The Southern Illinoisan 2020 Persons of the Year: Southern Illinois Healthcare’s COVID-19 care team – The Southern

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Dr. Gurpreet Bambra (from left), ICU nurse Darren Ackerman and pharmacist Barb Smiley of Memorial Hospital of Carbondale.

A year ago, most of us had never heard of a coronavirus. After the first of the year, we began hearing about a deadly novel coronavirus in China. By March, effects of the new virus had reached Southern Illinois as Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster declaration and began issuing executive orders in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The disaster declaration for Illinois was issued March 9. Executive orders closed restaurants and bars to indoor dining on March 16. Schools closed March 17. On March 21, we were under an order to stay home that closed all but essential businesses, and that was just the beginning.

One of the groups most affected by the virus has been health care workers. Their work environment has changed immensely, with new protocols sometimes hourly. They still faced the challenges of keeping their loved ones safe after being around patients with COVID-19 or suspected of having COVID-19.

Because of their dedication to all of us and our health, we recognize the team of health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients as our persons of the year.

Our doctors and nurses have received a little recognition over the past 10 months. We’ve interviewed a few of them and have been grateful to share their stories with our readers. But, there is an army of people behind the scenes who impact patient care in a variety of ways. We will introduce a few of those people and let them share how they have been impacted by COVID-19, as well as a doctor, registered nurse and certified respiratory therapist.

Darren Ackerman is a registered nurse and day shift supervisor in the ICU (intensive care unit). He currently works in the COVID ICU at Southern Illinois Healthcare’s Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. As shift supervisor, he assists with patients coming and going for tests, procedures and surgery. He also provides hands-on care to patients and assists the nurses assigned to patients in the ICU.

The COVID unit at Memorial started in the same-day surgery area, which Ackerman said was pretty isolated. As the patient population increased and they learned more about the virus, the unit moved to the third floor. The unit now has taken over the cardiac ICU space because of the number of patients. The cardiac patients are treated in a different location.

Dr. Gurpreet Bambra is a physician who specializes in pulmonology and critical care. He treats many diseases and takes care of most of the sicker patients, those needing oxygen support and mechanical ventilation. He used to see patients need mechanical ventilation to get over an illness like pneumonia. That has changed since February.

“It is tiring and frustrating to not see patients improve,” Bambra said. “It is very important not to lose sight of our objective — to save lives.”

Jeannette Butler works in Environmental Services at SIH Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, or as she says, housekeeping.

In a pre-COVID hospital environment, it took her about 15 minutes to clean a patient room. That room now takes 45 minutes to clean. “There’s so much stuff in rooms. Cleaning takes a long time. We wipe everything,” Butler said.

It can take up to two hours to clean a room for a new patient.

Jessica Ellison-Moore is a certified respiratory therapist. She said the field of respiratory therapy has always been stressful. “My job has drastically changed due to COVID,” she said. “It has a significant emotional impact. I can’t describe how much it has affected me,” she said.

She now sees an overwhelmingly large volume of very sick patients. It is mentally and physically tiring, she said. She gets by with the help of her colleagues in respiratory therapy, nurses and other staff at the hospital and her family.

Nickie Furhop’s title is access and revenue cycle manager for information technology, or IT. She was part of the team that was charged with setting up the SIH COVID hotline, then managed the hotline a couple months.

During the early months of the pandemic she had to set up virtual visits with health care providers, make sure the EPIC system, the electronic medical record keeping system, would work at places like testing sites, while following the ever-changing guidelines on the new virus. She said it was always very collaborative.

Theresa Keith is the lab manager at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale and oversees the Cancer Center and new COVID lab.


Theresa Keith, lab manager at the Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, prepares to process COVID-19 tests.

Keith was charged with setting up an in-house lab to process COVID tests. In the beginning of the pandemic, SIH had to send all its COVID tests to other labs to get processed. Results came back in four to seven or more days. Patients and hospital staff needed results quicker, and processing those tests in the SIH system would change the wait to within 48 hours.

Keith had been working with Illinois Department of Public Health in its Carbondale lab to process tests, so she knew the equipment and the process. She told her supervisor they needed to use the same setup.

“SIH got grants and made it happen pretty quickly,” Keith said.

The lab began processing COVID tests on Aug. 13 and has processed more than 80,000 test samples.

“I don’t think I’ve every worked harder or been at work more. I’m dealing with change that happen almost hourly. It’s been a year,” Keith said.

Tim Porter is SIH System Central Supply manager. If you need something at the hospital, it’s his job to get it. That includes everything from ventilators and IV pumps to personal protective equipment like gloves and gowns, to the chemicals needed in the lab.

