NEENAH, Wis. – “It was something we’ve never experienced before,” said Kristy Heckert, RN, Clinical Manager of the COVID-Unit at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah, as she remembered what teams went through during the surge of cases in fall 2020. “Equipment and PPE filled supply shelves near patient rooms. Runners were working as quickly as possible, getting necessary items to the team members who were with patients, providing the best care possible to a floor that at one time was full of very ill COVID patients.”
That scene is something Heckert won’t forget. It’s also a scene she wants to avoid repeating. Based on current COVID-19 modeling, without the community’s help, it may be a reality. As of late-August 2021, all 72 Wisconsin counties were experiencing high or very high disease activity, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). The seven-day average hovers around or over 1,400 daily new cases. Just weeks before in July, Wisconsin averaged around 100 new cases a day.
Helping Health Care Workers
What Wisconsin is facing now is too familiar for Heckert.
“When we saw our most cases last fall, our team huddled at 6:00 a.m. and by the 10:00 a.m. huddle, we needed to adjust our game plan because the situation and needs were changing minute by minute,” she said.
The flexibility of ThedaCare’s COVID teams makes them unique.
“These team members are incredible,” said Heckert. “There is so much talent in this group. They have special skills that allow them to adapt and change to provide the best care they can for each person. COVID can be a difficult virus to treat, it impacts each person differently. That’s why being able to care for each individual, knowing what works for one patient might not work for another, is crucial. And this team does that exceptionally well.”
The near-capacity volume, constant change and quick-thinking led to fatigue for team members.
“I saw the marks below their eyes and on top of their ears from the masks they wore for 12-16 hours,” she said. “I saw the pure exhaustion as they finished their shift. And they came back, day after day and night after night. I know they didn’t feel like smiling, but they did. And I was fortunate to see smiles behind their masks, as they showed compassion and care for patients and their families. This team continues to inspire me every day.”
Heckert said some staff had respite shifts, where they were assigned non-COVID hours, a much-needed break from caring for those who were severely ill from the virus.
“What they were seeing on a daily basis will stay with them forever,” she said. “Our team is made up of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters who care deeply for our communities. As a leader, my job is to make sure they are okay, mentally and emotionally, so if that meant giving them a brief break from working on the COVID unit, that’s what we did.”
The Need for Community Action
Cards from community members, donated food and snacks, and visitors waving up to team members with signs from the parking lot and the bridge helped with morale during difficult days. Heckert says what health care workers need again is community support, in a different way. In the most likely scenario, modeling predicts cases peaking again in September-October 2021. Increased vaccination rates and changes in behavior like masking and social distancing could shift those projections.
“We’re prepared to care for an increased number of COVID patients, we have the technology, the skills and knowledge,” she said. “Do we have the mental and emotional strength to do this again? That is why I am worried right now. We need our friends and neighbors to rally again, get vaccinated, take COVID-safe precautions, and support each other.”
ThedaCare leaders are asking communities to come together, and help Northeast and Central Wisconsin avoid a surge in cases. It is recommended that those who are eligible to receive the vaccine, do so. Also, adhering to masking guidelines, physically distancing when with people other than those in your household, washing hands frequently and staying home when ill.
Team members at ThedaCare will continue their dedication to providing care and support for patients, families and community members. It is what they were called to do.
“Every day I look at my team members on the COVID-unit and in all hospital areas, and I know they are heroes,” said Heckert. “They inspire me to lead with joy in my heart. It is a gift to care for patients, and I am honored to be a part of this team.”
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including seven hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.
For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.