The power of community to get us to the other side of COVID-19

I heard a “Code Rainbow” announced over the hospital sound system. As doctors, nurses and staff lined the hallways, their smiles were contagious.

Some of us sang along with the music that played. Clapping reached a crescendo as our cause for celebration passed through: an 84-year old man who fought COVID-19 and won was going home and into the arms of his wife, who he hasn’t seen in more than a month.

At the community hospital in upstate New York where I am working as a respiratory therapist, there has been little good news recently. Every patient who recovers from COVID-19 is a cause for celebration.

On the surface, I look like every other staff member clapping in honor of this patient discharge. However, there is one difference beneath the fifteen layers of protective gear: I am a team lead at Anthem, Inc., who is here providing relief as a medical volunteer. As part of my company’s COVID-19 response, employees who are clinical professionals are given the option to help medical teams on the front lines of this pandemic.

Like many of my colleagues, I have deep roots in my community and have lived here for years. I would not feel right if I was not helping. I want my associates at the hospital, and the patients we are caring for, to know that they are not in this fight alone. We are all fighting a common enemy in COVID-19 and this support is vital.

The surge in hospital admissions due to the outbreak that has swept across New York State means every hour I work helps a little. Here, the closest large hospital is a 30-40 minute drive away – too far when there is an urgent medical need. When the majority of patients arrive, the staff already knows them – they are neighbors, friends, and former classmates. Small hospitals like this are not resourced for a pandemic; outside support is critical during this time of unprecedented need. This hospital now requires nearly twice as many respiratory therapists like me on each shift, and are already down staff who are on medical leave after testing positive themselves.

From intubating patients and managing their ventilator status, to managing multiple patients on high flow oxygen, to transitioning them off acute care, every action I take can help a patient recover. When we go home, we are physically and emotionally exhausted, and must disinfect all of our clothing and everything we touch. But, I know every ounce of bleach is worth it. My fellow clinicians at the hospital, and the patients we care for, have become my extended family. I would do anything for them.

Recently, I helped a patient say his goodbyes – one of the most heartbreaking moments of my volunteer experience so far. While there is no substitute for giving your family member a hug, our staff has used technology like iPads to connect our patients with their loved ones. Perhaps because we have become a surrogate family, we are committed to making sure they can talk to their families and see their faces – whether to share their progress, or heartbreakingly, to share their final words. For a few patients, we have made video calls to each of their family members.

My experience on the front lines of this pandemic has shown me the power of connection, and that acts of kindness can keep us going. While I’ve been working at the hospital, my colleagues have delivered dinners and flowers, and listened to me when I’ve needed to talk after a long shift. They understand what is at stake, and I know we share a deep commitment to our communities.

Right now, like many in the medical community, I am taking this day by day and it is hard to see the other side. But I know that one of the beliefs that I will carry with me forever is the power of our communities to lift us up and make us stronger. We each have a role to play, and every helping hand can make a world of difference.

Meaghan Bryant is a medical volunteer, respiratory therapist, and team lead at Anthem, Inc.

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