Dedication. Fear. Gratitude. Confidence.

The emotions of emergency department workers run the gamut as they brace for an onslaught of patients from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is unchartered territory for most of us on the front lines and it’s nothing that we really prepared ourselves for. It can be a bit scary at times, but for me, this is what I am called to do,” said Kendra Peot, nurse manager of Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital’s emergency department.

Throughout the staff, she sees that same mixture of trepidation and commitment.

Like all health care providers caring for COVID-19 patients, they work on the front line in the battle against the highly contagious virus.

And they have the unique job of being the first to greet patients, who may have COVID-19 symptoms.

“You have to be prepared,” Peot said. “We are applying that yellow mask when they walk in the door.”

The numbers of COVID-19 patients in West Michigan has not reached the high levels seen in Southeast Michigan. But health officials predict a surge in patients will occur in the region within a couple of weeks. And already, the caseload grows.

“We are starting to see an increase in patients with respiratory symptoms who are very sick,” Peot said.

As they prepare for the challenges ahead, the health care workers say they rely on each other and draw strength from community support.

For Elyse Gryniewicz, RN, being an emergency department nurse has always been a rewarding career. Her commitment grows only stronger in the face of the unprecedented challenge created by the coronavirus pandemic.

“None of us—in the community, the schools, the hospitals—have ever seen anything like this,” she said. “In terms of anxiety and the stress and the hardships that have befallen us, I think that has been very difficult to deal with.”

But Gryniewicz, who works at Butterworth Hospital, also sees the crisis drawing out an unprecedented sense of teamwork and unity—from the community and from all areas of the hospital staff.

“We are all coming together to do what needs to be done to best serve our patients and our communities,” she said.

Peot agreed.

“The teamwork is amazing,” she said. “We definitely have faced some challenges and we know that there will be many tough days to come, but we will continue to lean on each other for support and we all know that we are in this together.”

Spectrum Health offers employees a wide range of options to help them cope with stress, including mental health counseling, spiritual support, virtual yoga classes, and a meditation app. The Lifestyle Medicine team offers employees tips and resources for boosting their health and supporting their immune system.

Support for each other

Mandy Fountain, who works in environmental services, draws confidence from her co-workers in the emergency department at Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital.

“We depend on each other a lot,” she said. “We keep each other going every day.”

Still, she worries.

“It’s very scary,” she said. “I don’t want to take it home to my kids or my husband.”

That’s a common fear among staff members, Peot said. In the Butterworth emergency department, where Peot oversees a team of more than 200 staff members, she said, “Not only do we need to keep our families safe, we need to stay healthy as well so we can come to work every day.”

Some have decided to live apart from their children. Spectrum Health has worked in partnership with local hotels to provide accommodations for workers in certain cases—for example, if they have COVID-19 symptoms and cannot self-quarantine at home.

Kristan Shoemaker, RN, who works in Big Rapids, said emergency department team members remind each other to keep themselves safe.

“This is definitely not something that we can be prepared for in nursing school,” she said. “But it makes a difference when we come together as a team. We are updated every day on changes to keep yourself and your co-workers safe.”

Working in an emergency department means dealing with unpredictability—treating patients with gunshot wounds or situations where the police may be called, said Mitchell Van Overloop, RN, who works at Butterworth Hospital.

The pandemic delivers new challenges, but he believes the staff can draw on its training and experience to meet them.

“Our team here is strong,” he said. “We are going to stand united. I believe we are all going to get through this and lift each other up.”

He sees that same resilience, and cause for hope, in the country.

“We are all America. Our country has been made for this,” he said. “We are going to get through this together.”

Feeling the love

The emergency department team encouraged residents of West Michigan to do their part to curb transmission of the novel coronavirus—by adhering to the state’s “stay home, stay safe” executive order and practicing physical distancing.

“Do your part to protect your loved ones and the community by social distancing, wear a mask when you’re around others, and wash your hands,” Peot said.

Community support means a great deal, the health care workers said.

It’s a morale booster to see so many people working to create or donate supplies. Signs and words of gratitude, from loved ones and even strangers, give them strength.

“We are getting the messages and we feel the love,” Peot said. “It is very much appreciated, and it is carrying many of the people on the front lines.”

“It’s been incredible,” agreed Ethan Cunningham, RN, a charge nurse at Butterworth Hospital’s emergency department.

“The staff we work with every day is strong and excited,” he said. “We are here and prepared and we are happy to be of service.”

“I think the community has really stepped up and enabled us and empowered us and supported us to be able to continue to do our jobs and to do them well,” Gryniewicz said.

“I can’t say thank you enough.”