Looking back: Local healthcare workers reflect on year of fear and hope
As the COVID-19 crisis started to form in central and northern New York one year ago, government and health officials told people to shelter in their homes and wait it out there. Healthcare workers, on the other hand, were sent out into the storm, unaware of what was to come or the toll it would take on them and their colleagues.
When trying to describe what the past year was like, Rita Wicks, director of Oswego Health's Occupational Health Department, said the best analogy is that of the duck.
"Going across the water, it’s calm, cool, and collected, but underneath that water those feet are going a million miles per hour," Wicks said. "That's the nursing profession. We have to put our face on and be stoic, knowledgeable, and portray that we are not scared to give that confidence to the patient that we've got this, we're here for you, we're doing all the right things, but underneath the skin it was crawling."
The Director of Nursing at Oswego Health Melissa Purtell said despite their best efforts, ultimately no one could prepare for COVID-19.
"It was very scary for the staff to figure out how we were going to take care of these patients," Purtell said. "There wasn’t a lot of research out there telling us what we needed to do - we learned as we went."
Purtell said it was also emotionally exhausting to ask her staff to risk their own safety day in and out. Dave Sherman, president and CEO of Seaway Valley Ambulance that operates in the North Country, said that often put employers like him in an impossible spot.
"That was one of the greatest scares is when I got done talking to three different suppliers and had three suppliers tell me I have no equipment to sell you and then when I finally got someone I could buy it from, the price was four times what it normally was," Sherman said. "And then the question was can we keep getting the supplies we need to keep our people safe because the bottom line is, the people in the community need us but I can’t and I won’t send them out if we can’t get equipment to protect them. That was horrific."
On top of their professional responsibilities, healthcare workers were also dealing with the fallout from their personal lives. Sherman's wife died days into the lockdown, so he had to put off saying goodbye to her at a funeral until September. And while Sarah Pashchuk, who works in an administrative role at St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, said she was happy to return to bedside nursing duty for the first time in years so she could help her colleagues, that choice came with sacrifice.
"There was a need and it was the right thing to do, but because this was so new and it was uncharted there were times where myself and my husband - who’s also a nurse - were asking ourselves do we move into a hotel, do we have the kids move with our in-laws for a period of time to make sure everyone is kept healthy and safe," Pashchuk said. "Just balancing wanting to make sure our family is taken care of but also care for our community - that’s what we are called to do as nurses - that was a struggle."
But for all of those moments of despair, there were also moments of hope.
"We had a 97-year-old female that was one of our first COVID patients, she was very sick, there were times where we weren’t sure she was going to make it," said Jim Rebeor, interim unit manager of The Manor at Seneca Hill, Oswego Health's 120 licensed bed, skilled nursing facility. "She eventually became negative and she was actually discharged home. We had the whole staff line up outside the door clapping, she had balloons, the family was happy - this was a 97-year-old woman that beat it. It was silver lining in the middle of the darkness of COVID."
Despite all that the coronavirus has taken from them, these healthcare professionals like Oswego Health's Purtell say it's also left them with something: a renewed appreciation for and the recognition of the need for each other.
"With COVID, we didn’t have a choice. They had to go to the ICU, they had to go to the ER, they had to help out that," Purtell said. "Even as we dwindle down, that is still happening. That whole hospital portion has bonded over this. They're better teammates together now than they ever were and I don't think that will go away."
This is just one of a series of stories from WRVO this month on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected life across central and northern New York. Find the rest of the series here.