since the introduction of the annual award in 1993 that a group has been chosen instead of one or two people.

“I have to give kudos to all of the members of the staff here. Doctors, nurses, dietitians, physical and occupational therapists, everybody has come together as a group, as a wonderful family to care for the community,” said Dr. David Mares, director of the ICU at Ascension St. Vincent Anderson and a pulmonary critical care doctor.

That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Thomas Short, Community Hospital Anderson’s chief physician executive.

“This is really a team effort, and the heroes are everybody in the entire system,” Short said.

“The environmental services people all the way up to the front office. Everybody throughout this entire thing has pitched in and done their job, and even helped out doing other people’s jobs when people needed help.”

The virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

The first case was reported in Madison County on March 18. Ever since, workers faced an ever-present and invisible danger.

“We never thought we’d catch something from our patients or from one another that could potentially endanger our own lives,” Mares said. “I learned that I fear death, but I also learned that I and all of those around me developed the strength and had the strength to persist and to fight this battle for each and every one of our patients.”

Lori Wilson, an RN in the emergency department at Community, said she has never been more proud to be a nurse than she is now after seeing hospital team members come together to face a new disease.

“There are defining moments in all our lives — moments that have the ability to fundamentally alter a person, process or organization,” Wilson said. “My profession as a nurse has been forever changed by the pandemic. If I have learned anything from this crisis, it is how truly awe-inspiring the strength of our combined team members can be when faced with the unknown.”

Workers adapted to wearing layers of personal protective equipment that was uncomfortable, and while it shielded them from the virus it also complicated communicating with their patients as it obscured reassuring smiles and muffled their voices.

“Our biggest hurdle is our communication with our patients,” said Todd Cawthorn, deputy chief of EMS for the Anderson Fire Department. “That’s one of our best skills, our patient assessment abilities, and when you add a barrier to that communication it gets significantly harder.

“The run volume that our medics have had to go through, and then you couple it with the PPE and the increased risk of possibly taking something home to their families, they’ve been outstanding all year. They’ve done well to roll with it and not lose their cool about the situation. I just can’t say enough about our crews.”

Dr. Maleeha Khalid, an OB-GYN for Meridian Health Services, had a patient scheduled for a C-section who had tested negative for COVID-19 but had a second positive test in the operating room.

Precautions were taken, including extra layers of personal protective equipment, and the operation went ahead.

“If you wear all that, you are dripping with sweat. It was a very difficult surgery,” Khalid said.

The surgery was a success, and the new mom was grateful her surgery wasn’t postponed.

“She was so thankful. Sharing in the joy of the family are the small things that keep us going every day, that happiness,” Khalid said.

“Somebody needs me and I have to be there. Yes, we know every day that we go we can be exposed and we can get the virus, but still somebody has to do that — and that’s me,” he said.

Front-line workers continue to serve their community even as their families, like so many, have lost someone to the coronavirus.

Hanna Young, a patient care tech at Community, lost her grandmother to COVID-19.

“Working in the same hospital, taking care of other people’s grandmas and grandpas while mine was only one floor above me in the ICU was extremely difficult,” Young said. “I wanted to be taking care of her myself. That experience made a big impact on me and inspired me to take care of my patients the same way I would have taken care of my granny.”

Visitor restrictions in place to slow the spread of the virus have given workers the extra challenge of being a bridge between patients and their families, helping them communicate electronically with loved ones while also keeping those families informed.

“Sometimes in the ICU you care for the same patients for days or even weeks,” said Hannah Willard, an intensive care RN at Community.

“With families being unable to visit their loved ones, our phone calls are the only thing they have to hold onto,” Willard said. “They can’t see you, they don’t know who you are, but they are entrusting you to care for someone they love in the hardest time of their lives. Listening to them get excited when you pick up the phone to talk to them is enough to keep you going.”

When asked about what they are looking forward to when the pandemic is over and life returns to normal, health care professionals express an appreciation for little things formerly taken for granted, as well as reconnecting with friends and family.

“I miss having a night with my friends, just enjoying some bourbon and just enjoying a good time,” said David Austin, dental director at Meridian.

Willard is looking forward to spending worry-free time with family and friends.

“Not overthinking hugging Grandma and Grandpa, grabbing coffee with a friend, attending church in person and not over the computer,” she said.

Derric Coleman, who transports patients at Community, is looking forward to watching a Pacers game in person.

He offered this advice for living through a pandemic: “Just take it one day at a time. Take care of yourself and your family, but also be responsible enough to protect others. We are all in this together and need each other to do our part to keep each other safe.”