We Are Sentara RMH Strong

Hospital Caregivers Share Their Experiences of Making It Through the Pandemic—Together

Keeping Things Clean, Staying Safe

Shirley Koontz, a team leader in Environmental Services at Sentara RMH, unabashedly loves her job and the team with whom she works. Seeing staff pull together through the COVID pandemic, to care for each other and hospital patients, made her affection grow even stronger. 

“Our motto is ‘patients first,’” says Koontz, who’s been at Sentara RMH for nine years. “What we do is for patients and for our own safety.” 

Although that commitment to safety has always been paramount, the responsibilities of the Environmental Services team changed dramatically, and safety became even more crucial, when the pandemic arrived in early 2020. “At first, we were scared about it,” recalls Koontz, who supervises more than 25 employees, creates work schedules and gets the second-shift staff members started on their workday. “Then we realized that to Sentara, our safety also came first.”

In response to the emerging COVID crisis, staff received information on cleaning and safety protocols to protect each other, themselves and patients. Koontz says her crew banded together as a team like they’d never done before. That team also expanded to include staff from other departments who stepped up to help with the extra required room cleaning. Facing new uncertainties and protocols, the team members looked out for one another. 

“We all had to check each other to make sure we were dressed properly, wearing our personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly and doing everything right,” she said. “We didn’t want anyone to get exposed.” 

Though COVID cases are finally dropping in this area, her team has not let down its guard. Environmental Services is still following all the COVID protocols regarding cleaning, masking up and wearing eye protection. 

“It’s a relief that there are not as many cases now, and now that we have a better understanding of what’s required to stay safe, it’s not so scary,” Koontz notes.

Going through what has certainly been the worst of times together has reinforced Koontz’s belief that Sentara RMH staff members really respect and care for each other.

“I’m proud to work for Sentara RMH,” she says. “Someday I’ll retire from here.” 

Reconnecting with a Love for Patient Care

Andrea Harris-Bivins has worked at Sentara RMH for 15 years. As an Emergency Department (ED) technician, she performs all the protocols for checking in patients and getting them started in the ED. 

From a young age, Harris-Bivins knew she wanted to work in an emergency room. 

“It’s the highlight of my life,” she says. “I feel good taking care of patients.”

Like many people, when COVID first began infecting people across the United States, she thought it would be over within a few months. But the pandemic persisted, and everyone—especially healthcare professionals—had to adapt. 

Harris-Bivins says the Sentara RMH hospital staff, particularly those on the front lines with patients, were told they needed to take care of themselves first. After all, if they became ill, they would not be able to help themselves, their families or their patients.

“We had to stay away from our friends and family,” she says. “It tested my faith, really, because I still had to go take care of people when it was hard even to take care of myself.”

As was the case at many healthcare facilities, Sentara RMH front-line staff were offered the opportunity to stay in local hotels, rather than going home to their families, to reduce the chances of COVID transmission and help them stay healthy. By doing so, Harris-Bivins knew she was doing the right thing—but she, like many others, ached for her family and struggled with her inability to take care of them. While she was living at the hotel, for instance, her husband had to undergo shoulder surgery, and during that time she wasn’t able to be home to care for him. 

However, staying at the hotel allowed Harris-Bivins to work more hours, so she was spending more time with her co-workers, and they all helped bear each other’s struggles. 

“Before COVID, you’d come in to work and say, ‘Hello, how’s your day going?’” she says, noting that the question often would be asked more out of politeness than true concern. “Now we’re genuinely concerned about each other. I’ve cultivated some beautiful relationships with my co-workers, and I’m proud to be part of a great team of individuals.”

Not long ago, Harris-Bivins had the opportunity to experience the hospital as a patient herself, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently went through surgery and radiation treatment. She says that experience not only made her grateful for her compassionate co-workers, but also reawakened her compassion for her patients. 

“You think to yourself, ‘I’m doing a great job,’but sometimes along the way we lose ourselves,” she says. “This was an eye-opener for me. It helped me to revisit that love that used to burn so heavy inside me. Now I’m back to that again. It’s helped me to understand what people are going through.”

Harris-Bivins appreciates the sense of community she feels both inside and outside the hospital walls. Before coming to Harrisonburg, she worked in several big city hospitals.

“In those places, when I had a patient, I never saw them again,” she says. “But here, I can be in the supermarket and see someone I took care of at the hospital.”

“Once while shopping, a woman approached me and said, ‘Do you remember you took care of me?’I really appreciated that.”

During the pandemic, Harris-Bivins was touched by the love shown to healthcare workers by people in the community, whether it was by driving around the campus loop road honking their car horns, posting encouraging posters around the campus and in hospital hallways, donating much-needed PPE, or providing food and snacks for staff. 

“Working in a community-based hospital, we care about our community members, and they care about us,” she says. “Our team members often remember our patients after they’ve been discharged, wondering how they are doing. We really do care about the people we take care of.”

Pitching in Wherever Needed

Sentara RMH’s lead hospitalist, Russ Ford, MD, has always been struck by the “remarkable friendliness” he found when he joined the hospital over a decade ago. During the pandemic, he was equally struck by the “all-in environment” the staff demonstrated. “It was really great,” he says.

Dr. Ford is part of a team of about two dozen doctors, registered nurses and physician assistants who provide care for most of the hospital’s patients. When it was apparent that COVID patients were going to be a top priority and that elective procedures—surgeries, imaging and lab services, consults, and anything else nonemergent—would be canceled, it left many of the staff with little to do.

Having previously worked in a larger medical system in Delaware during the 2008-2009 recession, Dr. Ford recalls: “During that time, all hospitals had to adapt economically, which came at a cost to employees. It became more of a business and less employee-friendly.”

With the onset of COVID, however, the response at Sentara RMH was quite distinct. Dr. Ford was impressed that, rather than initiating massive layoffs, as many businesses had to do, Sentara RMH found ways to keep staff engaged. Team members were redeployed throughout the hospital to perform tasks that were necessary to address and weather the pandemic crisis. 

For instance, physical therapists were not allowed to provide hands-on care during the pandemic, so instead they supported staff in the COVID isolation units, making sure PPE carts were stocked and assisting caregivers with donning and removing PPE. Dubbed “PPE buddies,” these staff members were deployed on every unit that cared for COVID patients. 

“It was kind of cool to be working in the hospital then, because I got to work with people I normally wouldn’t have seen,” Dr. Ford says.

Other staff members were deployed at hospital entrances to screen employees, patients and visitors for potential COVID infections. 

While the staff was working well together as a team, they also felt the pain being experienced by patients and their families. When the hospital was not allowing visitors, the nurses did their best to facilitate interactive video calls with patients’families. 

“It was a very difficult situation for patients,” Dr. Ford relates. “The staff here is very compassionate. We couldn’t do anything about the isolation, except assist with phone and video calls.” 

All in all, Sentara RMH cared for about 1,300 COVID patients over the course of the pandemic, while also looking out for one another. That caring environment continues today, and safety protocols remain in place, even though COVID numbers have plummeted recently.

Even before COVID, Dr. Ford felt Sentara RMH was a “fantastic” environment to work in, with “outstanding clinicians, and phenomenal nursing and ancillary services.” 

Now that the crisis seems to be waning, he says:“I think our hospital adapted really well, and I’m proud to have been a part of that. We came out of the pandemic even stronger than we were before. Sentara RMH is a great place to work.” 

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