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Heroes in Hindsight: Looking back at some of the people who made a difference in 2020

Dr. Jeremy Leidenfrost and St. Luke’s ECMO team.

There’s no denying that 2020 was a more than difficult year, and yet, in the midst of all its challenges, heroes emerged. 

Each of us have heard stories of students who volunteered to make personal protective equipment (PPE), teachers who pivoted more than once to ensure that virtual learning was all that it could be, and  healthcare workers who geared up in layers of PPE and worked exhausting shifts to care for COVID-19 patients. We wish we could share every one of those stories, but space is limited. 

What’s not limited is our gratitude. So, as we look back across 2020, we wanted to share just a few stories of front line workers – and say thanks to all the heroes making a difference every day.

• • •

“As everyone can attest to, it’s been kind of a crazy year, kind of a learn as you go year,” said Joe Woodrome, who works nights as an emergency services technician at SSM St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles. “ It’s been hectic, but I try to keep a positive attitude.”

Joe Woodrome

The surge of patients coming into the ER in 2020 has made his job “stressful at times.”

“I have a plethora of things that I do,” Woodrome explained. “I work as an EMT right now, soon to be a paramedic in the emergency department and I’ll assist with triaging patients and assessing their level of acuity.”

One of the most important aspects of his job he said is to be reassuring. 

“Usually it’s the worse day of their life when (patients) have to come to the ER. I try to let them know that they’re in good hands,” Woodrome said. 

With the unexpected nature of the COVID-19 virus, reassurance hasn’t always been easy. 

“There’s some happy stories. There’s some sad stories,” Woodrome said. He reflected on one elderly gentleman who was coming close to the end of his life. “He lives by himself at home and was concerned for his family and very aware that it was coming closer to his time. So, he came to the emergency department. It was really touching because we haven’t been allowing visitors into the ER, except in extreme cases, of course, so in a way we were like his family.”

Woodrome said the gentleman shared stories of his life, which proved to be a good lesson. 

“It’s good to remember that patients aren’t just a name, or a face, or a room number. People have stories and lives,” Woodrome said. He said getting to know those stories and the people who have lived them helps to reassure him that he went into the right profession. 

• • •

Jenna Manoli, RN, works on the fourth floor at SSM St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles, which formerly housed the hospital’s cardiac telemetry unit. 

Jenna Manoli

“Since March, we’ve been turned into the COVID unit so we have been solely taking care of COVID patients,” Manoli said. “It has been kind of a rollercoaster. 

“Some of our patients have little to no symptoms but need a little bit of oxygen; others require more care.” She paused to collect her thoughts. At the end of a long shift, she was no doubt tired but you could hear a well of emotion just below the surface of her words. 

“Sorry,” she said. “I have a lot of thoughts running through my head. It’s been hard, honestly. You see these patients come in and you hear their stories, you talk to their family members, you hear their concerns and then, when they have a status change, you see them gasping for air. 

“There’s been more times, being on the COVID unit, when we’re putting our patients into body bags, which is quite different than what we were doing whenever we were the cardiac telemetry floor. Nine times out of 10, you could manage the care of (cardiac patients) but with COVID, there are times when it almost seems like its out of your hands. The virus just takes over.”

Hope, she said, is critical and so, she shares the story of her grandmother who spent 14 months in the tuberculosis unit of a hospital “back in the day.” The story has a hopeful, happy ending. 

“She actually met my grandfather there,” Manoli explained. “He was there for 17 months. Once they were both released, they ended up getting married and having six kids. I think that’s a glimmer of hope, so I like to share that story with my patients.”

She said she also has hope for a vaccine, but precautions will still be necessary. Her best advice is to “continue to mask up and keep your hands out of your eyes and nose … and practice social distancing.” 

A nurse for 2.5 years, Manoli has a toddler who just turned two, which can make those long shifts seem even longer. 

“Sometimes I’m at the hospital for 15 or 16 hours at a time,” she said. “But I wouldn’t trade what I do.”

She said she and her co-workers (“who are awesome”) make it through those long shifts by frequently checking on each other in terms of tasking but also their state of mind. “Candy helps too,” she said. 

• • •

Katie Johns, RN, has worked in St. Luke’s ICU for five years. Like Manoli, she has been on the front line of the COVID-19 response. And like her colleagues in hospitals across the country she has gone to extreme measures to bring her patients and their families compassion alongside critical care. 

This past October, Johns was caring for a patient with COVID-19 who had to have life support removed. Afterward, the patient’s wife notified St. Luke’s that Johns had “moved mountains” to help the patient’s wife be able to say her last goodbyes. It was not an easy task since the wife had also tested positive for COVID-19. 

“Her kindness and compassion during this was above and beyond any I have known,” the wife wrote of Johns. “She explained everything that was going on and expressed sorrow for my ordeal. She stayed with me as I watched his life ebb away.” 

• • •

For the wife of a BJC St. Peters patient, it was the kindness of an ICU nurse named LeeAnn that stood out and made the unthinkable bearable. 

“I would call every day and all of the nurses were very nice but LeeAnn just stood out,” the patient’s wife wrote in a note to the hospital. She noted that her husband entered the hospital’s hospice program on Oct. 8, and then she and one other family member could visit him, suited up in full PPE. 

“My grandson and I went in and my daughter and granddaughter stood outside the glass wall/door of his room. LeeAnn was there since she works days. I can’t tell you what a blessing to us she was,” the wife wrote. “She helped my grandson and me suit up; she comforted and answered questions for my daughter and granddaughter. Once they took him off the ventilator, she never left his room, always talking to me for the 20 minutes that he lived.

“She treated us like family.”

• • •

“It’s been a heck of a year. Everyone can agree to that, but hopefully at some point soon (the pandemic) will be coming to a close. I think there’s an end in sight,” Woodrome said. “Researchers are advancing COVID-19 vaccines and we know more about the virus and how to treat it. We’ve learned a lot this year and hopefully going into 2021, we’ll be able to be more prepared for any influxes (of COVID-19 cases).”

Still, going into 2021, Woodrome said it’s important to remember that Jan. 1 isn’t going to look much different than Dec. 31. He and Manoli stressed the importance of good hand washing, wearing a mask in public, keeping gatherings small and avoiding hand to face contact. 

Perhaps for 2021, Woodrome has the best resolution of all: “Take care of your people, help others when you can and try to keep yourself and other people safe.”

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