Here’s the thing with heroes: they’re heroic every day. Because it’s a way of life to them, they really don’t think too much about their heroism.
For the most part, heroes are humble.
But heroes are constantly putting the needs of others ahead of their own. For heroes, actions always resound louder than words.
Frontline healthcare workers are heroes. And in this time of pandemic, we need heroes more than ever.
Wendy Viramontes is a hero. Her story is one of courage, care, and despair.
Viramontes, a 55-year-old licensed practical nurse who resides in Lebanon, is employed by the Hands-On Nursing Agency. Over the last several weeks, she has been assigned to Cornwall Manor nursing home and Stoneridge’s Towne Center retirement village.
But Viramontes’ story is not unique. It is one being played out over and over again by Lebanon County professionals who work in the health-care field.
“I don’t think we’re heroes, unless you want to label us ‘heroes’ all the time,” said Viramontes. “This is just one period in time. It’s daily for us. Medical professionals are always coming in contact with things. I’m doing my job. I chose to do this as a profession. I might be on the frontline, but I think I’m a few rows back from those who work in hospitals. But yeah, they’re heroes.
“When I go into work, I just try to do what I do,” Viramontes continued. “I try to stay positive for the residents. It (the coronavirus) is on my mind. You do stress about where staff has been before they came to work. It is more stressful in that aspect.”
As of April 1, there were 36 cases of COVID-19 reported in Lebanon County, with no deaths yet reported. Viramontes said there were no active cases of coronavirus at any of the facilities where she is currently deployed.
“We’re just everyday people, mothers, daughters, grandmothers,” said Viramontes. “For me, I got into nursing because I needed to do something after my divorce. I’m just an average person. I’m nobody special. I think most people in this profession feel the same way. I think people just need to take a break because they’re stressing out so much.
“I would say that the ones in hospitals are at the most risk,” added Viramontes. “They’re seeing actual cases. We’re all at risk if people don’t practice the proper procedures for safe-guarding themselves. I’m not going to say I’m not afraid of it. But I’m not going to live my life in fear. I’m doing the best I can to protect myself.”
“Our staff is showing great compassion and dedication during this challenging time,” said Thomas Harlow, president of WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital and senior vice president of WellSpan Health, through a release.
“This is across the board, including our physicians treating those who need their expert care, our staff members working in testing tents, our nurses providing care, our food service workers preparing nutritious meals, our housekeeping staffs keeping our facilities sanitized and clean, our security teams keeping us safe, our support staffs making everything function and the entire WellSpan team. Everyone is working hard and providing vital care to our communities.”
As a precaution, healthcare workers like Viramontes are put through extensive screening procedures when they report to work. Upon entering their facilities, healthcare workers hand over their belongings to be searched and sprayed with a disinfectant, are asked a series of six or seven screening questions, and then have their temperatures taken.
There are limitations placed on ordering food and taking outside food into the facilities.
“If your temperature is over 100, you have to go home,” said Viramontes. “What’s scary for me is that I work with the elderly, who are at a higher risk. They can die from this. I wear gloves and a mask all the time. It’s really hard.
“For me, I don’t have young kids, but I do have young grandkids who live with me,” Viramontes added. “Some people strip down before they go into their houses. The first thing I do when I get home is take off my clothes and take a shower. I keep my laundry separate from everyone else’s and I wash it in the hottest setting. I come home late at night and my grand-kids are in bed. But in the morning, they want to hug and kiss you.”
“We also want to support our staff emotionally,” said Harlow. “We recognize the need to care for our caregivers, so they can continue to keep pace with the outbreak. WellSpan Philhaven has established a support talk line, which all employees can call to get support and information about healthy and effective coping skills and self-care.”
There’s no shortage of work for Lebanon County healthcare professionals right now, but these everyday heroes have been forced to balance the needs of their patients with the risks of working too much.
Viramontes said she has worked double shifts—up to 16 hours at a time—and there have been times when she has reported to work for stretches of 12 days in-a-row.
“Sometimes that’s my choice,” said Viramontes. “I see it as continuing to do what I’ve been doing. I know there are many nurses like me. We see residents as our family. I could work as much as I want, but I don’t think it’s healthy to work every day. It’s hard to have a normal life outside of work.
“If one person gets it, it can spread like wild fire,” Viramontes continued. “It could be very overwhelming. If it would happen, I don’t think I’d want to go home. I’d want to stay put until it’s over.”
“We want to keep our staff safe so they can continue to do their vital jobs,” said Harlow. “To ensure that, our staff is wearing the appropriate protective equipment, observing proper sanitation procedures and taking the appropriate steps to keep their patients and fellow staff members safe. Each of our facilities across the health system is adequately equipped to respond to the needs of our patients at this time.”
Viramontes said that she has not seen any shortages of critical medical supplies, like masks and gloves, at the facilities where she works.
“The concerns have changed,” said Viramontes. “At the beginning, no one knew what was going to happen. As we got into this, there were more concerns. It’s scary. You can asymptomatic. I don’t want to have it. The staff is doing better now than we did before. I talked to a nurse who said she was thinking about not taking assignments because she didn’t want to take it home to the kids.
“I say it every day, ‘I can’t wait for this to be over,’” added Viramontes. “I work a lot. If staff comes down with it, I’m not going to abandon my residents. They need somebody in there.”
“Everyone has an important job to do,” said Harlow. “We are very proud of our staff members and consider them all to be heroes.”
Because of their selfless and dedicated approaches, local healthcare professionals are always prepared to meet any crisis head-on. Still, most have never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic.
“No, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Viramontes. “We’ve quarantined for the flu before, but nothing to this magnitude. Family members can’t come in to see their loved ones. We just have to keep going. We have to keep moving forward. That’s healthcare.
“I want people to know that their loved ones are being taken care of by people who really care,” continued Viramontes. “It’s important to social distance. Just be vigilant. Take your time and spend it with your family. If you have a mask, wear it. I think people need to try and stay positive. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it’s going to end. We are stressed when we come home, so give us a chance to decompress.”
“These are unprecedented times,” said Harlow. “We all have important roles to play, from healthcare workers, in providing vital care to their communities, to the general public, in observing the proper prevention steps. It’s important to remember that the best way to prevent potential spread is to adhere to the calls for social distancing and hand-washing. We are grateful to the community for the support and gratitude they have shown to our staff in recent weeks.”
Given the villain our heroes are currently facing, it would seem that washing our hands and social distancing is the least we can do.
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An earlier version of this post contained a misspelling of a name. We regret the error.