Every situation needs a hero.
We’ve all heard that phrase before. When times are tough, you’ll always be able to find someone who is working to make it better. At Fairfield Medical Center, we are fortunate to have witnessed many inspiring, hopeful stories that have come about as a result of COVID-19. We have seen patients who have made the most of a difficult situation, nurses and doctors who have gone the extra mile to care for those in need, and employees who have helped spread positivity and kindness. Through their efforts, we have been inspired to do our own part to shine a bright light of hope during a challenging time in history.
Ever since their oldest daughter, Emery, 7, was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago, FMC pulmonologist Andrew Twehues, MD, and his wife, Morgan Twehues, have worked hard to educate their two daughters about the steps they all can take to ward off germs and infection. “We have been talking about this for quite a while since Emery’s port requires that we immediately go to Nationwide Children’s Hospital any time she has a fever,” Morgan said.
The Twehues family’s vigilance to protect Emery’s weakened immune system increased substantially this spring when Dr. Twehues began caring for patients who had tested positive for COVID-19. Knowing how detrimental it could be to bring the virus home, Dr. Twehues made the decision to self-isolate from his family. Currently, he and his colleagues, pulmonologists Jarrod Bruce, MD, and Christian Tencza, MD, of Fairfield Healthcare Professionals Pulmonolgy & Critical Care, rotate the weeks they care for inpatients. “I would isolate on the week I was working inpatient, and then I would come home in the middle of the next week as long as I was symptom-free,” Dr. Twehues said.
On the weeks that he would self-isolate, Dr. Twehues made sure his daughters saw and spoke with him every day, whether it was through a Facebook conversation or at the window of their home.
“Sometimes I would sit outside, and the girls would be just inside the door, and we would eat dinner together,” he said. Morgan captured a few of those special moments on camera.
“We are so thankful for technology because we video chatted a lot, but the girls always felt better when they could see Andy in person,” she said.
With the threat of COVID-19 still present, Dr. Twehues’ advice for others is to rise up during this challenging time and care for one another. “All generations of this country have been tested at some point, and this is our test,” he said. “I know that we can collectively make sacrifices and look out for one another so that we can all have a successful outcome.”
Going through cancer treatment is a frightening, emotional road that no one wants to travel alone. Yet that was the reality for breast cancer patient Bridget Brandon, who started radiation shortly after FMC implemented visitor restrictions for COVID-19. Luckily, it didn’t take long for Bridget to find friendship in the form of a few angels in purple scrubs – FMC’s Radiation Oncology Team. “From day one, I was comfortable talking to any one of the ladies because they would all listen to me,” Bridget said. “They were my total support group. They may not have realized it, but they were.”
Bridget said it was the little things the Radiation Oncology Team did that made all the difference during her treatments. They talked to her, not about her cancer or the pandemic, but about more lighthearted topics – her grandchildren, her dog, her hobbies, what she did over the weekend. They shared pictures of their families and told jokes. On the difficult days when Bridget found herself struggling to remain positive, they offered hope and reassurance. Before long, Bridget began looking forward to her treatment days. “It takes a special group of people to do what they do,” she said. “I was very lucky. I had a fantastic team at FMC.”
Radiation therapist Tiffany Moody said she and her colleagues enjoy forming connections with patients like Bridget and providing them with the encouragement they need to face their diagnosis, especially now during COVID-19. “We take time to sit and talk, cry, laugh, pray,” she said. “We try to support our patients in any way, shape or form we can.”
When it comes to long-distance friendships, Heidi Reed knows that emails, cards and phone calls are essential in helping to bridge the distance, but nothing compares to an in-person visit. So after two months of not being able to see more than 200 of her dearest friends – the men and women who make up FMC’s volunteer team – Heidi decided to pay them a visit. Every single one of them. “I see these volunteers every week, and they have become a part of my family, a part of who I am,” said Heidi, who serves as FMC’s volunteer coordinator. “So not seeing them for such a long time – it just feels like something really important is missing.”
