In the face of uncertainty, a dedicated group of healthcare workers have stepped up to serve in the COVID-19 Recovery Unit at Providence Healthcare and Rehabilitation of Downers Grove. Despite the risk, these individuals have shown courage and commitment to caring for patients who are fighting for their lives against the virus.
Providence Downers Grove opened the COVID-19 Recovery Unit in April as a means for providing rehabilitation care to recovering COVID-19-positive patients in a separate, secured area of the building. A designated team of healthcare workers needed to be assembled in order to avoid cross-contamination with the rest of the facility.
“When Brad [Fierce, Providence Administrator] asked if we would take this assignment, at first many people were hesitant to work there,” said Minnie Duazo, a nurse who has worked at Providence Downers Grove for over 15 years. “The virus was so unknown and unpredictable at first. No one wanted to get exposed.”
However, several veteran nurses rallied their colleagues to take on the challenge, including Dolly Anore, who’s been a nurse for over 30 years and who also works in the COVID-19 unit at Northwestern Memorial Central DuPage Hospital. “I started to recruit other staff,” said Dolly. “The ones who were scared, I encouraged them. I said, ‘We’ll fight for this one. As long as we’re careful about our PPE, it will be safe. I will be the leader.’”
“I was nervous at first. It’s a very scary setting, and I knew this population would need so much care,” said Gilda Mathis, a CNA who is also currently attending nursing school. “But I got into this profession to serve people. And I knew it would be good experience.”
“It goes to show the level of commitment they have to the mission of Providence and to serving people,” says Megan Tengerstrom, Providence Life Services Vice President of Operations who has been offering hands-on support to the team at Downers Grove. “Not everyone said they wanted to work on this unit.”
Much of the concern about joining the COVID Recovery Unit team came from fear of bringing the virus home to family members who are older or immune-compromised. “It took me about a week to decide if I wanted to take the assignment,” says Jennifer Sacatropez, a nurse who joined Providence about a year ago after working for many years at a hospital in the Philippines. “I live with my mom, who’s a breast cancer survivor, so of course I needed to consult with her. I knew it meant I’d need to take extra precautions, but I wanted to help.”
But once staff understood the facility’s plan for infection control, many fears were allayed. The COVID-19 Recovery Unit is completely segregated from the rest of the building and has its own separate entrance. Staff are provided with scrubs, which are left at work and laundered on-site so they do not have to bring them home with them. There is even an area for staff members to change clothes and shower before and after their shifts. “We even leave our shoes there,” notes Minnie. Even so, Minnie, like many staff members, goes through the now-familiar routine of changing clothes in her garage and showering again immediately upon arriving home.
Staff are also provided with full personal protective equipment (PPE) and are periodically tested for the virus. “We’re really good about the PPE,” says Minnie. “We have everything we need. Whenever we need something, they [administration] will provide it. All we have to do is ask.”
The COVID-19 Recovery Unit is intended to care for patients who are not critically ill enough to need an acute care hospital, but who require additional rehabilitation and recuperation before returning home. Some of the patients were on a mechanical ventilator while in the hospital, an intervention which, while life-saving, leaves the patient incredibly weak and needing to relearn skills, like walking, talking, and swallowing.
Intense rehabilitation like this can be time-consuming and exhausting. “You might be assigned to only a few patients, but it feels like a lot more because of how much assistance they need,” says Gilda. “They are still pretty weak and need a lot of care.” CNAs and physical therapists partner to help patients ambulate by getting up out of bed and into a chair – a process that can take an hour or so just for one patient. “I try to encourage them to keep moving,” Gilda says. “If they stay motivated and get up, they’ll recover faster.”
Other patients are less complex and are mostly waiting on the physicians overseeing their care to indicate that they have recovered from the virus and can go home. “Here, the focus is on getting the patients up and moving and back on a normal diet,” explains Dolly. “We’re monitoring them for any changes that might show that they need to go back to the hospital.”
Everyone agrees that the key to surviving the crisis is the strong sense of teamwork that has been formed among the COVID-19 unit staff. In addition to nurses and CNAs, the team also consists of respiratory, speech, physical and occupational therapists. An internal medicine physician regularly makes rounds on patients, and specialists are consulted via telemedicine.
“Some days are good, some are bad,” says Gilda. “On the bad days, we rally around each other.”
“We are like family now,” adds Minnie.
During these long, lonely weeks of isolation, nurses and other healthcare staff members often become an extension of the patient’s family, offering support and encouragement to keep going. “I’ve held the phone up as patients did video calls with their families,” says Jennifer. “It shakes you emotionally. “I’m standing there, overhearing them talk with their loved ones, and I’m getting teary-eyed underneath my PPE.”
Seeing their patients fight to recover takes an emotional toll on caregivers as well. “There’s definitely a lot of mental stress,” Gilda says. “You’re giving so much of yourself, mentally and physically. It drains on you.”
“My mom will peek in my room late at night,” says Jennifer, who works as a supervisor on the unit. “Often I’m still awake, looking over my patient notes and preparing for the next day.”
Working in such a high-stress environment for an extended period of time has highlighted the need for self-care and maintaining a positive attitude. “Being on the frontlines during this crisis has made me more understanding of my own needs, making me know my own vulnerabilities,” says Gilda. “Sometimes you need to step back, take a mental health break. And my managers have been very supportive when I say I need to take a break.”
“I’ve been a nurse for a long time, so I know the ups and downs,” says Dolly. “You have to keep things in perspective.” And the diminutive nurse with a big personality does just that – by joking, laughing, and singing her way through her shift. “They call me Dolly Parton,” she laughs. “I try to give people high hopes.”
All of their sacrifices feel worth it, though, when their patients recover and are finally able to return home. “I feel a lot of satisfaction in seeing the seniors bounce back,” says Gilda. “I’m proud to know I played a part in their care. We do this because we love what we do.”
“It feels so good to hear the ‘thank-you’s’ from the families,” says Jennifer. “They are so, so grateful that you were there to be their eyes, hands and feet, to connect them to their loved ones. It gives you so much fulfillment to be acknowledged.”
And as the pandemic continues to rage on across the country, the team is leaning into their faith to give them strength to forge ahead. “I thank God for giving me good health, so I can continue to take care of my patients,” says Dolly. “He gives me the courage to fight this.”
“My strength is in God,” says Minnie. “Every day I pray that he’ll help our coworkers be safe.”