For front-line health care workers in a now-yearlong pandemic, every day is a battle that takes both a physical and mental toll, as they endure long hours and risk their own health each day to care for others.
But it doesn’t end when they walk out of the doors of St. John’s Health — or whichever medical facility they might staff — at the end of a shift. Just like other Jackson residents, they have families to care for and about; they have friends they long to hang out with over dinner or a drink, but opt not to for safety’s sake, so they can stay healthy and ready to work.
Such is life for St. John’s Health nurses Jen Putnam and Mary Ponce and the staff they oversee as the community continues to experience high COVID-19 caseloads. Putnam is the director of the medical-surgical unit through the Primary Care Unit at the hospital, which is where most of the non-critical coronavirus patients are housed. She also took over the COVID-19 testing department when the pandemic struck. Ponce is the director of critical care services, including the Emergency Department and Intensive Care Unit.
Putnam and Ponce not only have to worry about the employees they oversee — ensuring they have enough healthy personnel to get through each shift, working to boost morale among nurses and staffers working long hours — but also have to make sure that employees have all the PPE and other necessary equipment, something Putnam said has not been a problem to this point.
“It’s been particularly challenging, for me, coming to work every day [and] making sure that I have enough staff to take care of our patients and make sure that our patients are taken care of well and their safety is the first of our concerns,” Putnam said. “And then also making sure that I’m taking care of my nurses and my care team.”
One way St. John’s has been able to continue running smoothly, according to Chief Communications Officer Karen Connelly, has been the willingness of nurses and staff to help out in other areas where they would not otherwise work.
“They understand the importance of doing that, especially when we have a lot of staff who are out on quarantine and we just need everyone to be more flexible in order to keep all of the areas open,” Connelly said. “But that brings a level of anxiety, too, if it’s not your usual area and your routine is going to be a little bit different, and it’s just an additional layer.”
“Anxiety,” “stress” and “apprehension” were words both Putnam and Ponce used when discussing the onset of COVID-19. Not because they and their staff were afraid to do their jobs to the best of their ability, but because of all the unknowns that came with the novel disease and constant flow of new information.
“We were worried about everyone who came in the door [of the hospital] because of such a wide variety of symptoms that COVID has,” Ponce said. “We were so busy communicating everything that came down to us. We don’t normally send our staff a daily email. We talk to our staff every day, but we were sending emails every day, multiple times. ... The amount of change that was happening on a daily, weekly basis was kind of overwhelming.”
As community members Putnam and Ponce also have concerns about some of the reckless behaviors they see when they go about their lives in the community. That includes maskless shoppers at the grocery store or gas station, people not socially distancing or gathering in large groups.
Both say they respect people’s varying beliefs about COVID-19, so are unlikely to chastise the maskless shopper. But Putnam said she thinks many who dismiss the severity of the pandemic simply haven’t yet witnessed its devastation firsthand.
“I think it’s hard for any health care worker, or really any community member who is taking the pandemic seriously and using good precautions, when they’re out and see somebody who is either refusing to wear [a mask] or not wearing them properly,” Putnam said. “I think so many of those folks just haven’t seen it impact themselves, maybe, personally and so they’re just not aware of how severe and how serious this virus really can be.”
In the hospital, nurses see just how sick patients can get.
“I haven’t seen a respiratory virus take somebody down the way that this one has,” Putnam said. “So when I see somebody not wearing a mask, I really just want to be able to hold their hand and take them back to the COVID unit where we’re watching people struggle on 10 liters of oxygen, and they’re having a hard time catching their next breath. I feel like if they were to just be able to see that, maybe they would wear a mask in the grocery store.”
Ponce, too, said though most health care workers will bite their tongues when they see people shirking public health guidelines, “when we’re together as nurses or as a health care team, we are able to talk about those things in a safe environment because we all are under the same belief.
“And so there is that camaraderie there where we’re all just, you know, frustrated with the same things in society today, but hoping that society is going to get better and wake up and start wearing masks for everyone.”
Ponce added that despite one’s beliefs about the coronavirus, “we should all do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And so I think as simple a gesture as wearing a mask and wearing it correctly can really protect so many people around you that it’s worth it. It’s worth the little gesture.”
Ponce said she’s even seen people in such denial about the pandemic that when they get lab tests back that confirm COVID-19, “even when they’re struggling on oxygen, they still don’t believe it.”
But, she added, “It’s our job to take great care of them, and we look past their views and give them the best care that we can.”
Teton County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell addressed some of the nurses’ frustrations at Friday’s community COVID-19 update after a nurse had submitted public comment asking for the community to rein in the disease by restricting some activities.
“I empathize,” Riddell said. “I’m also a health care provider. Ten minutes before this call I was in full PPE examining an 8-month-old with COVID symptoms.”
A pediatrician, Riddell pointed out that he’s also a parent.
“Like everyone else in that situation this is wearing very thin,” Riddell said. “I applaud that nurse for writing to the town, and I think if more people who were in that sort of situation were vocal and help the rest of the community understand what they’re going through, then that would go a long way.”
Compounding the difficulty for Putnam and Ponce to keep staff morale high is the fact that so many have had to forgo vacations and time off, whether because of CDC guidelines recommending they don’t travel or simply because they’re needed at work. Putnam herself says she “hasn’t had a day off since COVID came to Jackson in March where I haven’t [at least] received a phone call from work.”
The St. John’s Health Foundation providing staff meals, including a Thanksgiving feast, has helped — “If you know anything about nurses, they love to be fed,” Ponce said — as have donations of homemade masks and other PPE from community members.
Most of all, what helps Putnam, Ponce and their fellow frontline health care providers get by, though, is the appreciation of the community for their sacrifices during the pandemic, the pat on the back and words of encouragement.
“Not a day goes by that, if I’m coming or going to work in my scrubs, that a community member doesn’t say, ‘Oh my gosh, you work for the hospital ... thank you so much for your service, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you putting yourself at risk on a daily basis for us,’” Putnam said. “That really does mean so much, and it really is pretty invigorating for me to hear that from someone, and it pushes me to keep showing up and keep doing the work that we’re doing on a daily basis. So, the support that we’ve had from this community has been absolutely incredible.”
Building on that, Ponce said: “Nursing is a hard job, and it’s very serious. And so to have people recognize us and view us as the professionals we are, it is encouraging.”