Heroes emerge in coronavirus crisis
by Tim Froberg
Dr. Anthony Zeimet
Infectious Diseases Specialist for Ascension Medical Group at St. Elizabeth Hospital
Board-Certified Family Physician/Hospitalist, Aurora Medical Center
In comic books and Hollywood movies, superheroes wear masks and put their lives on the line to make the world a better place.
Real-life heroes of today’s COVID-19 pandemic share similar traits. These essential workers – whose occupations range from doctors, nurses, firefighters, and police officers to grocery clerks, cashiers, and stockers – also wear masks and risk their own health for the greater good.
But don’t expect them to take any credit for the courage they show every day while dealing with a highly infectious virus. They say they’re simply doing their jobs.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” said Dr. Anthony Zeimet, an infectious diseases specialist for Ascension Medical Group at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton. “This is why I went into medicine. This is my job and there’s an inherent risk to it. It’s nice that people are showing a respect toward the things we do, but I take care of my patients the way I always do – with love and compassion and the way I’d want to be treated.”
Zeimet covered all three Ascension hospitals with telemedicine in Northeast Wisconsin during the peak of the pandemic and worked closely with Ascension’s infection prevention team to set up processes and protocols.
“If I could put the COVID situation into one word, it would be ‘surreal,’” said Zeimet. “As an infectious disease specialist, you read and learn about pandemics throughout your training and medical school. But you never really think, in this day and age, you would have to live through one.”
Zeimet, who wears protective equipment including gloves, scrubs, a surgical gown, and an N-95 face mask when treating patients, doesn’t see COVID-19 suddenly disappearing from our world.
“It’s probably going to be a couple years,” he said. “If you look at the influenza epidemic of 1918 – it lasted about two years. I don’t think it’s really going to die down until we have what is considered herd immunity. That’s when a majority of the people have been exposed to it and have had it.”
Here’s a look at how other essential workers in our area are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
- JYOT SONI, BOARD-CERTIFIED FAMILY PHYSICIAN/HOSPITALIST, AURORA MEDICAL CENTER
Perhaps the biggest risk for many medical workers is catching the virus and bringing it home to family members. In the early stages of the pandemic, Soni, a family physician in Oshkosh, treated a patient who tested positive for COVID-19.
He took steps to protect his wife, Nicole, their 4-year-old son, Roshan, and 2-year-old daughter, Sitara.
Soni knew that a quarantine was necessary but didn’t want to separate himself completely from his family. He signed up for RV for MDs – a program in which RV owners lend a recreational vehicle to frontline medical workers self-isolating during the pandemic – and planned to temporary live in an RV in the driveway of his home during quarantine.
However, the RV was too large for the driveway, extending onto a crosswalk and violating a city ordinance. So Soni launched Plan B and stayed in hotel for several nights until the quarantine period passed.
“At the time it was difficult, but I was afraid to come home and possibly expose them,” Soni said. “I had to stay in a hotel to keep them safe.”
The world is gradually reopening, but Soni cautions that it may be some time before the coronavirus disappears.
“I’m glad things are opening, but this may come back stronger,” he said. “It might be like the flu and come on as a seasonal thing in the late fall or winter months when everyone is staying indoors. Another scary part is that we have a lot of older people in the Fox Cities area. Those are the folks that are at the highest risk and have worse outcomes.
“It (the virus) doesn’t discriminate when it comes to who it can infect. It’s especially disconcerting because a person could be asymptomatic and spread the infection without even knowing about it. That’s the most unnerving part of it.”
RICK JAMES, CAPTAIN, APPLETON FIRE DEPARMENT
Firefighters routinely deal with danger when called to action, and COVID-19 has added yet another layer of risk. But safety has always been a priority for the Appleton Fire Department and firefighters like James are following long-established guidelines as they respond to emergencies during the pandemic.
“We’ve had to be diligent, but that’s something we’re trained to do for our health and safety and for the health and safety of the community,” said James. “When it comes to hygiene and handwashing and making sure our personal protective equipment fits and is appropriate for the situation, that’s something we do day in and day out.
“But with COVID, it’s been a little bit of a step up for us. There’s only a finite number of us, so to ensure we have a workforce that can safely respond to the communities’ needs, we’ve taken extra steps to ensure we’re healthy.”
Those steps include extra cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and vehicles, wearing N-95 masks and safety goggles on calls, and having dispatchers follow a screening protocol for emergency services to identify those with COVID symptoms.
“It’s just about remaining vigilant and that’s what we practice all the time,” James said. “We’ve gone through a lot of worse-case scenarios in terms of staffing, should there be exposure within the department. But we haven’t had any issues arise yet.”
AARON OLSON, CHIEF, NEENAH POLICE DEPARTMENT
Police departments have also faced additional risks on the job due to COVID-19. The Neenah Police Department responded by launching a staffing plan to keep officers healthy. The force was divided into five different silos (or personnel groups) that work different shifts to prevent interaction with officers from other units.
“That can be a little challenging when you have a close-knit department like ours, but everyone took it in stride and communicated well,” said Olson. “It was a very challenging time for everyone, but we had some fun with it. Every silo had its own nickname, like the Gang Green Group or the Golden Griffins.”
Olson also asked officers to minimize risks when responding to possible COVID situations.
“We kept telling them to be smart and be safe,” Olson said. “We tried to control what we could control by having our officers wear their PPE and use good judgement. If you come into a situation where someone is coughing or sneezing, give them a mask and stand your distance.
“COVID is something that’s always in the back of your mind, but you can’t live your life in fear. We were fortunate that none of our officers got infected.”
