According to Webster, the definition of a hero is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” These attributes certainly can be applied to the health care team, but especially to those on the front line during the COVID 19 pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, a lot of attention has been given to healthcare workers including parades, recognitions, and naming them heroes. This attention is well deserved and long overdue!  For this blog, I wanted to focus on the front line and I looked for a variety of healthcare heroes from different facets of healthcare. To a person, when I interviewed them, I heard, “But I’m not a hero, I’m just doing my job.” My response was, “but to us, you are a hero. I’m not sure what we would have done without you.”

So the following are the seven people I identified through various means, and was able to talk with about what their experiences have been:

Leah Overcash, RN

Leah is a Rowan Original, born and raised in Salisbury. She attended North Rowan High School and then went to Mercy School of Nursing in Charlotte getting an Associate’s Degree in Nursing. Graduating in 1995, Leah initially couldn’t find a hospital opportunity so she spent a year as a nurse in a nursing home, before joining Presbyterian Medical Center as a medical surgical nurse. Three years later Leah found her love as an Emergency Department nurse at Rowan Regional Medical Center where she has been for over 20 years. Leah really enjoys her work family and also being close to her own family, most of whom live in Rowan County.

As the charge nurse in the ED, Leah was in the trenches when COVID hit. She says in her 25 year career it was the hardest time she could remember. First, there was the shortage of personal protective equipment (gowns, gloves, masks) and trying to work through solutions. Then came the fluctuating ED volumes and trying to segregate those with COVID symptoms from the other routine ED patients. Then, between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2020, Leah says “the ED and the entire hospital became totally saturated with COVID patients, and it was very overwhelming.”  She said she often went home in tears feeling as if she had worked as hard as possible and still people were getting sick and dying. Coupled with that was another heartbreaking blow. Leah’s son Charlie was a high school senior and missed having a graduation, prom, his senior year of baseball, and his first year of in-person college at Appalachian as a result of the COVID shutdowns. Leah says, as a mother, “that was the worst part of all – and he will never get those times back.”  Leah also has a 29 year old stepson, Colton.

Prior to the vaccine becoming available, Leah and her husband, who is a paramedic, contracted COVID. Fortunately they weathered it well, and other than feeling lousy, recovered. I asked Leah if it was scary being on the front lines. “Not scary, just concerning and worried if it was ever going away,” she replied. One of the things that got her and her team through the darkest days was the support from the community with meals for the healthcare team, and demonstrations of support. “I love being a nurse, and when asked if I could go back and start over, ‘would I do it again?’, the answer is YES!” As a charge nurse in the ED, Leah has supervisory responsibilities, but also continues to perform direct patient care, often taking a patient care assignment. She says the best part of her career is getting to be a nurse in her home town hospital. And that is the best part for Rowan County, too!

Dr. Mitch Seigel, DDS

Dr. Seigel  is a dentist who stepped up early during the COVID pandemic and helped the Community Care Clinic of Rowan keep the dental services going. Initially, dental services were shut down during the early months of the pandemic and during that time Dr. Susan Muth who had been serving the CCC of Rowan as the primary dentist had a baby and went on maternity leave. When dental clinics were allowed to resume, she found herself with a newborn and another small child and unable to risk returning to a clinical setting. In stepped Dr. Mitch Seigel, who had been working part time to help fill in. Dr. Seigel, in spite of being 73 and having diabetes, both of which put him in a high risk category, showed tremendous courage by showing up every dental clinic morning at 7:30 and addressed not only the backlog of dental patients but also those calling with urgent needs.

