Local Healthcare System Prepares for Challenging Times
Sheila Grant talks with Marie Vienneau, president of North Light Mayo Hospital, and Dr. David McDermott about social distancing, hand washing, employee wellness, telemedicine, and other topics.
DOVER-FOXCROFT – The team at Northern Light Mayo Hospital is getting ready for COVID-19, and they could use our help and support.
“One of the things I do think is a blessing for us here is being in a rural area where the population density is so much lower than even in Portland or southern Maine,” said Marie Vienneau, president of North Lights Mayo Hospital. “It helps increase the chances of success with social distancing. I hope and pray that helps us here in this county. We support the guidelines and encourage everyone to follow them. They do help and they can work!”
Social distancing is “one of the only tools in the tool chest,” said Dr. McDermott, VP of Medical Affairs and Senior Physician Executive. “We don’t know who is shedding the virus until they are sick, four to 10 days after they’ve been exposed. Social distancing will work, and may be what makes Maine look different than other places. We might be in social distancing for six to eight weeks, maybe more. Social distancing is a difficult term, so let’s call it physical distancing, but without a breakdown in communication.”
For example, he said, many meetings now take place online via Zoom, and friends can have dinner together over Skype. “We are very fortunate to have those technologies and people are finding creative ways to use them.”
Proper hand washing is also imperative. Dr. McDermott said he loves the handwashing advice dispensed recently by Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah, which was: wash your hands as if you have just sliced a bag of jalapeno peppers and now need to take out your contact lenses.
“A lot of people are very concerned about hand sanitizer, but when I became a nurse, we didn’t even have hand sanitizer,” Vienneau reassured. “Soap and water are all you need, so you shouldn’t worry too much if you don’t have hand sanitizer or bleach wipes. You can get by if you just wash your hands well.”
And while it was somewhat contentious, the merger between Mayo Regional Hospital and Northern Light Health on March 1 couldn’t have come at a better time, Dr. McDermott said.
“One of the things I would say really helps me get though the day and worry less at night is knowing that we are part of a system. That brought to us a wealth of resources, planning, materials and ability to anticipate potential problems that would have been extremely difficult on our own. I feel blessed that we’re there,” he said.
Vienneau agreed. “All the supports are there, and financially, we would have been in very dire straits had we not merged at the time we did.” The hospital is losing revenue from cancelled elective procedures and routine appointments, while savings are being depleted due to stock market losses. “It would have been very difficult for us without this system to back us up,” she said.
Community caring makes a difference
“I would say the community has been extremely supportive of the workers, as well,” said Vienneau. “Spruce Mill [Farm & Kitchen] sent cookies and coffee one day. Gordon Contracting donated N95 masks, and helped us set up our areas. And various community members are making homemade masks.”
Mayo employees are finding the community efforts, “very supportive and heartwarming at a time when they are under more stress than they may have been in their careers,” she said.
“It’s unusual,” said Vienneau. “At a time when many of our family members are home and trying to stay home, we are actually working harder than we would normally work, because the demands of preparing for this are quite great.”
To offset that unsettled feeling, it’s important all essential workers try to, “get enough rest, eat healthy, get exercise every day – all of the things that keep you going during a challenging time,” she said.
“I think one of the things that I personally have experienced that has been helpful to me, and I know other members of the medical staff have felt this, too, is the tremendous amount of support from our friends and families,” Dr. McDermott said. “Not a day goes by that I haven’t gotten a text saying something like, ‘Hey, I know you’re on the front lines. I’m thinking of you.’ That sort of unsolicited support from family and friends, through social media, texts and phone calls all help a lot.”
McDermott said he also feels blessed to be in an area where most of us can open our door and get outside without violating social distancing guidelines. While people in urban areas are stacked high in multistory apartment buildings, “we have the ability to get out on the recreational trails, go for a walk, go down to the lake or up to Borestone,” he said. “We’ve got those opportunities here in our backyard, and I think people are taking advantage of that. My daughter, from San Francisco, came home because if she was going to work from home, she would rather do it in Maine than in a crowded urban area.”
Healing themselves while healing others
While anyone who can work from home is doing so, hospital workers are in the workplace “because that’s where the patients are,” Dr. McDermott said. “We ask each other, ‘How are you doing?’ and then “Okay, how are you really doing?’ We don’t have a lot of employee turnover. People here form friendships over 15 or 20 years. They know when someone is under stress, and looking out for them is a nice feeling.”
There are also a couple of people at the hospital who are doing reflective readings, and sharing them with coworkers each day by email to provide insight, a reprieve, and to take the mind to a different place. “And humor helps,” said Dr. McDermott. “This is not something that should be taken lightly, but we try to find some levity. There are things about the ways our society is responding to this that are humorous – and laughing helps.”
Additionally, Northern Lights Mayo Hospital tasked some staff with creating a wellness handbook for employees. “It was sent out today [March 30] and has multiple links to mindfulness programs, meditation, recovery resources, exercise – access to programs to keep ourselves and our minds fit and healthy,” said Vienneau. “We asked them to develop this based on the situation we are in at this time. As leaders of this organization, Dave and I and the rest of the leadership team are charged with the support of our employees and helping them through this, being there every day and helping them, communicating with them, doing nice things for them like free food on Fridays. It’s a prolonged period that this virus will be with us. It is very important to support our employees,” she said.
“Of course, we have individuals who, based on their own personal situations, are dealing with some anxiety,” Vienneau continued. “Perhaps it’s a caregiver who is pregnant or older and has chronic conditions, and they are asking questions about that. People are seeking help and support if they feel affected, but overall, our employee morale is quite strong.”
Finding the silver lining
“Another thing that is really helping us through this is that with adversity comes innovation,” said Dr. McDermott. “We are learning to do things we haven’t done before. We are using Zoom as a secure platform to begin reaching out to patients in their homes through telemedicine.”
A lot of healthcare can be done well through telemedicine, he said. For example, a patient under treatment for high blood pressure, with an accurate blood pressure cuff at home, could safely have a follow-up appointment with a physician via telemedicine.
“In many parts of the country, telemedicine is more advanced, but all of a sudden with COVID-19, we are putting in place platforms in all primary care areas that will serve us well for years to come. I’ve got two daughters living out-of-state in urban areas, and they routinely get things taken care of through telemedicine. They get the advice and guidance they need, and it saves them time and travel. We are learning new things, which helps keep people resilient. I think some of the skills we are learning now are skills which are going to serve us well in the future.”
“Our providers are open and excited to learning new telemedicine technology,” said Vienneau, adding that after the crisis, healthcare will probably never go back to how it was pre-telemedicine.
The other thing that Dr. McDermott said he is seeing is the office-based practitioners, who are not as busy now, are cross-training for roles that they may have done in the past, like working in the hospital or in the ER.
“It’s refreshing for them to push their minds in different ways,” he said. “They are not doing something they are not comfortable with, in terms of taking care of someone sicker than their anticipated needs, but they are working in a different environment, with a different team. It’s almost like taking a vacation while at work. We are doing that now, before the surge. When we get the surge, we’ll be ready. We’ll have staff cross-trained and people won’t be trying to figure out how a system works that they don’t’ know really well. We will be ready to roll up our sleeves.”