When the pandemic hit, Porter went from being a hospital employee to being a system employee. He helped set up testing and clinic sites. He went from working 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to working 18 hours a day.

He has done things like set up tents that he called “garage in a box,” created different labels for each type of cleaning wipe based on how they are used, and educated people on the proper use of PPE. He made sure those tents could keep employees warm in cold months and cool during summer months.

Porter said he regularly worked with partners like Burke Electric, MABAS, fire and EMS, federally qualified health centers, Jackson County Emergency Management Agency and public health officials. He had three years as Emergency Management Preparedness Coordinator. He took FEMA courses, than had to put that learning into action a couple months later.

“Everything I’ve accomplished over the past nine months wouldn’t have been possible without the team at the warehouse, my supervisor and others. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do without them,” Porter said.

Barb Smiley is pharmacy clinical coordinator at SIH Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. As part of her job, she is involved in any new drugs that are added to the formulary at SIH and helps educate the staff in the new treatment.

Smiley said when the FDA issues an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for a drug, it comes with a very specific set of rules the hospital is required to follow to be able to use the drug. That was the case with Remdesivir and monoclonal antibody therapy.

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“In health care, we are always ready to change, but the pandemic has really sped it up,” Smiley said.

Having to keep an eye on drug shortages with so many people sick at the same time is hard. “We can maintain a normal stock, but we have to be prepared. What takes place if we cannot get it?” Smiley said.

Jason Suchon had a pre-pandemic title of service access representative. He became part of the team to set up drive-thru testing sites and help train and prepare grant workers to do that testing, including writing lab orders.

Suchon worked at the testing site at Southern Illinois University. A lot of those duties were “packing and unpacking.” He would go the warehouse and grab supplies, load them in a van, drive to the site, set up routers and connect to the system. He got to be an expert. He could set up two tents, two tables, five chairs and three laptops in around 15 minutes.

“A lot of it we owe to Nurse Amy Wright and the IT department. It was business as usual because of the work they do,” Suchon said.

There are a few things this team wants you to know. First, they are taking extra precautions to keep from spreading the virus outside the hospital, especially to their families.

Suchon and his wife had their first son this year, and he has two stepdaughters. “Nobody’s coming to see the baby,” he said.

He called his wife and stepdaughters “godsends.” “They’ve really kept it together and have been my biggest rocks through all of this,” he said.

Many have a procedure established when they return home.

Butler comes home and strips and showers.

“We protect ourselves. We wear masks all the time. We don’t really go anywhere,” she said.

Keith wears lab coats at work, and they stay at work. She sprays her shoes with Lysol.

Ellison-Moore leaves her shoes at work.

“I come straight home and take a shower and wash my hair. My kids know not to touch me; my husband as well,” she said. Her sons are ages 15 and 9.

Ackerman lives next door to the sweetest 90-year-old who keeps inviting him to dinner. He says no to help keep her safe. He looks forward to having dinner with her in the future.

Bambra and his wife have 4-year-old twins. They have learned there are germs at the hospital where their dad works. They no longer ride in his car or come to his office. If they run to meet him when he comes home, he reminds them he is coming from the hospital.

“It’s heartbreaking not to pick up my tiny ones,” he said. “I change clothes and shower before I touch them.”

The emotional toll of COVID-19 disease is not limited to the families who have lost loved ones. Health care workers are also victims of these emotions. They worry about spreading the virus. They are feeling the stress of working long hours and constantly watching patients lose their battles with the disease. They face constantly-changing protocols for just about everything they do, from cleaning to administering drugs.

Ackerman said they are not seeing patients getting a lot better. Patients improve, but then take two steps back. “We’ll get so hopeful with somebody, then come 12 hours and everything has changed.”

That is extremely hard to explain to family members.

“The hardest thing is trying to connect them with their family. They use FaceTime and hold phones, but it is exceptionally hard,” Ackerman said. “They don’t understand why their loved one isn’t getter better.”

Bambra also feels the stress of now knowing how to treat best treat his patients and the ever-changing stream of knowledge about the virus.

“My learning curve in the last nine months never has been steeper or more frustrating. It has been like being a student all over again,” he said. “I will remember that for the rest of my life.”

SIH vaccine

Dr. Gurpreet Bambra, left poses with Dr. Sarah Altamimi after receiving their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine earlier in December.

Many of the people in this story received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December. They see a light at the end of the tunnel, but they need your help.

“I want to help. I want to see the best survival rates possible. I just wish I had more cooperation from the general public,” Ackerman said.

Bambra, as leader of the team caring for COVID patients, has a request.

“It is very, very important not to let your guard down. Keep using your mask. Avoid large gatherings, and keep sanitizing your hands,” he said. “My song henceforth is keep on doing the good you’re doing.”

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