The Year Behind The Mask

Photo by Sandy Harrison
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CHARLOTTE – 2020 has been an unprecedented year for everyone and nowhere is that more obvious than in the world of healthcare.  As 2020 draws to a close, I had the unique opportunity to talk with leadership and first responders from Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center to learn more about the year behind the mask.

Confronting COVID: Uncertainty and Constant Change



In March of 2020, when COVID first began spreading in the United States, it’s not an exaggeration to say that everything changed overnight.  During what we now see as the “first wave,” the only constant for the staff at Mint Hill Medical Center changed.

Dana Price, Nurse Manager, Specialty Care Unit
Dana Price, Nurse Manager, Specialty Care Unit. Photo by Sandy Harrison.

“It was organized chaos,” says Dana Price, Nurse Manager, Specialty Care Unit, who compares the constant influx of new information to attempting to drink from a fire hydrant.  “You come to work on a Monday, and you’re doing XYZ, and then you get an email Monday afternoon that we need to do something different.  I think Novant did a really good job of keeping up-to-date with CDC guidelines,” Price continues, “but we did feel stressed just with the amount of information that came to us.”

“I think the biggest thing about the beginning was just gaining information and helping the community and the team understand because nobody really knew anything,” adds Chief Nursing Officer Tammy Brooks.  “When I think about March and April, 100% of our time and focus was on what was happening: what does it mean for the community?  What does it mean for the patients that test positive?  What does it mean for the team members that have to take care of them?”

Amidst so much uncertainty, hospital staff had to support one another, and leadership focused on boosting morale.  “For the medical-surgical units, it was just reassuring them,” says Price, “Just remember the process: you’ve been taught to do this, this is what we were taught to do in nursing.  If you wear the appropriate PPE, if we start having patients that are COVID positive, you are going to be protected.”

Kristin Steinhaus, Nurse Manager, Emergency Services
Kristin Steinhaus, Nurse Manager, Emergency Services. Photo by Sandy Harrison.

It was important for everyone at the hospital to feel safe and protected because while many American workers found themselves sheltering in place, hospital staff continued working.  “One thing that still strikes me today even from March is that our team has been coming in to work this entire time and essentially having an unchanged schedule,” says Emergency Services Nurse Manager Kristin Steinhaus, “but their whole life outside of work has been disrupted.  People’s kids are home from school, and their spouses are working from home, and the whole world looks different, but everybody that works at Mint Hill Medical Center is still driving to work.”

In response to COVID, that work often looked different, and many people were asked to step in and take on duties they wouldn’t normally perform.  “Nurses were helping out at the screening tables, and people were definitely doing things that were outside the scope of their jobs,” said Patient Access Supervisor Brandon Rios.  “But nobody said ‘I don’t want to do it.’  Everybody was all hands on deck to make sure we were taking care of each other and the community.  There wasn’t a single time where we felt like we didn’t have the support that we needed in any area.  Everybody just came together as a big family because that’s what we do.”

Ten Months Later: Confidence, Comfort, Preparation

Kara Horn, Manager, Respiratory Services
Kara Horn, Manager, Respiratory Services. Photo by Sandy Harrison.

Nearly a year later, what once seemed frightening and unknown has become routine.  Although COVID case counts are higher than ever, Novant Mint Hill is feeling prepared to address the continuing crisis.  “The feel is so much different now,” says Respiratory Services Manager Kara Horn.  “At first, everybody was terrified of it, and they didn’t know what to expect.  We didn’t think that we would be here ten months later, but we are.  This is now the new norm, and we know we have everything that we need to take care of patients and the community.”

Despite new protocols and renewed confidence, providing the best care for patients in the COVID era is a never-ending process of adaptation.  Take something as simple as communicating with patients.  “Our identified rooms for inpatient COVID patients, they have HEPA scrubbers in them, which are very loud,” says Tammy Lilly, Nurse Manager, Inpatient Nursing Unit.  “So there’s been plenty of times we’ve said, ‘OK, do you have a cell phone? I’m going to get the number and call you so we can talk and I can get what you need before I come into the room.’  They still need to be taken care of, but communicating with them and keeping ourselves safe at the same time, it’s really been a balancing act.”

Brandon Rios, Patient Access Supervisor
Brandon Rios, Patient Access Supervisor. Photo by Sandy Harrison.

