News

Coping (Creatively) with COVID-19 on the Frontlines
June 04, 2020

During this pandemic, it's easy to forget that frontline health care workers have faced the most unusual circumstances imaginable. Like we all do, they have their high moments and their low moments, but if you ask them, they would say that this is simply what they are called to do. Here are some of their stories about how they are using creative ways to express their emotions and communicate their resolve and optimism as they care for patients battling COVID-19.

Dr. Thomas

At the end of February, as St. Luke's prepared for an onset of COVID-19 patients, Jamie Thomas, DO, knew her team was trained, strong and up for the challenge. Dr. Thomas, an interventional radiologist, who also serves as vice president of medical affairs, leads and interacts with medical staff at all St. Luke's campuses. A big part of her role since the beginning of the pandemic has been to convey a message of hope to not only her staff, but patients and the community as a whole. 

"From the very first patient admitted with COVID-19, our staff knew that we had to put our fears aside and do our jobs as a cohesive unit," recalls Dr. Thomas. "We were equipped with all the necessary protective gear and we were trained and prepared to care for patients - we were ready both physically and mentally."

That spirit of unity and strength inspired Dr. Thomas to coordinate a video featuring some of the St. Luke's employees who work daily to keep our community safe. She texted a few coworkers to gauge their interest in participating in a "modified-for-COVID", "We Are the World" song and video and then assigned parts of the song to everyone interested. After each snippet was submitted, the St. Luke's media department edited the final version. Kicked off by the smooth voice of Richard Boulay, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at St. Luke's and an amateur opera singer, the video features St. Luke's employees from all over the Network sharing thoughts of hope and encouragement.

Since the pandemic began, St. Luke's has put measures into place to help employees cope with the array of emotions felt as they care for patients. At St. Luke's Monroe Campus, Dr. Thomas says that they have designated a "tranquility room" for employees who need to escape the chaos, clear their thoughts, meditate, pray or do whatever they need to do to refocus. "The tranquility room is furnished with a yoga mat, low lighting and soft music for a calming atmosphere," says Dr. Thomas. "We also laid out a journal for anyone who feels compelled to jot down thoughts or feelings and anonymously express their raw emotions, which everyone has found very cathartic." 

Dr. Thomas says that just reading some of the honest thoughts and fears expressed by employees in the journal can make everyone feel they are not alone and that their feelings are validated. After adding to the journal herself and observing what others had been writing, Dr. Thomas decided that the "We Are the World" video could be a way to keep spirits up and establish a connection with other employees across the Network and throughout the community.

Candie Ramos, RN

Candie Ramos, patient care manager at St. Luke's University Hospital Bethlehem, devised a similar plan to use music and video to connect with the community. Candie manages over 100 nurses and personal care assistants who provide all levels of care throughout the Network.  

In all the chaos, confusion and the unknown that accompanied the onset of COVID-19, Candie wanted to show something happy - to show that good still thrives, even in hospitals. With fellow choreographers, nurses Stephanie Kunkle and Rebecca Boyer, Candie choreographed a dance to the song "Happy" and virtually taught the moves to different departments and individuals through the Network, even inviting some children of St. Luke's employees to make cameos. In spite of sore feet and legs, sweating and shortness of breath caused by breathing through masks all day, the "dancers" spent each day teaching and practicing the dance and helping each department perform it. Again, working with the media department to splice the bits together, the final version of the video conveys the optimism and hopefulness that is ever-present at St. Luke's. 

"The idea for the video was to show the good side of COVID-19," explains Candie. "We wanted everyone to know that as scary as COVID is, it's not all bad news. In fact, there is actually some happy news, thus the song, ‘Happy.'" 

Candie has observed a range of emotions among her team from happy, frustrated, melancholy, sad, tired, to happy again, but she says that emotional roller coaster ride is really just par for the course for nurses. "You can be mad one minute and wrap that up quickly when you see a family crying outside of their dad's door as he is suffering," says Candie. "But one thing is clear: nurses have perspective. It no longer matters what you were mad at before, you need to move on and remain in control of your feelings so that you can be there for your patients."

