“Unimaginable.” “A life-changing experience.” “Unbelievable but rewarding.” “Trying and difficult.” “A learning experience.” These are the phrases several Monroe County nurses used to sum up the past 12 months.

March 16 marked the one-year anniversary of the county’s first reported positive case of COVID-19, and the medical field as we’ve known it has completely changed.

The virus has forced personnel at local hospitals and medical clinics to adapt to new responsibilities, fewer staff members at times and increased patient loads while maintaining their focus.

“I posted a picture on Facebook. You look at the hospital, and it looks fine from the outside but on the inside, it was like a war zone. It was a bad time,” said Ashley Patterson, BSN-RN at Monroe Regional Hospital, who has been in nursing for 10 years. “Somebody asked me, ‘Well, why don’t you quit?’ Who else is going to do it? There’s just not nurses and respiratory therapists everywhere. Who else is going to take care? I’d rather it be me. It felt like it had to be. Somebody had to take care of these people.”

COVID-19 has been trying on several levels for people, particularly those who have lost loved ones to it.

“During COVID, my family lost both my parents – one to COVID and one not to COVID – but they were within a month of each other. When I talked to patients, I could relate to not being able to be there. It made more sense to me of what was going on, but I realized I was stronger than I thought,” said Regina Weatherall, who oversees North Mississippi Medical Center Gilmore-Amory’s intensive care unit and nurse supervisors. “I was able to take care of the families and make it more personal for them.”

She has been in the nursing field for 31 years.

“Some of our patients have passed away. Some of their family members have passed away. I’ve been working at the clinic for 20 years and have gotten very close to a lot of these patients I’ve taken care of over the years, so when you lose them it’s like losing part of your family. It’s kind of like when they hurt, you hurt,” said Access Family Health Services Licensed Practicing Nurse Deborah Northington, who has been in nursing for 30 years.

As of late last week, the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) reported 130 Monroe County residents who tested positive for COVID-19 lost their lives.

“We couldn’t let anybody in so when they were dying, you were there. You were it. My phone... I don’t know how many families I held it up for so they could say goodbye, and that’s hard. After about the 10th one, you’re done with it. And then you’ve got to leave that and go home to your family,” Patterson said.

Staying motivated

Medical staff and the general public have relied on personal protective equipment, n95 masks and hand sanitizer to help prevent contracting COVID-19 but as careful as people are, there is still a risk.

Just as important throughout the pandemic has been maintaining a healthy mental state.

Cathy Mitchell, chief nursing officer at North Mississippi Medical Center Gilmore-Amory, is proud of the teamwork and leadership that made it possible to provide quality care for patients through the past year’s ongoing pandemic.

“They have been stretched thin but they owned it. Everything we asked them to do, they went one step further,” Mitchell said. “Stretched thin is an understatement. It was almost transparent at times.”

“I think we’re all a great team here together. We went through the [April 27, 2011] tornado together. We all work great together and if one person got down one day, the rest of us would help make them feel better. In the beginning, it was really stressful because we didn’t know what was expected of us,” Northington said. “Our workflow changed and nobody knew a whole lot about it and people were asking us questions we couldn’t answer so that was hard. I think we all had each others’ backs; that and our strength in the Lord. He’s the one ultimately who gets us through our days

Support among nurses and hospital staffs has been important.

“It made us realize how strong our team was. We knew we were going to be there for each other; there was no question about it. We knew we all had to come together to do it. The community is what we take care of so not only that but we took care of each other to take care of the community,” Weatherall said.

Patterson also said it took a team approach – from other nurses to certified nursing assistants to the hospital’s housekeeping and dietary staffs – to ensure success through the heights of the pandemic.

“The only way we survived was working together,” she said.

Not only has she – and numerous other nurses throughout the world – had to juggle COVID-19 cases with other types of ailments and accidents, she has had to adjust to new responsibilities.

“The hospital isn’t equipped to have 20 housekeepers on a floor so you couldn’t have everybody going back and forth. We didn’t know how it spread. You were the physical therapist, the housekeeper, the one delivering the meals. You were the one person that patient saw all day,” Patterson said.

She said nursing school taught her how to deal with numerous situations at one time, while working one out at a time. Those lessons taught her how to respond.

Mitchell said several nurses at Gilmore floated to different areas they weren’t accustomed to at times during the past year, which led to a new appreciation among staff of each other’s responsibilities.

“A huge thank you goes to our medical staff. We talk about being tired; they’re responsible for these patients 24 hours a day seven days a week and they had a huge load on their shoulders and have done an excellent job,” she said.

“I think by this happening, it made people realize what nurses do. It really brought that out. It’s not just us, it’s everybody. I think it made people look at the nursing field different than they did 10 years ago or five years ago because we’re the ones out here testing patients and in the hospital seeing patients – not just us but respiratory and the ones sweeping the floors,” Northington said.

