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Local Healthcare Workers Reflect on the 2020 Pandemic

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Daily Record reached out to local healthcare providers to hear perspectives and reflections on the 2020 pandemic from the boots on the ground. We heard back from ARC Kyle Plum Creek’s Dr. Shane Constable, MD, Family Medicine, Clinic Manager Rachel Aguilar and Team Lead Amber Phillips, LVN. These providers stood in long grocery store lines, saw toilet paper thieves in their clinic and worried about losing their jobs. Those who worked the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

1) What has your role been as a healthcare professional in the COVID-19 pandemic? What was your day-to-day like?

Constable: “I am a family medicine physician and my daily schedule typically involves seeing patients in person, but since COVID started, my day also includes telemedicine visits.” 

Aguilar: “As the clinic manager, my largest focus was to keep things as “normal” as possible while adapting to new information and changes that were coming out almost daily. The immediate concern was PPE (personal protective equipment), where can we get it and can we keep it stocked so that we are keeping our staff and physicians safe. After that, the concern was getting our new workflows and protocols into place. We set up a screening table at the front entrance to screen all patients for symptoms. We limited visitors into the clinic to only essential parties.

“The need for drive up testing was a new challenge for us and we immediately adapted to add this access for our patients. All they had to do was have a telemedicine visit with an ARC physician and go to any of our drive up testing sites to administer the test.  Day-to-day life was focused on implementing and supporting the new workflows as well as being ready to change anything up in a moment’s notice.

“One example of this was that the testing kits have changed four times through the pandemic to different swabs and collection methods. I recall one day in particular that we had cars wrapped around the building and we changed swabs in the middle of that busy afternoon. We put a brief pause on what we were doing to quickly familiarize ourselves with the new testing kits and kept on going, not even missing a beat.”

Phillips:  ”Being a nurse in the clinic setting during a pandemic has definitely been an experience. I am a clinic float so I am not assigned to the same doctor every day, so I got to see and learn a lot of things. A big part has been our telemedicine and curbside services. It was hard to adjust to wearing a mask at all times and being outside with full PPE for the drive-up testing and keeping up with the day to day changes. We started with having patients with COVID-19-like symptoms wait in their car, and then we would bring them in through a side entrance while we wear a gown, gloves and an n95 mask.

“And a big part of my day was and still is talking to patients about COVID, whether it is symptoms, testing turn-around times, what kind of tests we have, and what to expect. Along with that is talking to patients who still have medical needs not COVID related. Many patients are scared to come into the clinic for one reason or another, and we have had to explain a lot of changes to help protect patients and ourselves- it can take some pretty extensive conversations for people to understand we all want the best care for them and us, and we are doing everything we can. 

“This was new for everyone, so we have been talking to patients about completely new processes; like why are we having you wait in your car and use the side door now, why can't you have everyone in your family come into the clinic with you, why hold times are taking longer, how staying in your car for your flu shot literally means stay in your car and we'll get you your flu shot, and yes, you can still have an appointment over the phone and have labs done at a later time.” 

2) Can you describe your outlook or feelings about the pandemic now, compared to the beginning of the pandemic?

Constable: “While we practice with great care and caution on a daily basis, things seem more routine now than they did at the beginning of the pandemic since we understand the disease a bit more. In addition,  since we have practiced our safety protocols for quite some time now, which have been effective, we have confidence that we are keeping our patients and ourselves safe when they come to visit us in clinic.” 

Aguilar: “I would say that I feel about the same as the beginning of the pandemic. We now are quickly adapting to the needs of the public and our current focus is on setting up COVID vaccine clinics to try and get all vaccinated as soon as possible. 

“It is the next phase in this ongoing pandemic, but I am hopeful that it will be just a matter of time and is the necessary next step to putting this behind us and moving on to a more normal tomorrow for everyone.”