Despite many, many changes that require more physical separation, patient care remains at the heart of the Novant experience, whether that means being fully present at the moment with a patient who isn’t allowed visitors or making sure to keep a patient’s family informed.  “That’s one of the things that I’m most proud of us for is that regardless of everything that’s happened, our identity hasn’t changed,” says Rios.  “How we do things in Mint Hill hasn’t changed. We still have the same standard.  We still support each other.  We still give the community what they need, and our level of care, our expectations, have not wavered, and they’re not going to waver.”

There’s no better example of that standard of care than this:  “We had a patient that it was their birthday, and their family wanted to be outside at the window,” says Horn, “So one of our team members, one of our nurses, had them over to the window, and was part of that little celebration so they can feel special on their birthday. It was pretty awesome.”

More than COVID:  A Year of Accomplishments

With COVID at the forefront of the news, it’s easy to forget that a million other things happen daily at Mint Hill Medical Center.  In September, Novant Health became the first hospital system between central Virginia and Florida to offer an innovative, incisionless treatment for tremors caused by Parkinson’s Disease.  79-year-old Larry Hicks was the first patient to undergo the procedure at Mint Hill Medical Center.  At the time of this interview, Mint Hill Medical Center had treated 18 patients using the life-changing MR-guided focused ultrasound technology.

Alongside notably newsworthy developments like incisionless brain surgery, Novant’s personnel list simple things like holding a modified community Trunk or Treat or reopening the gift shop amongst the year’s biggest successes.  While they seem minor in comparison, a clear train of thought emerges: some of the most memorable moments of this year were the ones that brought a touch of normalcy to an otherwise extraordinary year.

Tammy Brooks, Chief Nursing Officer
Tammy Brooks, Chief Nursing Officer. Photo by Sandy Harrison.

“The team here is really vested in this community and has been since the summer of 2018,” says Brooks, “and the fact that we have essentially gone all year with no engagement or ability to interact with and volunteer in the community has been heartbreaking.  So the Trunk or Treat event was huge from the last person that rolled through with a smile on their face to the last team member that walked off of the parking lot. There was so much gained by that truly speaks to and reinvigorates why we are here and why we do this every day.”

“We’re happy to have our volunteers back!” says Guest Services Manager Jovanna Ham.  “They’ve been gone since March. They’re very limited in what they can do, just so we can make sure that they stay safe, but they’re happy to be back.  That was really exciting for our department because they help us a lot, and they want to be here to help the patients, so we hope in the future that we’re able to get more of them back as they become more comfortable with being in the facility.”

Jovanna Ham, Manager, Guest Services
Jovanna Ham, Manager, Guest Services. Photo by Sandy Harrison.

“One thing that Jovanna’s team has contributed, not only to the team members in the facility but to the visitors, is we were able to reopen the gift shop!”  adds Brooks.  “It’s such a small thing, but people were counting down the day and the minute when they could go back into the gift shop.  Just that sense of normalcy of being able to walk in and buy some candy or grab a quick card or gift for someone. It’s amazing how connected people are to something like that.”

Another achievement that may have flown under the radar this year is Mint Hill Medical Center’s increased ability to treat stroke patients.  At the end of 2019, the facility received Acute Stroke Ready Certification from The Joint Commission.  “We have drastically increased our stroke patient care in this building specifically,” says Steinhaus, “and what that means for the community is enormous because timely treatment is so important.  Before Mint Hill opened, somebody had to drive all the way to Northeast Medical Center, Presbyterian, or Matthews Medical Center.  That was a lot of minutes, and that’s a lot of brain cells that could be damaged.  Now, EMS and walk-in patients are able to come here, which is much closer for many people.  They’re having better outcomes because of the location and because of the quality of care and the neurology services that we provide.”

In the midst of both a crazy and accomplished year, Novant’s staff still found time to ensure they are addressing the interests of everyone in the community.  “We are very proud about the diversity training that we’ve been able to do regardless of everything that’s been going on,” says Rios.  “In-Patient Access, when we’re doing gender reassignment surgery, we’re the ones that are checking the patient in, so it’s very important to have that education.  We’re trying to make the patient feel as comfortable as they can pertaining to their pronouns and their preferred names and things like that.  The team has truly embraced it; they’ve done a phenomenal job at it and I’m super proud of them.”

