This article is part of our series “COVID-19: 1 Year Later,” exploring the ways COVID-19 has affected and changed daily life over the last year. For two weeks, we surveyed our readers on how COVID-19 has affected them. Read our survey results here. Today, we are sharing our interview with the Team Lead of Williamson Medical Center’s COVID-19 Team.
Mindy Tatum, RN, has been a nurse at Williamson Medical Center (WMC) for five years, and she is currently the Team Lead on the COVID-19 Unit. She is passionate about caring for her neighbors in the county and wants to share what she and her team have learned in the last year about the disease. While it has been a hard year, they have learned a lot together and become a stronger team because of their work on the front lines.
One of the first things she stresses is that anyone can get COVID-19. Anywhere. As restrictions decrease, she emphasizes how important it is to continue to wear masks, social distance, and wash your hands.
So much media coverage has focused on how the disease affects the elderly, but during the height of the pandemic in early summer of 2020, she saw many more people in their 30s and 40s struggling with the harsh symptoms.
With restrictions easing, she wants younger people to understand that no one is untouchable. Last year she had a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old come in on the same day with COVID-19. Initially, the 70-year-old seemed much worse, but their positions quickly reversed. The 70-year-old was better in a few days, and the 20-year-old struggled much longer with the disease.
“COVID-19 doesn’t care who you are,” said Tatum. “Although, as far as outcome, there ARE some populations that are hit harder than others.”
The thing about this disease that makes it so difficult, is that it hits everyone differently. You have to constantly be aware of what is happening to your patient when working with COVID-19 because their status can change in an instant.
“Everyone has been so kind,” said Tatum, “the community and the administration [of the hospital] made sure we had everything we needed to do our jobs from the beginning, including food and personal protective equipment (PPE). It is hard to leave a COVID-19 patient because of the constantly shifting nature of the disease, so all of the food provided by the community, especially during the height of the pandemic, was greatly appreciated.”
At the height of the pandemic, there were more than 30 patients needing around-the-clock care. The protective gear that nurses and doctors have to wear when treating them is very hot, but necessary to keep them safe. It consists of an N-95 mask that, over time, cuts into the face, a body covering over their scrubs that isn’t breathable, a helmet, and protective goggles. When caring for a patient in extreme distress, this gear can be worn for two hours or more until they can get the patient regulated.
“I saw a respiratory therapist saturated in sweat after treating a patient,” added Tatum, “and have to take a shower and change his scrubs before doing it again.”
Tatum and her team have been very careful to follow protocols and wear the protective gear. But, at the beginning, before they had some understanding of the disease and were able to create protocols, Tatum and the team of doctors and nurses that she works with had to separate themselves from their families. Tatum sent her four children to live with relatives until it felt safe for them to return. Team members had to do that to focus on their patients and help the community.
“We truly worked as a team to develop a system of care,” explained Tatum. “When a team member called for help, five people were there immediately to help. We stood by each other. We cried together. We celebrated together. We are fighting a war, so it is exciting when you win a battle. Part of the outcome is we are a much stronger team than before. If we have to go through a storm, that is our rainbow.”
Because the team gets very close to their patients and their patient’s families, there were many tears when someone didn’t make it, and also many celebrations when they did.
“You have to really be there for a patient,” said Tatum. “and it was really hard when they passed away one after another. That is why we celebrated when we had very sick patients walk out healed. One day three patients left healed on the same day and the staff cheered.”
Tatum thanks the initial patient in Williamson County for being willing to share his story. She and her team had all been very aware of the news stories of what was going on in Italy and overseas. They knew it was not a matter of if, but when it would hit Tennessee. When patient zero in the state came out and shared his experience, it gave hospitals an opportunity to prepare for the coming tidal wave of illness.
Currently, the population of COVID-19 patients in WMC is staying low. They even reached zero for a few hours.
“My team and I want to educate others as much as we can about staying COVID-19 free,” said Tatum. “I have been lucky to stay healthy, knock on wood, but I followed all of the safety procedures to the letter. I even had all of my groceries delivered…I and my fellow medical workers are currently concerned. We hope that everyone will get the vaccination, and emphasize again staying masked up for the foreseeable future, social distancing, and handwashing so that this will soon just be a bad memory.”
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