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l-r: Beth Poppell, R.N.; Clare Charalambous, CNA; Moorea Pierce, R.N.; Sandy Quinn, R.N.; and Shelly McKinney, R.N., manager, Patient Care Services

Celebrating Victories, Mourning Losses: An Inside Look at COVID Care

There are days when Shelly McKinney, R.N., feels more like a battle commander than a nurse manager. With each new work day, she huddles with her team to face another hectic 12 hours. McKinney and her team care for patients in the COVID-19 unit of Southeast Georgia Health System’s 4 St. Simons Tower. While not intensive care, these patients are sicker and require more monitoring and intervention than most hospital patients. “COVID patients can turn in an hour,” McKinney says. Her co-workers agree. Sandy Quinn, R.N. shares, “We’ve seen so many tragedies and multiple family members dying.” Macey Floyd, R.N., says the challenge strengthens the nurses’ bond. “We celebrate victories and mourn losses together.”

The nurses of 4 St. Simons are no strangers to seriously ill patients. In April 2020, the Health System transitioned the nursing staff from the oncology unit to the COVID unit. The oncology patients, which tend to be immunocompromised, were moved to another unit for their safety.

As any frontline hero will tell you, the last year was the hardest of their career. What motivates them to return to work, day after difficult day? “Nursing can be tough physically and emotionally, but also rewarding. You see the impact of your work with patients. Being there for patients in all aspects of their journey is the most meaningful part of the job,” Floyd says.

To help protect patients, team members and the community from exposure to coronavirus, the Health System temporarily suspended hospital visitors. Nurses bridge the communication gap between patients and family members, by relaying messages and using an iPad for FaceTime video calls.

Setting Priorities

Prioritization is paramount when caring for COVID-19 patients. Nurses must “gown up” head to toe in protective gear and organize medications and equipment before setting foot in a patient’s room. “We work as a cohesive team, partnering with CNAs to bathe patients, change sheets, and empty trash,” Quinn says.

A Fierce Dedication

Caring for people infected with a highly contagious, potentially deadly virus requires a passion for patient care. McKinney’s team is up to the task. “They are such advocates. They don’t hesitate when it comes to calling providers, rapid responses and codes when the patient’s condition changes. They’re always thinking of patients. When nurses must quarantine at home, they ask, ‘Who’s going to take care of my patients?’”

Leaning on Each Other

Staying strong for patients is not easy. McKinney recalls a patient hoping to see her grandchild’s birth. “She laid her head on the nurse’s chest, cried and said, ‘Please don’t let me die.’” Unfortunately, nothing more could be done, and the patient passed. “There’s not a day when someone on our team hasn’t cried. We all lean on each other. My office is a safe space for them to vent, cry, take a deep breath, and go back out there,” describes McKinney.

Floyd credits her “health care family” with supporting her through the pandemic. “We’re all going through this together.” Camaraderie makes all the difference to Quinn, too. “We genuinely care about each other and check on each other often.” As the pandemic drags on, nurses across the country are exhausted. “People feel frustrated and want to quit. My team is such a solid work family, though. We tell each other, ‘You’re a link in the chain. You can’t leave. We need you,’” says McKinney.

Bright Moments

Throughout the struggles, the nurses still find time to laugh and smile. Random acts of kindness – from thank you notes to gifts of food – ease the burden, as do appreciative patients. “Our patients have been wonderful,” McKinney says. Her team feels supported by the Health System’s proactive approach to stocking personal protective equipment (PPE) and concern shown by hospitalist James A. Hula, M.D. “He is our backbone. He is not only for the patients, he always asks every team member how they are,” shares McKinney.

An army will follow a leader it admires no matter how strenuous the battle. McKinney often stays late and arrives early to work, bakes cakes and buys lunch for the nurses. “I do any little thing I can to support them, and let them know how greatly they are appreciated.”

Words to the Wise

While determined to win the war against COVID-19, these frontline veterans admit to pandemic fatigue. Bringing the virus home to family members is a constant worry. Being unable to socialize with friends outside of work makes McKinney feel isolated, but she believes in avoiding large gatherings. “We’ve seen an uptick in COVID cases after each holiday. The more diligent the public is with masks, handwashing and vaccinations, the quicker they’ll be able to see older relatives without fear.”

Meanwhile, Floyd says the nurses of 4 St. Simons Tower will carry on, for however long it takes. “We’re here for you and your family. We will take care of you to the best of our ability. Stay strong, protect yourself and others so we can get on the other side of this.”

To support your nurses and community hospital, call the Southeast Georgia Health System Foundation at 912-466-3360.

Today’s Frontline Heroes is sponsored by Southeast Georgia Health System. Visit their website at sghs.org.

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