Autumn Reif, RN

When St. Luke's nurse, Autumn Reif, and her med surg team at St. Luke's University Hospital Bethlehem, found out that their floor would be retrofitted for COVID-19, they decided to face the task with bravery and courage. "There were times at the beginning when we were all anxious," says Autumn. "But we constantly reminded each other that this is our job and we will be able to do it safely as long as we have each other."  

She recalls one of the first COVID patients she cared for during those early weeks, an elderly patient with dementia. Her condition was deteriorating quickly so Autumn kept in touch with her family and stayed at the patient's bedside until her last moments. Autumn even whispered "I love you" to her because she thought that's what she would hear from the family that couldn't be with her.

It's days like those that inspired Autumn to start journaling as a coping mechanism for the added stress. She sat at her computer and clicked away at the keyboard, documenting how she felt in short vignettes which culminated into a poem. The final version here details how she felt caring for three different patients during their battles with COVID-19, one of which was the elderly patient with dementia. "My job has always been to care for patients, of course, but right now, my job is also to be family for patients whose family cannot be with them, to be a connection to the patient's family at home, to provide updates, hold a tablet or phone for the patient so the family at home can know their loved one is ok or to say goodbye if that time comes."

Autumn says there are plenty of stories of hope throughout the hospital too. Patients are getting better, going home and saying thank you as they wave goodbye. "When patients thank me for spending time with them, I know I really did my job," says Autumn. "I always try to spend time, especially right now. Time is what our patients really need - time is something their families can't give them, so it's where we step in."

For health care workers on the front lines, the onset of COVID-19 has been met with a great fear of the unknown, but St. Luke's frontline workers are working with what they do know - how to work together as a cohesive, solid unit, supporting each other to provide the best care. When one of them is scared, someone else is brave, when someone is apprehensive, someone is unwavering, when one of them is down, another is up. Dr. Thomas, Candie and Autumn are all positive and optimistic that we will get through this difficult time if we stay smart and safe and together. These are just a few of stories of courage and compassion throughout the St. Luke's University Health Network.

Media Contact:

Sam Kennedy, Corporate Communications Director, 484-526-4134, samuel.kennedy@sluhn.org

About St. Luke's

Founded in 1872, St. Luke's University Health Network (SLUHN) is a fully integrated, regional, non-profit network of more than 15,000 employees providing services at 11 hospitals and 300 outpatient sites. With annual net revenue greater than $2 billion, the Network's service area includes 11 counties: Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Montgomery, Monroe, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties in Pennsylvania and Warren and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey. Dedicated to advancing medical education, St. Luke's is the preeminent teaching hospital in central-eastern Pennsylvania. In partnership with Temple University, St. Luke's created the Lehigh Valley's first and only regional medical school campus. It also operates the nation's longest continuously operating School of Nursing, established in 1884, and 34 fully accredited graduate medical educational programs with 263 residents and fellows. St. Luke's is the only Lehigh Valley-based health care system with Medicare's five- and four-star ratings (the highest) for quality, efficiency and patient satisfaction. St. Luke's is both a Leapfrog Group and Healthgrades Top Hospital and a Newsweek World's Best Hospital. In 2019, three of IBM Watson Health's 100 Top Hospitals were St. Luke's hospitals. St. Luke's University Hospital has earned the 100 Top Major Teaching Hospital designation from IBM Watson Health seven times total and five years in a row. St. Luke's has also been cited by IBM Watson Health as a 50 Top Cardiovascular Program. Utilizing the Epic electronic medical record (EMR) system for both inpatient and outpatient services, the Network is a multi-year recipient of the Most Wired award recognizing the breadth of the SLUHN's information technology applications such as telehealth, online scheduling and online pricing information. St. Luke's is also recognized as one of the state's lowest cost providers.