East Tennessee frontline healthcare workers talk COVID-19 changes on the job, on patients, on themselves



KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Four months into the COVID-19 global pandemic, East Tennessee front line healthcare workers continue to report to healthcare facilities and hospitals for work, but with changes to their day-to-day.

The most obvious: Added personal protective equipment. Masks, face shields, gloves, and protective suits are just some of the ways individual healthcare workers are taking care of themselves. By doing so, they’re taking care of their patients.

Across the Covenant Health hospitals, like at Parkwest Medical Center in Knoxville, any patient who tested positive for COVID-19 is isolated for safety, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Any medical provider working with those virus-positive patients are required to change their PPE after every interaction.

“The hurdle of getting over mentally there’s a chance that we can get this. obviously, healthcare workers are at increased risk. You start seeing people that you know, get it. Mentally, overcoming the fact that there’s a good possibility tat some point we’ll have it,” said Copeland West, an RN in the Critical Care Unit at Parkwest Medical Center.

West is no stranger to changes on the job, no two days in the ICU look the same. But the pandemic brings with it changes to the routine everyday as healthcare professionals learn better techniques to keep themselves and their patients, safer.

There’s no fear for West, at least, not anymore when it comes to concerns about contracting the virus himself. This, he says, is what he signed up to do.

“Really as odd as it sounds, it’s kind of normal at this point. At the beginning, it was kind of butterflies in your stomach when you came, but after going through it for a couple months, it’s normal,” West said.

West is one of 12 to 15 nurses on the team on any given day. He says that’s how he processes the days that “aren’t so good”, by relying on his teammates, the other frontline healthcare workers.

“As odd as it sounds, you tune things out and try to leave them at the door when you walk out at the end of the day, it doesn’t always work that way obviously, We’re always thinking about the families,” West said.

“I was surprised when the test came back positive”

In another branch of the Covenant Health Hospital network, Dr. Jeff Douglas works to create big-picture COVID-19 response plans for nine East Tennessee hospitals.

Dr. Douglas is a hospitalist with Covenant Health, which means he works across the system as a dedicated in-patient physician. He’s spent more than two decades at-work as an infectious disease specialist and before that, working with HIV/AIDS positive patients.

In April, he left East Tennessee for New Jersey where he spent a week providing care at a hospital inundated with COVID-19 patients.

“I knew what I should be doing to take care of the patients. I expected the numbers to be high, I never expected the numbers to be as high as they were,” Douglas said.

In his experience, where there would normally be 25-30 patients, healthcare workers saw 180 when he was there. He says he knew the technical side of things, how to help from a professional stand-point, but when it came to patients dealing with isolation and loneliness, it was harder.

“Because of the risk of transmission, we wear PPE, they’re in a room potentially by themselves. There’s no visitors, for the most part. They of course have telephones. They are just very very isolated,” said Douglas.

Some patients, Douglas said, didn’t speak English, and although interpreters were provided, it wasn’t easy for those patients.

It wasn’t until a week after he returned from his nearly 10-day stay in New Jersey that Douglas learned he had tested positive for COVID-19.

“At seven days I found out I was positive for Coronavirus, so I got to quarantine for another seven days after that. Fortunately, I did fine. I wasn’t sick at all. I don’t think I would’ve known I had it if I hadn’t been tested,” said Douglas.

He assumes he got the virus while in New Jersey, or in transit. He says he wore the right PPE during his time in the hospital and still, two months later, calls the positive test “a surprise.”

“I was surprised when the test came back positive. I’d had a little bit of headache a day or two before I got tested… I thought, well maybe so. It really was mild,” Douglas said.

The fear of contracting COVID-19, for Douglas, West, and likely, for other healthcare providers doesn’t outweigh their passion to help others.

“When we’re in that environment or in that atmosphere we’re doing everything we can to make them better. Whether it’s being in the room for seven hours at a time… sitting with them no matter what. We do the best we can and hope it all works out,” West said.

These two frontline healthcare workers replaced any potential fear with a plan, putting their skills first to help those who need it. Not just with COVID-19, but with whatever brings a patient into a hospital.

“It’s very real, it’s very contagious,” Douglas said.

Their message to others: Take it seriously.

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