There was a false alarm in Dover.
They were tested. It was negative. Everyone moved on for a little bit.
But Dr. Nathan Henderson didn’t. He saw the reaction from the community. He saw the reaction from the hospitals. Pope County was not prepared.
Dr. Henderson knew it was only a matter of time, but there was no plan. He made a few phone calls and in a matter of days the Pope County Triage Center popped up. The volunteer staff was prepared to face the first potential coronavirus patient in 10 minutes — 10 minutes before the doors opened on Saturday, March 14.
There are six volunteers, one building, a limited amount of personal protective equipment and a large number of potential coronavirus patients.
In the early days, it would take a full two weeks to get results back. Over time, kinks have been worked out. Test results are being seen within 28 to 48 hours.
The mission has always been the same: Separate those who test positive. Limit the amount of healthcare workers in order to protect them. Conserve as much personal protective equipment as possible.
Testing is uncomfortable for patients. It requires that a six-inch cotton swab goes up each patient’s nose for 15 seconds. And when a positive is found, there’s a whole new set of worries. Every single person they’ve come into contact with — a cashier, a friend, a family member, a server at a restaurant — must be tracked down and tested.
In the beginning, there were 12-hour days and a steady flow of patients. Then, the numbers dipped. Social distancing measures appeared to be working. But with phase one of the “reopening” in full swing and more tests available, the Pope County Triage Center is testing more than ever. And the grind can wear down even the most dedicated.
There’s the physical toll of wearing personal protective equipment and being on their feet for hours. There’s also the mental toll of worrying about their families and worrying about the community’s safety. The volunteers are not just testing patients. They’re also testing the lives of themselves, their children and their emotional wellbeing.
These are the stories of our medical professionals on the frontlines during the coronavirus pandemic told in their own words.
Alexys is a viral triage unit receptionist which includes registration, phone calls, and clerical work.
ON HER FIRST DAY: When I first walked in, I had to get suited up. We have to wear these white suits that kind of make us look like marshmallows or astronauts — big masks, helmets and booties. It made it seem more real. Whenever you put on the suit, it’s a lot more real. After I saw people getting sick coming in, people actually getting sick, and the numbers growing in Russellville, I started taking it a lot more seriously. I started not going out and social distancing.
ON WHY SHE VOLUNTEERED: I was going to school for nursing and I wanted to actually help people. When I started at Millard Henry Clinic and Pediatrics at reception, I was really just checking people in. I didn’t feel like I was helping a lot of people. After working at the Triage Center, I actually feel like I’m helping people a little bit more.
ON CONCERNS: It didn’t bother me first. As we started getting more people coming in and listening to the news about everything going on, it started to seem more scary. I worry a little bit because I have my little boy at home, and I don’t want him to get sick. I don’t want my grandparents to get sick. I had read about people on ventilators and people who have died. I was just worried that I’d take something home and then my son or my grandmother would end up on a ventilator.
ON WHAT HER JOB MEANS TO HER: I’m glad that I can help people. I’m glad that I can be there for people, and I know that they’re scared. I’m glad that I still have a job. I know a lot of people are without one right now. Because of this, I’ve realized how much more important a receptionist job is than I did before.
Toni is a viral triage unit receptionist. takes registration for patients and answers questions on the phone.
WHAT SHOCKS HER: We’ve had people come in, be placed on quarantine, and we see them out. We’ve had some people throw parties, stuff like that. I’m not saying people need to live in fear right now — I know I’m not —but I think we need to be respectfully cautious right now and pay attention. People do die from this. I don’t think people are taking it seriously enough. They don’t understand that we are not in there, wearing all of the protective gear and working all the long hours that we do, just because. It’s a real thing.
ON HER DECISION TO VOLUNTEER: I thought from the very beginning that I do want to volunteer. It was kind of hard because I have 15 grandbabies and I don’t get to see them. That’s difficult. But I do believe it’s a sacrifice that’s worth making.
ON PREPARATION FOR THE PANDEMIC: I’m 53. I never thought I would see the day where people are having to wear protective personal equipment to work, especially myself. It’s almost out of a movie. That’s where our world is right now, but it’s real. Honestly, I don’t believe anybody thought it would actually come over here. I knew it was a threat. Preparing for it? I think we were prepared as much as we could have been with the resources we have been given.
ON THE COMMUNITY’S RESPONSE: There’s been some negative. For the most part, we get support. We had a lady who organized a bunch of meals and fed us for six weeks. We have some patients that I don’t believe have a clue as to what it means to us when they leave, and they thank us. They have no clue how uplifting it is when we hear that. We do have a lot of “negative Nancys” out there. They’re coming in to get tested, but they’ll still fuss at us that we’re blowing it out of proportion. But, that’s okay because you’ve got those, but you’ve also got the nice ones out there. I try to focus on the ones that are positive towards us rather than the negative.