Thanks to funding from the city council, the police department received funding to purchase equipment to sterilize protective gear.
“It looks like a refrigerator but sterilizes all gear, so we were fortunate to be supported by our city council,” Olson said.
CHARLIE BRUYETTE, REGISTERED NURSE, ASCENSION-ST. ELIZABETH HOSPITAL
It’s tough to find positives in the COVID-19 crisis, but Bruyette thinks he’s learned much about infectious diseases since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I like the challenge of learning about it,” Bruyette said. “It’s been crazy. There’s been new challenges every day and we’ve been learning on the fly.”
Bruyette said the best part of his job has been telling patients who test negative for the virus that they’re OK.
“You just don’t know if people are infected until the tests come back,” Bruyette said. “When you tell them they are negative, they’re so happy. And then you can finally take your mask off and they can see what you actually look like.”
Bruyette took extra precautions to keep his wife and young child healthy, washing his clothes and taking a shower immediately upon returning home. He marvels over the entire experience and the chaos that COVID-19 has created.
“It almost feels like we’re living in a movie and it’s not real,” said Bruyette. “I don’t think this is going away soon. This is part of our new normal.”
That new normal includes employees working in sync with one another to keep the coronavirus at bay.
“I don’t see myself as a hero – I see myself as Charlie Bruyette, the nurse,” he said. “I think the heroes are everyone in an organization, from housekeeping to food and nutrition people to doctors, managers, and infectious disease experts. Nurses have been getting a lot of credit, but we’re all team players working together with a larger team.”
JENNIFER BOSETSKI, REGISTERED NURSE, ASCENSION, ST. ELIZABETH HOSPITAL
Though based at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, Bosetski traveled to Ascension’s Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee during the initial surge to assist COVID patients in ICUs.
“It’s been heartbreaking at times,” she said. “You might have one patient with COVID and they’ll tell you their husband is at a different hospital with it. You do things like FaceTime just so they can communicate with their families. You try and help them through it, both emotionally and health-wise.”
The initial phase of the pandemic was especially harrowing for Bosetski.
“I was really scared at first,” she said. “But once I got in with the rest of our team, our support staff, and physicians and saw how they were protecting themselves, I felt I didn’t have to worry as much and could focus on the patient. Still, things happen and it’s always in the back of your mind. Anytime you feel like a chest cold is coming on, you think about it.”
In addition to her hospital duties, Bosetski teaches clinical nursing classes at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
“That was interesting because pandemics had never previously come up in discussion and all of a sudden, I was sharing my experiences and what I knew about coronavirus,” says Bosetski. “We talked mainly about it as a respiratory disease and how it affects your lungs, along with how to recognize symptoms and head it off.”
TINA HULBERT, MANAGER OF PHYSICIAN OPERATIONS, ASCENSION MEDICAL GROUP
Hulbert helped develop and mobilize COVID-19 testing sites at Ascension’s St. Elizabeth campus in Appleton and Mercy Hospital in Oshkosh.
“As things unraveled at the beginning, we had to dismantle our clinics to deal with the high number of patients coming in,” she said. “With our providers, we incorporated virtual visits so they could talk with patients and then we put up tents to be able to service patients and get them tested. We put this together as fast as we could without compromising the safety of patients and our health care workers.
“It was stressful and challenging, but everyone stayed positive and our team approach really helped. Everyone was scared because it came out of nowhere. There was fear in our patients and our teams. But we put our chins up, powered through it, and did what we had to do.
“It was scary, but I never thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want to do this.’ I wouldn’t say we’re heroes. This is what we do. This is the career we chose. This is where our heart is.”
STEVE JAHNKE, SERVICE CLERK, JABOBS MEAT MARKET
When Jahnke was furloughed from his job as manager of volunteers and audience services at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, he decided that working was the best way to get through the pandemic. He rolled up his sleeves and accepted a temporary salesclerk position at Jacobs Meat Market, which was designated as an essential business.
“I sat around the house the first couple weeks doing nothing, but you can only clean and organize so much,” he said. “A lot of my volunteers and paid staff shop here, so it made sense. Now I get to see them, which I couldn’t previously.
“This turned out to be a good thing. I feel like I’m doing what I need to do to get through this. Hey, we have to eat, and someone has to wait on customers.”
Working at Jacobs has allowed Jahnke to return to his roots.
“I was 14 when I started working at a grocery store,” he said. “I’m going to be 62 and I’m back working at a meat market. Kind of funny, but I enjoy it and it’s a great place to work. At the PAC, I work behind the scenes. I don’t have that interaction with the public like I do now.”
STEVEN KRUEGER, STORE DIRECTOR, PICK ’N SAVE, APPLETON WEST LOCATION
Krueger implemented several safety procedures at Pick ’N Save’s Appleton West store in response to the pandemic, including the installation of partitions at checkout registers and floor graphs to promote social distancing. The store checks employee temperatures at the start of each shift and provides workers with face masks to keep them safe.
In addition, the store expanded pickup offerings, added senior shopping hours, and expanded in-store cleaning in response to the pandemic.
“When COVID-19 changed our norms, our team stepped up to the challenge,” said Krueger. “They worked tirelessly to keep our stores cleaned and stocked so our community had access to the foods they need. We are being thanked by countless people on a daily basis for being there for them during this unprecedented time. Knowing the importance of our role in the community is rewarding.
“It makes me smile when someone says to me that we’re heroes. Honestly, I don’t feel like a hero. I’m here to do what I love. Our store associates are heroes. Countless associates have stayed late, worked extra, and come in on days off to do what was needed to get us through the most challenging weeks.”