HOPE & HEALING: Doctors and nurses battling COVID lean on each other for support

A nurse wheels a patient down a hallway at Hancock Regional Hospital. Because of restrictions inside the hospital, health-care professionals have had to stand in for loved ones to offer support for patients. That difficult role took an emotional toll on many of them. ( Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

Second of two stories

HANCOCK COUNTY — When the COVID-19 pandemic silently invaded Hancock County last spring and a growing number of COVID patients began filing local hospital beds, nurse Leslie Wright never stopped to greet her family when returning home from a long shift at the Hancock Regional Hospital emergency room.

Instead, she’d head straight to the laundry room to throw her clothes in the washer, step into a steaming hot shower, and cry.

It’s not that she didn’t want to get a warm hug from her husband or kids when she got home each night. Her family just knew the drill: After work, Mom was headed straight to the washer, then the shower, to minimize the threat of bringing the coronavirus into their home.

The registered nurse was able to keep her composure for the most part while treating COVID patients, but the emotions typically came bubbling over when the hot water washed over her in the shower.

Wright’s experiences over the past year are not uncommon among health-care providers in Hancock County.

As the protectors of public health, they were called to step up and serve in ways they never could have dreamed of — treating patients while running the risk of contracting the deadly virus that has killed more than 500,000 people in the United States and 135 in Hancock County as of early Monday, March 15.

Wright had previously worked more than 20 years in the emergency department, and still takes shifts there when needed, so working under stress was nothing new for the experienced nurse. But the pandemic took that stress to a whole new level.

She recalls one day that was particularly tough.

“I think one day there was a man who was in his early 80s… sweetest little old guy. He kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m really sorry to bother you. I know you have other sicker patients. I’m sure I don’t have COVID. I’m sorry to bother you,’” she recalled.

“He had it. He died two days later,” she said.

The fact that patients’ family members couldn’t be by their sides made those scenes all the more heartbreaking, Wright said.

“That was one of the hardest things, getting people out of their car while their families are crying, and I just having to take them away,” the nurse said.

She recalls the look of fear in people’s eyes as their loved ones were whisked away behind closed doors in the emergency department.

“They were like, ‘Am I ever going to see them again?’ It was just hard to leave them like that,” Wright said.

Once patients got checked into their rooms, doctors and nurses became their only source of emotional support.

“There were people who knew they were sick, so you just kind of talk to them, hold their hand and try to alleviate their fears,” Wright said.

Amy Reel, another Hancock Regional emergency room nurse, said treating patients through the pandemic has been much more taxing than she ever expected.

“I didn’t anticipate anything like this while in nursing school. I didn’t think anything like this would happen in my lifetime,” said Reel, who credits the support of her family and co-workers, but mostly her faith, for seeing her through.

“God’s brought me through all this healthy and I’ve not had any issues of my own. My faith has brought me through things, just as it always does,” she said.

That’s not to say things have been easy, the registered nurse said.

“It was a scary time for us. We weren’t sure what we were dealing with, because really none of us had ever dealt with anything like this before in our careers,” she said.

On a positive note, Reel said the exhausting experience has brought health-care workers — already a tight-knit group — even closer together.

“We all felt this bond to protect each other and to be there for each other, to support each other,” she said.

Dr. Rudo Mashindi, a family physician with Hancock Physicians Network, echoes that sentiment.

“In the beginning of the pandemic we were all scared, but we could never tell the outside world. We had to check on each other just to make sure we were OK,” she recalled.

“We were scared to death to go to work, but you have to continue to reassure patients,” said Mashindi, who at one point was assigned to work at the hospital’s COVID clinic.

The long days were emotionally grueling, with some working 12-hour shifts. Mashindi once worked 32 days in a row.

“You don’t even have a chance to catch your breath. You’re working at the clinic weekends, working at the hospital, and at the end of the day trying to alleviate the pressure. Some of us (health-care providers) would fall ill from the virus, while others would give that continuation of the care,” she said.

“It took a mental toll on all of us as far as stress, anxiety and some depression, but we feel like we’re getting to a better place,” said Mashindi. “Our numbers (of COVID cases) are so low, it’s breathtaking to say you’re in a better place now. I think morale is very high among staff.”

Dr. Matthew Surburg, a family doctor with Hancock Family Physicians, said the past 12 months is a time health care providers will never forget.

Now back at his practice, Surburg has found that routine visits have been taking longer because many patients, especially the elderly, are increasingly talkative after battling loneliness and isolation throughout the past year.

“For some of them, their appointment is the first interaction they’ve had with another person in months,” he said.

Health-care providers have made sure to check for signs of depression and anxiety in their patients, and in each other as well.

Hospital administrators have also been checking in with employees, offering emotional support and extra perks to make life easier, like turning the hospital cafeteria into a makeshift market, where employees could grab some staples and skip a trip to the supermarket.

“The last thing you want to do after working a stressful shift is go to the grocery, especially during a pandemic, so that was so appreciated,” said Reel.

As a pediatric nurse practitioner at Hancock Pediatrics, Mindy Closser has comforted her share of anxious children and parents over the past year. Parents would phone in worried when their children had a severe headache or runny nose, fearing it was symptoms of COVID, and first-time parents fretted over bringing a baby into the world during a life-threatening pandemic.

Closser and her colleagues found themselves counseling anxious parents, relaying the ever-evolving guidelines coming from local schools and the state department of health.

“People were of course nervous and scared, thinking not only ‘what would happen to my child if I got COVID,’ but the ramification of people they’ve come in contact with getting sick, and what those close contact precautions should be. There were so many questions,” said Closser, who has been a nurse for 21 years.

Dr. Carmen Cudiamat, a doctor at Hancock Family Medicine, said that community-wide use of the COVID vaccine is the key to bringing an end to the pandemic.

“That’s probably the one thing we have that can help us get through this,” she said.

A full year after the pandemic’s onset, Reel said doctors and nurses are exhausted, but they’re also encouraged to see the number of cases diminishing.

Yet she warns that new strains of the virus could take over and send COVID numbers skyrocketing again if the public becomes too lax and stops social distancing, hand sanitizing and wearing face masks in public.

“We really want people to continue to be vigilant. If people don’t pay attention, we can go right back to where we started,” she said.

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This is the second of two stories about how doctors and nurses in Hancock County first responded to the COVID-19 crisis and the toll the pandemic has taken on them as they have fought to save lives.