In late March, FMC temporarily halted its volunteer program due to COVID-19, and the volunteer appreciation banquet that had been scheduled for April was cancelled. In the weeks to follow, Heidi kept in contact with her volunteers through a weekly email, but she wanted to do more. So she put together a map of where they all lived, compiled more than 200 gift bags and hit the road. It took several weeks and more than 800 miles through Fairfield County and beyond for her to personally deliver every single gift bag – but it’s an experience she wouldn’t trade for the world. With every visit, she had the opportunity to meet spouses, children, grandchildren and pets, and hear about what her volunteers were doing in quarantine. She also struggled to answer a question that would come up, over and over again: “When can we come back?”That question, said Heidi, is one she hopes to be able to answer soon. “Volunteering at FMC is part of the fabric of who these volunteers are, so to be without that opportunity for so long has been incredibly challenging for many,” she said.
Heidi said the volunteers are not the only ones who are eager to get back to FMC. Much of the staff is also looking forward to their return. “Without our volunteers, there are incredible gaps of service and care that are impossible to fill,” Heidi said. “They wonder how we are managing without the service they provide. The truth is, we are not. We are not the same without our volunteers – part of our heart is missing.”
Linda Keister and her son, Brad Keister, were an inseparable duo. When Linda became ill with gallbladder cancer in September 2019, it was Brad who became her caregiver and main support person. He not only quit his job to care for her full-time, but also attended every one of her medical appointments and chemotherapy sessions. This past spring, when visitor restrictions were put into place at FMC, the staff at the Cancer Care and Infusion Center were faced with a challenge. Brad, whom they had gotten to know well over the past year, was no longer able to come into the treatment area with his mother. However, the staff wanted to make sure he could still be nearby. It didn’t take long for the cancer care team to come up with a solution that would make all the difference for Brad and Linda.
“They allowed Brad to wait out in the lobby, and while my mother was receiving treatment, staff from the Cancer Care and Infusion Center – and the valets who worked out front – would go and take turns sitting with him,” said Brad’s sister and Linda’s daughter, Kristin Poole. Kristin explained that her brother has special needs and is unable to stay home alone. “They gave him snacks and talked to him. He is a huge fan of The Oak Ridge Boys, and they would download the band’s music videos on their phones so he had something to watch,” she said. “But mostly they would just talk.”
Not only did their kindness help fill the time that Brad spent in the lobby while his mother received treatment, but it meant a huge deal to Kristin and her husband, who would have otherwise had to take time off work to stay with Brad on treatment days. “We would have been able to do it, but my mother would have never allowed us to not work,” she said.
In June, Linda passed away, but the kindness of those who cared for her and her son is a memory that Brad and Kristin will never forget. “Brad was not their patient, he was not their priority, they didn’t have to do those things, but they did,” Kristin said of the staff. “He felt safe and comfortable with them, and they became his friends.”
When Michelle and Justin Sharp’s daughter, Skylar, is older, her parents will have an interesting and heartwarming story to tell her about the day she was born. “Due to visitor restrictions, our loved ones could not be in the room with us at all during our stay,” said Michelle, who gave birth on May 13 at FMC. “Instead of letting this stop them, our amazing family and friends surprised us outside of our hospital room window with signs welcoming our baby girl … it’s a memory we’ll never forget.”
Another special memory that Michelle and Justin have is how comfortable the Maternity Team made them feel during their stay. The fear of giving birth in the middle of a pandemic was nerve- wracking for the new parents, but the staff was quick to put the couple at ease. They even secretly worked with the Sharps’ family to help coordinate the surprise for Skylar outside the window. “The staff made us feel so comfortable and gave us the best experience bringing our baby girl into the world,” Michelle said. “Every nurse and doctor gave us exceptional care, and we were able to really relax during our stay. We didn’t worry about the pandemic while we were there.”
Deb Price, manager of FMC’s Maternity Department, said the nurses are hyper-sensitive, not only about wearing face masks, shields, gloves and handwashing to prevent the spread of germs, but also to the emotional needs of their patients. “Once on the unit, our nurses encourage video chats with families who can not come in,” she said. “They take pictures of mother, father and baby with the family’s phones so the parents can send them ASAP post-delivery to family and friends. They do what they can to make the experience special.”