In this special episode of Kentucky Health, Dr. Wayne Tuckson and guests honor the many health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those who lost their lives. He speaks with Dr. William Moss, medical director of the emergency department at Med Center Health in Bowling Green; Delanor Manson, CEO of the Kentucky Nurses Association; and Elizabeth A. Johnson, president and executive director of the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities and Kentucky Center for Assisted Living.
An Unprecedented Year of Challenges
The impact of COVID-19 on health care has been vast in scope, affecting workers in all sectors. Doctors, nurses, and support staff have been exposed to heightened risk of infection and have endured incredible amounts of stress, anxiety, and depression as they care for patients who have contacted a new and unpredictable disease.
“Early on, it was scary,” Dr. William Moss says, noting that it reminded him of his medical training in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS surfaced. As with HIV/AIDS, however, research into COVID and experience treating patients have helped doctors gain a better understanding of the coronavirus. “We’ve learned a lot about how COVID spreads and how we can protect ourselves,” he says. “Thank goodness we’ve had things like the rapid test, and we’ve had immunizations and things have evolved that have made us more comfortable about taking care.”
Still, he admits that the morale of his colleagues at Med Center Health has been unsteady during COVID and has suffered every time a medical worker gets infected, becomes ill and is hospitalized. “That even today is an issue,” he says. “It just makes us scared and worried about this whole thing.” To keep going on during a trying year, Moss says that he and his staff regard their work as a calling to help others. “You’re wondering, ‘If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?’” he says. “I don’t put anybody into a position I wouldn’t put myself into.”
Due to their 24-7 hands-on care of patients, nurses have been extremely vulnerable to getting COVID-19 and to the mental health problems that have accompanied the pandemic. “Nurses are tired and some of them are depressed,” Delanor Manson says. “They’re mentally challenged because they are working so many hours and people are dying.”
Manson explains that often, nurses have become surrogate family members to their patients who are sick with COVID-19 and forbidden from interacting with their real families due to the threat of infection. “Nurses think about, ‘I’ve done a good job today taking care of my patients – but am I going to take anything home to my family?’” Manson says. “So the mental health of nurses, it’s in jeopardy.”
Nurses gain resilience through their training – which starts in nursing school, says Manson – and from their support system among other nurses and the rest of the hospital staff. “And the need,” she adds. “Knowing, if you’re not there, who will be there?”
Skilled nursing facilities in Kentucky have endured the heaviest burden of loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Elizabeth Johnson. The virus infected many patients during 2020 and early 2021 but also a number of workers, mainly certified nursing assistants.
The rollout of vaccinations to skilled nursing facilities in the first months of 2021 has helped to drive down infections among residents and workers, but Johnson says that several other reforms must be made to improve the level of safety in these facilities in order to navigate future pandemics. These include raising worker pay to help reduce turnover – many long-term care CNAs quit during the pandemic out of fear, mental fatigue, or to care for their own families – and shoring up the supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Infection control was always important and something we were always doing, but now that’s heightened,” Johnson says. “There’s focused infection control surveys going on in our skilled nursing facilities, and we don’t shy away from that. But all of that requires additional resources, and to expect more without additional funding or additional support from all of the stakeholders is too much, and we all need to work together to make sure that we have quality care.”
Remembering Those We Lost
• Don Miller, M.D., was a family man first and foremost, Moss says. He lived more than an hour north of Bowling Green, near Bernheim Forest in Hart County, but chose to make the commute and work at Med Center Health because he loved his colleagues and patients. Dr. Miller had medical issues and administrators tried to schedule him in shifts that would limit his COVID exposure. But in December 2020 he contracted COVID-19 and passed away. “We were the same age,” Moss says. “It’s sometimes hard to talk about it, to tell you the truth.”
• Wanda Johnson, C.N.A., was called “Wanda Woman” by her co-workers because of her tireless devotion to her job and patients, Moss says. Johnson also took care of family members who were sick with COVID but could not overcome the disease herself. After she passed, the team from her unit at Med Center Health hung up a lantern dedicated to Wanda that stays on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• Bonnie Hall, R.N., wanted to be a nurse her whole life, Manson says, and worked at Pineville Community Hospital for 26 years.
• Dana Davis, R.N., worked in Med-Surg at Baptist East in Louisville and was her unit’s Nurse of the Year in 2018.
• Debra Daniels, R.N., worked at Our Lady Bellefonte Hospital in Ashland, was also a realtor, and owned an antique store.
• Michael Rodriguez, R.N., worked at Audubon Hospital in Louisville for 26 years. “His death really devastated the hospital,” Manson says.
• Michelle Wade, R.N., worked at UofL Health Jewish Hospital and was very close with her son who is training to be a nurse.
• Sharon Combs, R.N., had the nickname “Mother of the facility” at Owsley Co. Health Care Center where she worked.
• Susan Whittymore, R.N., worked at Baptist Regional Medical Center in Corbin.
• Connie Luscher, R.N., spent 33 years at UofL Health’s Our Lady of Peace Hospital and became director of nursing. “She was a very good friend of mine,” Manson says.
• Kathy Hacker, R.N., was the MDS coordinator at Laurel Creek Health Center at the time of her passing in January 2021 and also worked for many years as a bookkeeper.
• Rebecca Shadowen, M.D., was a renowned infectious disease expert at Med Center Health whose death from COVID-19 in September made headlines across Kentucky and beyond. Reflecting on her expertise and how valuable she was to the medical community, Moss says, “one thing that was remarkable about Rebecca is that she was always right. You would ask her about some esoteric symptom and she would come up with some disease that was only known by something like four cases in South Africa…. She knew her stuff, and she was right. Just an amazingly smart person.” Moss and Shadowen started working together in Bowling Green at the same time, and he thought COVID-19 would be the bookend to both of their careers. “To this day, I still can’t comprehend how, ironically enough, an infectious disease doctor who knew so much and contributed so much, dies,” he says. “There was no time to grieve – you had to move on, because there were more cases I had to see.”