YEAR IN REVIEW: Heroes of Health First Kept Brevard Well During Public Health Crisis
By Space Coast Daily // January 1, 2021
9,000 Men and Women of Health First Have Been Indefatigable in Helping Brevard Through 2020
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a hero as “one who shows great courage” – which perfectly defines the more than 9,000 men and women who, as part of Health First, have been indefatigable in helping Brevard through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve got your back, Brevard,” has been Health First’s mantra as it continues to meet the healthcare needs of Brevard families during the continuing public health crisis.
These healthcare heroes are a diverse bunch who encompass everyone from the doctors, nurses and other providers on the frontlines to those who do their part behind the scenes.
It is not surprising that Health First associates were “boots on the ground” so rapidly after COVID-19 surfaced, for the hospital system has been tending to the healthcare needs of the Space Coast for more than eight decades.
Dedicated to helping others
For these heroes, serving the community during a crisis is nothing new. Wayne Struble, founding member of an urban search-and-rescue team in Newark and now part of Health First’s COVID-19 Command Center, spent two weeks immediately after 9/11 searching through the rubble of the Twin Towers.
It was not the first time Struble had assisted at the World Trade Center, for he had also been part of the emergency response team at the 1993 bombing of the site, as he was after the collapse of the parking garage at the Tropicana Casino parking garage in Atlantic City.
He lived in a tent for months to assist victims of Hurricane Sandy and helped evacuate hospital and nursing homes from fires and more. There were lessons learned at each crisis.
“I am able to pull from that to help us with COVID-19,” he said.
Struble suffers from health issues, which he suspects are related to his efforts during 9/11. But despite the emotional and physical toll, Struble, who thought he would take it easy and retire in Brevard, joined Health First in 2014 to help the organization brace for the unexpected – from natural disasters to a healthcare crisis such as COVID-19.
“We’re going to get through this,” he said.
With the help of individuals like Struble, Health First was prepared as the number of COVID-19 patients surged in the area. From drive-up community testing and virtual visits to a universal masking policy and rigid disinfection procedures at all facilities, Health First was protecting Brevard from the get-go.
“Our associates have risen to the challenges of COVID-19 and shown flexibility and openness to additional training to assure they are ready to go where they are needed,” said Steve Johnson, President & CEO.
“We have surge planning in place to expand our ability to provide care and shift patients as needed to assure they are receiving the level of care they require.”
Jumping into action
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 200 hospital rooms have been converted to dedicated negative pressure rooms to treat patients with respiratory illnesses – and 1,915 breathing devices are at the ready, should patients need them.
Health First has 118 ICU beds and 280 isolation rooms, an increase of 200 beds since before the pandemic, for patients with respiratory illnesses.
Tents at the entrances to all four Health First hospitals provided for triage of persons presenting respiratory illness symptoms, while keeping these potential COVID-19-positive patients separate from the other patients.
Health First also launched a free online COVID-19 Symptom Checker to help individuals determine if they should seek additional medical support, and a COVID-19 Stress Support Hotline with no-cost counseling services.
The patient registration process was streamlined using a customer-centric digital intake platform that allows patients to register for an appointment – and even take care of co-payments via a mobile device, eliminating unnecessary contact.
In this time of social distancing, Health First team members have also found ways to deliver compassion safely.
When COVID-19 first surfaced in Brevard, Chaplain Woody Morrison was faced with consoling a soon-to-be widower upset about the loss of his spouse and of the support system he could have otherwise depended upon during this tragic time.
“He was thinking of the funeral and how he could not invite everyone to be there,” said Chaplain Woody.
The chaplain turned to technology, specifically to livestreaming services, to arrange a virtual vigil at the man’s home. The graveside service was also streamed so family members could participate virtually since they could not safely congregate at the graveside.
In another instance, Holocaust survivor Ernest, who had been admitted to the William Childs Hospice House, was able to say his goodbyes to his family, even though they were 1,300 miles away.
“Nurse Mia helped us have a beautiful last call with his rabbi and several family members,” said his niece, Joyce.
“We will be eternally grateful for this kindness.”
Such empathy and compassion are always welcome, but they are critically needed during these stressful times.
“It’s the intangible closeness we want,” said Chaplain Woody. “As long as social distancing remains in place, we’ll keep doing this.”
Creative caring, no matter what
Beyond pastoral care, Health First orchestrated technology to better serve the community. Even when nurses are not physically in a patient’s room, they’re never far away, because patients can connect with them through iPads provided to call nurses.
Patients can also use their iPhones, equipped with a secure application, to reach out to their care team, and team leaders call into the room every day to let patients know they can always reach out.
“Calm is contagious,” notes Steve Johnson, and, indeed, it is.
Health First has gone above and beyond to connect with the community and offer reassurances that Health First team members are at the ready should they ever need them. How these individuals calmly respond to these trying times can also be contagious.
Despite long shifts as a health unit coordinator and certified nursing assistant at Health First’s Palm Bay Hospital, Angel Pesula would go home to sew and embroider fashion masks for her fellow nurse angels.
Angel’s favorites could well serve as battle cries for her employer since Health First has fearlessly emerged as a local leader in the fight against COVID-19.
“My favorite one says, ‘I am the Front Line,’ ” said Angel.
Angel’s masks are more than just protective equipment. They also help to calm patients and families – and provide smiles when they are sorely needed.
Smiles are not easy these days, considering that Health First medical staff must suit up with a full complement of Personal Protective Equipment, including gowns, goggles, mask and gloves. However, all that equipment does not prevent them from bonding with their patients.
“Having to put on a gown, goggles, mask and gloves before going in to talk with a patient and ask how they are doing and feeling made me realize how much we communicate without even speaking,” said Angelic Dixon, interim nurse director at Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center’s Respiratory Isolation Unit.
“When they can’t see you are smiling beneath the mask, it makes you think differently, and it’s like learning a whole new communication style. It’s our job to make sure patients feel cared for and safe.”
Calming family members worried for their loved ones is also part of the compassionate care of Health First frontline heroes.
After her husband, Sean, developed COVID-19, Robyn and the rest of his family could not visit him because of the risk of infection. Constant communication between Sean’s nurses and Robyn made the situation easier on the couple and helped Sean to better fight the virus.
During Sean’s ICU stay, nurse Michelle comforted Robyn through regular updates on her husband’s health.
“Compassion poured out of her, and she treated him as she would treat her own family,” Robyn said of Michelle.
Michelle even met Robyn outside of the hospital to retrieve a change of clothes for Sean, something well outside the scope of her nursing duties. Simple gestures such as Michelle’s make a big difference for patients and their loved ones during times of crisis.
“He wasn’t just a patient to her,” said Robyn.
“She genuinely cared about his well-being and viewed him as a person who has people who love him who couldn’t be there.”
Keeping Brevard healthy, even during an unprecedented health crisis such as COVID-19, is more than just a job for the heroes of Health First.
It’s their calling.