Phillips: “In the beginning, there was a lot of fear for everyone - who would be sick, how sick would they get, is this thing in the air, are we all going down after this, when is this going to be over, thinking someone had the virus after clearing their throat, and where in the world can we find toilet paper and why is it sold out everywhere! But now I feel like we have had so much growth and development along the way. Look at what science has been able to do in such a small amount of time — I mean, we have an mRNA vaccine for this novel coronavirus. This is the new normal for us all. I no longer constantly think about having a mask on and can accept that this is going to be going on for a long time. And I don't let myself feel out of control of the situation. My family has been following all precautions and so far hasn't been greatly affected, and same goes for my co workers. So seeing that through all of these months reassures me that we will all be generally ok if we keep doing what we're doing. My family is the closest we've ever been - dinner together every night, playing Uno on the driveway, being so open together for so long, it’s amazing.”

3) What are one or two defining moments or turning points of the past 10 months for you? 

Constable: “I would definitely say that we are experiencing a huge turning point right now with the roll out of the COVID vaccine, as it provides some hope of an eventual end to this pandemic, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Aguilar: “Even though I am a healthcare worker and have been living and breathing the pandemic daily in my work life, I don’t think the full impact of the pandemic hit me until I had a trip to H-E-B early on and saw the lines to get into the store. During that visit, I had run into someone that I knew but could not hug them as I normally would have done pre-pandemic. That moment made me tear up and brought the seriousness of the pandemic to my core of just how it has impacted everyone and the challenge that we would be facing this entire year.” 

Phillips: “One turning point was when the company announced a voluntary furlough. At this point I definitely thought "oh darn, this is really happening." I was scared — would I lose my job, would I have to sell my house, would my coworkers be ok if we had layoffs, should I voluntarily furlough to avoid mandatory layoffs in the future, is the company really struggling, etc. I really had to buckle down and think about life at that moment.

“Another turning point would be when the vaccine finally arrived at the clinic and was administered. I finally felt a sense of relief for the future. I know the vaccine isn't everything and isn't the final answer, but I really miss my dad who I haven't been able to see since this whole thing started, and at that moment I felt like one day this will all be over and I can go give my dad a big, giant, long, tight hug.”

4) Can you tell us about some of the heroes of the pandemic; moments or individuals who ought to be recognized or stories that you will take with you?

Constable: “Honestly. I would say that the big heroes for me have been our organizational leadership team. They have kept us well informed and communicated effectively to all our physicians and staff and come up with clear strategies to care properly for our patients, all while keeping them and ourselves safe. This has been very comforting for us on the front lines and allowed us to in turn comfort our patients during this time with the care they deserve.” 

Aguilar: “I can honestly say everyone I work with is a hero during this pandemic. We have always been a great team, but we have especially all teamed up and taken everything on with a smile and sometimes a tear or two afterwards from being so tired of constantly adapting and adjusting to make it all work and get through this. I feel the same way now as we move towards the goal to vaccinate the public with urgency.

“One of the defining moments that sticks out in my mind was at the summer peak around July and our drive up testing numbers were up around 200 daily. The cars kept coming and that particular day we were down staff and I only had one nurse who was doing the swabbing, so it was just the two of us. I would get the patient names and get the labels ready and she was there with her N95, Face Shield and gowned up in 100 degree weather, sweating like crazy, trying her best to keep up with the line that we had. It was such an intense pace that day and the heat affected both of us, but her far more than I given the PPE that she wore to  do the swabbing. At the end of that day, both of us were exhausted ,all we could do was sit back and breathe a minute to take the day in and we both felt a satisfaction from being to help serve the community.  I will never forget that day. We definitely were running that day to keep up.” 

Phillips: “So many people need to be recognized after the year we’ve had to go through! I don't think I have a specific story, but there are so many people who stayed working in the middle of this mess and didn't complain and haven’t been recognized. Thank you.”

5) Anything else you would like to add?

Constable: “(2020) has been a tough year, but we have to all work together to help defeat this virus. Every decision we make is critical and can affect countless others. So we need to all work together and give each other a little extra grace as we hopefully near the end of this difficult time.” 

Aguilar: “I am thankful for all the kind people who donated PPE to us in the beginning; we truly needed it and it did not go to waste. I am also thankful to all the patients who were so appreciative of what we were doing to keep them safe and take care of them when they were not at their best. I found most people to be very kind and appreciative of all that we were doing and that we stayed open the entire pandemic to serve our patients/community.”

San Marcos Record

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