Mami is a viral triage unit CMA responsible for coronavirus testing, vitals and any medical orders. She also assists in collecting surveillance data.
ON WHY SHE VOLUNTEERED: I was working at the Dover [Millard Henry] clinic with Dr. Henderson. And I love working with Dr. Henderson. I think I’ll just go anywhere he will go because he’s just a great doctor. I wasn’t super scared. I wanted to do something to help the community and I wanted to learn more.
ON HER CALLING: I’ve felt like I’ve always been a black sheep. That’s how I’ve always, always, always felt since I came to the United States. My English was so broken, and I don’t know a lot of American culture, so I didn’t make a lot of friends when I first came here. I speak more English now but, a lot of the time, I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. But this is what I’m supposed to do. I finally felt like I’m being part of the community by helping others in Russellville.
ON WHAT SHE’S LEARNED: If you have a question, you need to ask. You need to know how long it takes to get results back. With patients, you need to know which method to send their results. There’s a lot of rules that you need to know and everything is changing all the time. It’s a little hard to keep up with, so I’ve learned I have to ask and make sure that I’m doing the right thing. I think I can apply that to my normal work, too.
ON WHAT SHE WANTS OTHERS TO KNOW: I think people need to be aware that coronavirus has not disappeared yet. It’s not gone. You can still get it, and it will still spread. I think people are not taking this seriously anymore and they’re going out to parties. A lot of retail stores opened the other day, so they think, ‘oh, businesses are reopening, it must be safe.’ No, you still have to wear a mask and still social distance. But people don’t think that way, so they catch it and are spreading it.
Morgan is a viral triage unit CMA handling coronavirus testing, collection of surveillance data and vitals.
WHY SHE VOLUNTEERED: My main goal is that I want to help people. I knew Mami because we graduated together, and I wanted to work with her again. Then, the first day I got there, I met Kelsie Duvall, and it was just like we all went together. It was like team effort from day one, there was no arguments or anything, it was just like open arms, family.
ON WHY SHE ISN’T SCARED: When I went to school, the first thing they tell you when you get into this program is that if you’re scared of germs, or blood, or a virus, or anything, you’re in the wrong field. You don’t need to do this. You talk about germs, and you don’t know how quickly they spread until you get a point view of everything.
ON HER CONCERNS: I have a six-year-old and a husband. Those two are my world, and I have to go home to them every day. I was scared to death. How was I not going to bring it home? How do I make sure I don’t bring it home? Dr. Henderson told us all that we’re going to wash our hands. We don’t wear the same clothes. We stay six feet apart when we eat. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t go to Walmart, or Dollar General, or anything.
ON HER OBSERVATIONS: I don’t think it matters what is behind your name, like, LPN, RN, anything like that. I think this virus has brought us all together. The doctors have gone far and beyond for everything.
Kelsie is an LPN, and is in charge of the viral triage unit overseeing all tasks such as assisting with complex medical orders, contact tracing, and collection of surveillance data.
ON HER RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC: In the beginning, I don’t think I realized how serious this is. You don’t realize what the term pandemic means in the beginning. You think there’s this virus, and it has the potential to kill a lot of people and make a lot of people sick. But until it actually hits here, I don’t think you quite grasp the concept of that. The further into it that we are, we definitely have all grasped the concept. And you go from feeling really excited and doing something good and that you’re helping to where we wake up every morning and, if we have a sore throat or a cough, now you have to wonder if you should go to work today. It starts to weigh down on you a little bit. I know that I can’t be the only one who feels that way in the healthcare industry right now.
ON NORMALCY: I’m so ready for this to be done and over. Normalcy? I’ve almost forgotten what that’s like. Restaurants are opening back up, but I’m not going to be participating in that. Not until I feel like it’s safe, and right now I don’t. I know I’m going stir crazy; I’m a retail therapy junkie, and I have not shopped. I’m blowing up Amazon Prime, don’t get me wrong, but I haven’t been in a store and shopped since March 8.
ON HER LIFE NOW: We don’t leave our house. I haven’t been to Walmart. I haven’t gone inside to pay for gas. I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant anywhere. I go home and I go to work. I’ve had to rearrange my life to feel like I’m keeping other people safe. It’s not just about if I get exposed, it’s if I’m one of those people who don’t have symptoms and I expose other people because of my level of exposure. You just want to keep everybody else safe. I have a three-year-old, and she isn’t going to daycare right now. We have a private sitter who is watching no other children. If I were to give it to my child, and she didn’t show symptoms, she could give it to every other kid at daycare. I couldn’t live with that.
