By Jaime Collins
In every home on every block on every street and lot and farm in southwest Wisconsin, people have stories to tell of this pandemic year. I have one. You have one. And every last one of the 91,832 souls in Grant, Iowa, and Lafayette Counties has their own story to tell.
Grief. Loss. Struggle. Isolation and loneliness. Despair. Hardship. Desperation. Resilience. And hope for better days. All over our beloved communities and across our beautiful rolling hills and valleys, our stories – each one of them separate and unique – are connected as never before by an invisible virus that threatened our lives and livelihoods.
At Southwest Health, our story has always been about community, and never has that been more evident than this year. As the region’s healthcare system, community matters here. That’s because your wellbeing is our purpose. So when the health of every person in southwest Wisconsin is at stake, we go all out. We show up for our communities like no one else.
When the pandemic came knocking, Southwest Health responded. Immediately, our CEO Dan Rohrbach initiated our emergency response systems and created a full-scale command team to lead, monitor, communicate, and plan. We met every day. We left nothing out. We held nothing back. This was no drill. With worst case scenarios looming ahead, we planned not only to help prevent but also to overcome human disasters we never before imagined but suddenly knew were possible.
Our day-to-day responsibilities pivoted. Protocol changed throughout our facilities. We geared up, and we showed up, all despite the ultimate in personal risks for many on the front lines.
Every moment of every day our focus was squarely on the health and safety of our community. That included the health and safety for every person on our team. A few months earlier our Marketing and Communications Team had rolled out a new employee mantra: WE begins with ME. Those four words sum up our quality philosophy. We are each responsible for the safety of all. And we are all to take action necessary for zero harm. And together, we create a highly-reliable organization. In other words, it takes all of us. Although those words were carefully crafted to reflect our staff’s shared dedication to high quality and highly reliable healthcare systems, it felt almost as if we’d anticipated the uncharted waters of the pandemic. Turns out, WE begins with ME is exactly what was required.
Together, we persisted. In the face of challenges none of us had ever before faced, our team climbed that mountain.
Looking back, the intensity of my own anxiety, my fears, and my angst over what could happen are all undeniable. Yet I was also surrounded by other leaders with resolute determination to do the right thing and a team of co-workers I knew could accomplish anything. We had each other’s backs, and we had the backs of everyone in southwest Wisconsin. As a result, our incredible healthcare organization adapted quickly. Every day we did things we had never done before. And we did them well.
Here are some of the key steps we took:
- We planned and prepared for worst case scenarios. The very real possibility existed that any healthcare system in the country could be overwhelmed, and it seemed our team was prepared even for that.
- We created the “Safe In Our Care” initiative to ensure our facility was always clean and safe for patients and employees alike. As simple as it sounds, this affected everything from comprehensive changes to disinfecting protocol and visitor policies to temperature checks to even overhauling our appointment scheduling and check-in procedures to ensure patients were always distanced.
- Our materials management team began painstakingly tracking our daily use of vital supplies and tracking down the life-saving stocks of personal protective equipment that were, for many months, in such scarce supply.
- We suspended non-essential care to reduce the chance of further infections and focus on immediate needs of our patients.
- We created and sealed off a completely separate COVID unit for patients who required admission to the hospital due to the severity of their cases. This included establishing a third negative air flow patient room to further contain the virus.
- We also created a temporary clinic completely separate from our hospital facility to care for patients with upper respiratory infections who could be potentially infected with COVID.
- We added a driveway and rear exit to our EMS Station garage area to establish a sheltered drive through testing site. This made testing faster and easier for our community.
- And when vaccines finally became available, we designed the region’s most effective systems, communicated with our patients, and practically overnight launched a clinic where we vaccinated thousands of high risk people in a very short time.
The investments this work required was massive. It was also entirely necessary, worthwhile, and effective. With nearly 500 employees, the investment of hours worked is, by itself, an ocean of energy and resources. The off-site respiratory clinic alone required more than 2,000 hours to operate. There were more than 2,000 curbside pickups from our pharmacy. Or, even more striking, were the 10,635 COVID tests performed, necessitating the test kits, the time, and the lab work. The creation of the drive-thru facility and separate respiratory clinic was an investment of $30,000. There were also the purchases of new equipment and vast quantities of supplies and personal protective equipment. Plus, now, to help speed the end to it all, our team has to date placed over 8,000 vaccines in arms that’s required a small army of staff who raised their hands to cover the additional duties.
The commitment to communities is staggering. While one could tally the hours, count the dollars, or inventory the tests and supplies, I’ve also seen for myself what can’t be calculated. I’ve witnessed and heard of plenty of extraordinary examples of courage and commitment in my years at Southwest Health, but this year I saw our team operate on an entirely new level. An intensity and duration of commitment beyond imagination.
Our stories from this year deserve to be heard. All of them. I want to know that the loss and isolation and struggles our communities faced will be understood by future generations. And because I can, I am personally compelled to tell my perspective of Southwest Health’s story. I saw first-hand how this team responded to the enormous responsibilities. I saw how this team proved how strong and genuine its commitment to our communities really is. And that, I know in my heart, is a story that needs telling.
This team shows up for us every day. Sometimes, like this past year, we show up in extraordinary ways. The hardships of the pandemic aside, I know what a privilege it is for me to work here. The fact I have that privilege means I am witness to the dedication this team has for the people of southwest Wisconsin. Telling this story is my way of helping others also understand that dedication. There is no one else to step in and do what we do for our communities. One thing this past year makes crystal clear is our team at Southwest Health is the one we can count on to be here for us today, tomorrow, and always.