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Stacie Conley, BSN, R.N., Intensive Care Unit, Southeast Georgia Health System Camden Camus

Fighting COVID-19 as a Family

 

Around this time last year, Diana Cameron, RRT, was gearing up for a spike in COVID-19 cases. As a respiratory therapist and manager of Radiology and Cardiopulmonary Services at the Southeast Georgia Health System Camden Campus, she played a pivotal role. Working alongside her team, she tracked down medical supplies and converted three hospital areas into isolation rooms for COVID-19 patients. As the team rushed to prepare, a co-worker said, “It’s like waiting for a category 5 hurricane.” Thinking back on the experience Cameron says, “It was the perfect analogy.” 

 

The 40-bed community hospital and its respiratory therapists were preparing to face a formidable foe. “Covid put respiratory therapy in the spotlight. Before then, most people didn’t know what we did,” Cameron says. Today, the public knows that these medical professionals fought a daily battle against a deadly respiratory disease. Respiratory therapists literally help people breathe, not only with the ventilators we heard so much about, but in other ways. “We started patients out with high-flow nasal cannulas, then progressed to BiPAP machines and finally, ventilators if needed. Getting supplies was a challenge. We worked closely with the Brunswick Campus, sending supplies back and forth.”

 

The team worked together with several other Health System departments to prepare rooms for the influx of patients. When Surgical Services discontinued outpatient procedures to preserve personal protective equipment (PPE) and to also reduce the risk of a viral spread, Cameron coordinated with the hospital’s Facilities staff and nurse managers to convert the space into a COVID-19 unit. Sections of the Emergency Care Center and medical-surgical services soon followed. 

 

Glenn Gann, R.N., MSN, vice president and administrator, Camden Campus, greatly appreciates Cameron and her team for their dedication. “Diana and the respiratory therapy team managed many more patients than usual, and the patients were much sicker than normal. The team provided excellent and compassionate care under challenging circumstances,” Gann says. 

 

A Heartbreaking Scene

With the vaccine rollout and corresponding dip in cases, Cameron has had time to reflect. “I’ve been in health care for 33 years and I work with seasoned therapists and radiology staff. We’ve never seen anything like this. There’s no rhyme or reason to COVID-19. Young people die from it and some 102-year-old people survive.” Struggling to manage a disease for which there were no reliable treatments took a toll on her department. “My staff were physically and mentally exhausted. We were often the last face patients saw before they passed. We even had several members of one family die.” Although families told her, “We know you did everything you could,” the highly contagious virus meant families could not be with their loved ones when they passed. For Cameron and her team, it was heartbreaking. 

 

And yet, they kept fighting. “All of my people stuck with us. We were in it together. I couldn’t imagine doing this with any other team.” Her gratitude extends to other Health System team members, too. “From the Environmental Services staff to managers and frontline workers, no one job was more important than another,” she says. 

Leading by Example

Knowing they were in it together made it difficult when Cameron became sick with COVID-19 in July 2020. “It was hard to sit home and watch the numbers go up.” Her coughing was so severe, she could not use an inhaler, but she kept thinking, “I’ve got to get better so I can help.”

 

The Health System isn’t just a workplace for Cameron. As a longtime employee, she echoes the feelings expressed by many of her peers. “We’re not just co-workers, we’re family. Our patients are family, too.”  

 

The pandemic imposed significant sacrifices on every Health System department and employee. “Diana has been a tremendous leader and calming influence for her entire team throughout the pandemic. I am very grateful for her guidance not only then, but now too,” says Gann.

 

As difficult as the last year and a half has been, there are positive takeaways. “We all learned a lot. We’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t and we’re more prepared. The vaccine is helping, too. We saw fewer cases after this year’s Memorial Day holiday than we did after New Year’s and Christmas,” shares Cameron.

 

While she’s cautiously optimistic, Cameron reminds us, “We need to live our lives, but let’s live them safely and carefully. COVID-19 is real; it’s still out there.” 

 

The message is clear. Get vaccinated, and if you cannot for whatever reason, continue wearing a mask. “For those who’ve had the mind set of ‘wait and see’ when it comes to getting the vaccine, now is the time to stop waiting. It’s time to protect yourself and your community,” says Gann.

 

Southeast Georgia Health System offers COVID-19 Pfizer vaccines for all individuals age 12 and older. Appointments are preferred, but walk-ins are accepted. To learn more or to make an appointment, visit sghs.org/covid19-vaccine. 

 

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

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