The fourth wave due to the Delta variant feels like the “straw that broke the camel’s back” to many of us. In June we thought life was going to get back to normal, then the numbers began to rise.
As I shared with my staff the other day, this past week was supposed to be the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems’ (VAHHS) annual meeting and conference. It is usually a 2-day event, held at various locations throughout the State, and that is what the plan had been in the early summer. It is a great opportunity to connect with our healthcare colleagues across the State, gain new insights, and celebrate our successes. However, as the current wave of Delta began rising, VAHHS quickly pivoted to cancel the in-person event and shift to a one-day zoom-only series of presentations instead. Given our current challenges, I was only really able to join for a few hours in the morning but was really impressed with the keynote speaker, Aron Ralston, the outdoorsman, mechanical engineer and motivational speaker best known for surviving a canyoneering accident in 2003 by cutting off part of his right arm. Given these challenging times, his message of perseverance and hope really resonated with me—he shared that in the darkest moments of his personal crisis, it was gratitude that kept him going: gratitude for his family, his friends, and everything that touched his life. He urged us, no matter how challenging things seem, to never give up.
In healthcare, even locally, things are really hard right now. Our staff is exhausted across the hospital and our practices. Our colleagues at Caledonia Home Health & Hospice are overworked and stretched thin. Our Emergency Department is bursting at the seams with patients (literally: on Thursday we overflowed into Day Surgery space!). At one point last week, our ‘25 bed’ hospital had a grand total of 28 inpatients, with a full Med/Surg, a full Intensive Care Unit, and four patients in the birthing center. Many of these patients are experiencing higher acuity than what a critical access hospital is typically expected to support, but with all our regional tertiary care facilities at- or over-capacity, transfer options are limited- in fact, we have been supporting other small local hospitals by accepting “lateral transfers” of patients whenever we can. While many for whom we are caring are our older neighbors, suffering all the same illnesses we are accustomed to, COVID-19 remains a clear and present danger. Throughout the last several weeks, we have had between one and 3 COVID+ patients on any given day; patients for whom we must take additional precautions, including special ‘negative pressure’ rooms, and using special protective gear, which must be donned and removed after each interaction.
People throughout our region are exhausted by the pandemic. We are polarized in a way that I never imagined possible here in the United States, let alone Vermont. We see the stress in our patients and their loved ones, in our kids and their teachers, and with all our dedicated staff here at the hospital. I understand, this is hard on everyone.
I want to take this opportunity to channel Aron Ralston. I am deeply grateful for our staff and all the healthcare workers, mental health professionals and first responders throughout the Northeast Kingdom. Our community needs you. Every one of you is a hero. Things may be hard right now but I’m not going to give up, and I believe in you.
There are things our community can do to help support us through these next few challenging months. Please consider using one of the two Northern Express Care clinics now available in Lyndon and St. Johnsbury for minor health issues instead of the Emergency Department, use all the precautions we have learned to avoid contracting COVID-19. Get your flu shot this fall as it will help reduce overall hospital care over the winter months.
The giant red hearts are beating once more in the trees outside NVRH, placed there by community members in a show of support that means so much to our staff. Above all, if you know a healthcare worker, thank them. Let them know how much you care. They need you as much as our community needs them.
Those of us who live here in the NEK are resilient and hardy people. We will get through this, especially if we support each other. So let’s just keep putting one foot in front of the other, together.
Shawn Tester is CEO at NVRH.