ON TEAMWORK: Triage is a stressful situation all around, and you know when you go to work that you’re going to expose yourself to the virus. Having a team like we have right now makes it fun. We’re all kind of goofy, and everybody gets along so well that it makes it bearable to be there. It’s been a great opportunity and, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have gotten to work with these people. We all came from different facilities. I’m going to come out of this with really great friends. We have to have somebody to vent to, and you can’t go home and talk about your day because that’s just not what you do. You check out at the door and you don’t think about it again until you go back to work the next day. Sometimes we all group chat or, if someone needs to talk, we call each other. It’s honestly been one of the best bonding experiences that I’ve ever had in a work situation.
Dr. Nathan Henderson
Nathan assesses, treats, and quarantines patients. He also collects surveillance data analysis, contact tracing, and isolation.
ON BECOMING THE LOCAL VOICE FOR THE VIRUS: I was an intensely private person before all of this happened, and I still am. But to be in a newspaper, and to be on an internet TV show, and have people look to you for advice is very foreign to me. It’s been something I’ve had to adjust to. To be in the center of this, and for this to be in the center of everyone’s attention, has been a bit bewildering at times. That’s been something I’ve discovered about myself. I really do prefer to be a private person. I’ll probably be more of a hermit after this than I was before. Right now, with this situation, part of protecting the public is educating the public. I’m learning how to cope with all of that. There’s certainly been a lot of positive feedback from the public but dealing with all of the negative we’ve received has been something I’ve had to learn, and had to learn how to cope with. My feeling very early on in this, and it still comes to me from time to time, is this thought that I am a rural doctor for a small community of closely knit people. In the big picture of the world, outside of Dover and Pope County, I’m not a big academic in Little Rock. I’m not a CDC researcher or a World Health Organization public official. I’m just a family doctor in a tiny town. It felt to me like someone much more important than me should be doing this. Someone who has fought a pandemic before should be doing this, but we don’t have that option.
ON HIS CONCERNS: One of my big concerns, early on as a doctor and community member, is that I saw this threat and how bad it could be. I saw that if we took action early, and if we moved aggressively, we could substantially decrease the damage that was done. One of my big concerns was that we move quickly enough and that we move aggressively enough to get in front of this and minimize the damage we could do. If we took no action, the numbers would be catastrophic. I wanted to protect my community from what could have been, and what still could be, if we’re not careful. I wanted to protect my community. That was probably my biggest concern as a community member. We had to stop this before it got started. We couldn’t wait for this to get rolling then work from behind.
ON WHAT HE’S LEARNED: I took a lot of things for granted before. I’ve always tried to be a mindful person, but even at that, I took a ton of things for granted. The ability to just get together with friends and just enjoy a Saturday night. Every fourth of July, I always throw a big party. It’s always been fun, but I’ve always taken the ability to get all of my social circle to get everyone together in one place to have fun and enjoy fireworks [for granted]. I never really appreciated how special that was. In my profession, you learn very early how finite health and life is. And you have to accept that as a physician or it will eat you. At the same time, as a physician, I’ve coped with that by putting it in a detached place somewhere that I didn’t visit. So there are many nights when you lay there awake and you worry. You worry about what happens to your wife and your daughter when you don’t come home. You think about all of the things that you wanted to do and that you planned to do, but you might not have time to do, you might not have an opportunity to do with your family. There are things you still have
to teach your daughter. Those are some things that you learn about yourself when you’re in this situation.
ON ADVICE THAT’S HELPED HIM: One of my friends sent me this video from a World Health Organization official who had spent his entire career fighting Ebola in Africa. He said that if you wait, if you’re wondering if you’re making the right decision, then you’ve waited too long. You have to make a decision and do it. If it needs adjustment as you go then you adjust as you go. But you cannot hesitate or the virus will get ahead of you. That helped me, and it resonated with me. Even people who do this for a living for their entire career have doubts, but they select a course and they go forward. At night, sometimes I’ll wonder if I’m leading the right direction or if I’m making the right decisions. Then I think back to the advice not to hesitate but to choose a route forward and adjust as you go. That’s how I’ve been operating. Someone has to lead and someone has to take us forward. Through luck, that ended up falling on me. Here I am.
The guidelines for getting tested are to check yourself for fever, cough, or shortness of breath. If you find yourself with any of these symptoms, contact the triage center. It is located at 2424 W. Main St. in Russellville and can be reached by phone at 479-858-1117. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.