Support from the community of medical professionals has been important also. Early in the pandemic, public appreciation of hospital staffs came in droves through Heroes Work Here signs, snacks, meals, drinks and thank you cards.

“With the first COVID patient we had [in April], I remember calling my pastor. We didn’t know enough about it. I think having the support of my church and the support and prayers of the community for our staff helped. You could’ve brought us 1,000 doughnuts, and it wouldn’t have done us any good but just the thought of you thinking about us is kind of what got us through,” Patterson said.

The other nurses expressed their appreciation for the community support and continued prayers too.

“As a person born and raised here, it really helped that the community was behind us. We don’t have any COVID patients right now and we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” Patterson said last week. “The continued prayers from the community are still much-needed. Now we’re in recovery mode and I’m sure all the hospitals are in recovery mode. Just them thinking about us really helps.”

Staying healthy

The pandemic was an eye-opener as nurses and medical staff realized they weren’t immune to catching the virus themselves, no matter how careful they were.

“We view life as more sacred. We think we’re kind of invincible, and this virus has showed us we’re not. As nurses, we think we’re invisible and I think it showed we have deficiencies and we do have breaking points,” Patterson said.

Northington battled her own case of the virus beginning in late November.

“When I got sick, I got really sick really fast. It went straight into my lungs. I’ve been really healthy and I told the doctor I haven’t taken antibiotics in 26 years. I don’t take medicine and don’t have a reason to,” she said.

She ultimately had to be admitted to North Mississippi Medical Center’s intensive care unit for treatment.

“In a sense it helped [being a nurse] and in a sense it didn’t. When things started going bad, you knew what was going on, where a lot of people may not have realized what was actually happening to them and maybe not have gotten to the hospital as quickly,” Northington said.

Patterson recalled times when employees were getting sick department-by-department.

“It was left to you and somebody else, and you felt so helpless because there was nobody else to turn to. All the other hospitals were full, and they had to stay here. They needed higher level, but there was nothing there to send them to,” she said.

Addressing needs

When hospitals began seeing COVID-19 patients a year ago, it opened up a world new world.

Since last March, Gilmore has treated approximately 170 in-patients for COVID-19 and 47 ICU patients for the virus. In comparison, Mitchell said the hospital averages 36 to 40 ICU patients overall per year.

Monroe Regional Hospital’s peaks of COVID cases were in late November through early December

Gilmore treated Monroe County’s first case after the individual was admitted March 13. The case was the first positive case reported in northeast Mississippi three days later.

“With this patient, there were no screening questions. We started screening people last January like if people had been out of the country or close to someone who had COVID. None of those flags occurred. When the physician realized we needed to test this particular patient, the minute that test took place, we put the patient in isolation,” Mitchell said.

After results came back positive and the patient was transferred, the hospital discussed how to address future cases, which led to a 10-bed area sectioned off for COVID-19 patients separate from the rest of the hospital.

“Every single day, we got on a call at 7:30 and as a system, we looked at how many total beds we had and how we could staff. We moved patients around based on those numbers. That was an amazing piece of work. Gilmore, sitting alone, we could not have made it,” she said.

While the April 27, 2011 EF-5 tornado that struck Smithville came up in different conversations with the nurses in comparing COVID-19, the virus is still not comparable to any event or disease.

“The tornado was an event that happened in an isolated period of time. We couldn’t isolate any of this. It was out of control,” Mitchell said.

Local clinics and hospitals, in addition to nearby MSDH sites, have provided vaccinations, and the statewide number of positive cases and COVID-19-related deaths is steadily declining.

Throughout Access Family Health Services’ service territory, which also includes clinics in Itawamba, Pontotoc, Lee and Chickasaw counties, nearly 3,000 COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered.

Last week, Access partnered with the Mississippi University for Women Bachelor of Science Nursing program to administer COVID-19 vaccinations at West Amory Community Center.

“Sen. [Hob] Bryan called us about addressing the disparities in vaccine administration. I wanted to give him credit. [Amory Ward 2 Alderman] John Darden contacted him to see if it’s something we could do,” said Access Family Health Service Executive Director Marilyn Sumerford.

Access also administered vaccinations to teachers at Hamilton, Hatley and Smithville attendance centers the week before spring break.

Northington noted Sumerford worked hard in the early stages to ensure Access secured vaccines for the communities.

Even though COVID-19 numbers are currently tracking fewer, Mitchell reminds people the importance of continuing health care for any issues.

“We have continued to wear masks and social distance and wash our hands. It’s safe to come here and have health care and we want you to come have health care. We don’t want a stroke patient to sit at home for one second more than they have to because time is of the essence with those patients. We’re open to take care of all the patients we have taken care of in the past and we’re capable to take care of you,” she said.

The difficulties the past year brought out because of COVID-19 have seemed infinite, but it will leave several reminders to last lifetimes.

“When something like this happens, it really brings enlightenment to what your job really is and what responsibilities we have, as nurses, to take care of our patients,” Northington said.

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