“Even during a global pandemic, this team also worked to bring new state of the art technology and procedures to this community,” says President of Mint Hill Medical Center Joy Greear.  “In 2020, we added lithotripsy services, breast surgery, infectious disease services, podiatry, and uro/gyn.  We became the ONLY hospital in NC and SC to offer the incisionless brain surgery for patients with essential tremors, and we are incredibly proud to see the positive patient outcomes not only in our local community but across the United States.”

Supported By The Community

Tammy Lilly, Nurse Manager, Inpatient Nursing Units
Tammy Lilly, Nurse Manager, Inpatient Nursing Units. Photo by Sandy Harrison.

Throughout this difficult year, the community’s support has meant everything to Novant.  “It just goes to show you how as a community how well they take care of us here at Novant,” says Lilly.  “I would get calls daily.  The outpouring of support from businesses in the Mint Hill area was just unbelievable.”

Ham was critical in making sure donations were given out equally to first and second-shift employees, weeknight, and weekend teams.  The hospital often received food for the team or gift cards to purchase food, but sometimes the small, thoughtful things like handwritten cards or headbands to help make masks more comfortable made the biggest impact.  

“We got toilet paper!” exclaims Rios.  “A local business that wasn’t going to open for the rest of the year just pulled up and dropped an insane amount of toilet paper!  I think we all knew how loved we were in this community before, and then this happened.  Whatever you can think of was probably done for us.”

A New Year: A New Normal

With the first doses of vaccine currently in distribution, many of Novant’s employees hope that 2021 will bring a return to some of the normal things we all know and love here in Mint Hill: Mint Hill Madness, parades, fireworks, the Christmas Tree Lighting, the Fall Festival, the Rodeo.  Rios hopes that we’ll resume activities like those with a renewed appreciation for things we may have taken for granted before.

At the hospital, Horn looks forward to growth.  “I look forward to expanding the services we’re able to provide,” she says.  “For us, it’s been huge to be able to increase our respiratory staffing model.  We now have two full-time RTs covering 24-7, which is awesome.  I’m just excited about the growth of this facility and happy to be a part of it.”

Ham recalls a time when the hospital was able to maintain a strong and personal relationship with the neighboring Cresswind community.  Although they’ve worked to maintain this relationship while also maintaining social distance, it’s not quite the same.  “I can’t wait until we really, truly can get back out in the community,” says Ham.  “Prior to COVID, we had each service team going over to Cresswind, talking about what they do, letting them know we’re here for them, and doing some fun things with them too.”  Although they were recently able to do a socially distanced Veteran’s Day golf cart parade, Ham looks forward to a time when they can get back out in the community and connect with people more.

Although the hospital staff, like all of us, hope for a return to normal this year, they also recognize that this experience has changed all of our lives irrevocably in big and small ways.  Take masks, for example.  “Before all this happened, if you wore a mask while you were in the facility and you weren’t going into a contact patient’s room, it was like, ‘Oh, you didn’t get your flu shot!’” says Horn, laughing, “but now if you see somebody without a mask, it’s like ‘Why aren’t you wearing a mask?’”

“I just have to remind myself what I teach my team,” adds Lilly, who started at Novant Mint Hill just before COVID hit.  “The only thing constant in healthcare is change, so we have to embrace it.”  

“I think we’ll just continue to adapt,” says Ham.  “It is what it is; we’ll learn and we’ll grow and we’ll just continue to adapt.”

Still Here for the Community

As COVID case counts continue to rise, threatening an unprecedented strain on the health care system, it’s important for the community to know that Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center is here, open and safe.

“The fear is – and we saw this over the summer –  is people weren’t coming in because they were afraid,” says Brooks.  “They were having strokes, they were still having heart attacks, but they were staying home, and they were dying from them because they were afraid to come in. As we continue to see the numbers go up, we want people to not be afraid. If you’re sick, and you need care, we want you to come in.  We are prepared to take care of you and help get you well.”

“Thank you for your support,” says Rios.  “Thank you for trusting us. We’re hoping 2021 is a better year.  We’ll do everything we can.  Wear your mask, wash your hands, and trust us – we’ll take it from there.”

“​I am so proud of the strong and resilient team we have here at Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center,” says Greear.  “They came together in unprecedented circumstances to compassionately and safely care for patients and their families, to provide comfort and support, and to encourage their team mates through it all.  We are grateful for the support by the Mint Hill community, and we are honored they have trusted us with their care.  We look forward to continuing to serve in 2021.”

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