Dr. Seigel came to Salisbury in 1994 via a position with the VA Medical Center doing geriatric dentistry. He joined the CCC of Rowan part time in January of 2016, initially in a volunteer capacity. Dr. Seigel has had a fascinating career, beginning his undergraduate training at California State College and completing dental school in 1970 at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He attained a Fellowship in Geriatric Dentistry as well as a 2 year hospital residency .  He began practice in a small town in Iowa, and in 1990 returned to academia at the University of Nebraska where he taught. He then moved to the Bronx , New York to serve as Chief of Dentistry at Jacobi Hospital. Eventually he returned to Omaha where he took a position with the VA as a Geriatric Dentist, and through the VA system found his way to Salisbury. Dr. Seigel is also retired military, having served as a Dentist in the Army Reserves from 1995-2011. He married in 1976 and has two grown children, Noah and Mahalia, and 3 grandchildren.

When asked what it is like to provide dental care for the CCC, Dr. Seigel shared that he is blessed to have an opportunity to care for people that no one else will care for due to their inability to pay. He stated, “the patients are so tremendously grateful and thankful to be able to access dental care. Many come to us from the Emergency Department and we see a wide range of dental neglect, abscesses, growths in the mouth, or lost teeth due to injury. Our goal is to provide them a chewing platform, and to be able to restore a patient’s sense of personal self-worth, and ability to eat and smile.” Thanks to grants and donations, the Community Care Clinic of Rowan can provide this service. Dr. Seigel was quick to brag on the terrific team of CCC including hygienist Lori Graber, and an associate dentist Dr. Brad Leslie. But yes, Dr. Seigel, you are a hero!

Ashley Brooks, RN, BSN

Born and raised in Anson County, Ashley moved to Rowan County in 2017 when she took a position with the Rowan Public Health Department. She graduated from Wingate University with a BS in Nursing in 2015 and initially took a job in Labor and Delivery before moving to Rowan. Before Covid, Ashley worked in the Family Health Clinic of the Health Department focusing on preventive health, immunizations, sexually transmitted diseases and other facets of community health. When COVID hit, her world turned upside down, and she was assigned to the newly created COVID Center of the Rowan Health Department. As a part of the COVID Center, she was tasked with reviewing daily COVID cases and outbreaks, and reporting to the State of North Carolina, serving as the Health Department liaison to congregant living facilities such as long term care, skilled living, group homes and senior living communities – the very places that the pandemic hit the hardest. She was also tasked with serving as a liaison to the public schools and helping with the community vaccine clinics. Transitioning roles suddenly was very hard, and involved an enormous amount of working hours, including weekends and holidays. It even included working “after hours” at home after putting her then 11 month old, Jackson, to bed, inputting data in the COVID computer tracking system.

But when asked about the hardest part of the pandemic, Ashley tearily said, “Reviewing the deaths and reading the medical record – the notes leading up  to death. It was very emotional reading what the patient and their families went through. That was the worst.” Part of Ashley’s job was to review the records of every Rowan County death and input the required data fields – a sobering responsibility for a young nurse. Ashley’s work has been lauded in the community by senior living center teams. According to Bill Johnson of Trinity Oaks, “Ashley was a God-send during the pandemic. She helped us so much to understand and interpret the rules, and to help upset families also understand why they couldn’t visit their loved ones. She is an angel.”

The most rewarding part  Ashley’s career is happening now as she feels we are “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. All our hard work is paying off.” The number of positive COVID tests continues to decline. Thinking back, however, Ashely says she will never forget those days when we were seeing 100-200 positives a day, and everyone was totally overwhelmed. “I thought it was never going to end. At one point it kept getting worse and worse, with no end in sight.”  Now she spends a lot of time trying to educate the community about the importance of the COVID vaccine, and dispelling the ridiculous myths she sees in social media. Thanks for hanging in there, Ashley, and for all you have done for Rowan County during the pandemic.

Ashley Lombard, RT

Born and raised in Salisbury, Ashley is another true Rowan Original. After graduating from West Rowan High School, she attended Stanley Tech and became a Respiratory Therapist. She joined Rowan Medical Center and has worked there for 19 years. Respiratory Therapists have been front and center during the COVID pandemic because they are the ones who manage the ventilators and other airway needs of the sickest patients. In talking with Ashley, she recounted that it has been “a long 15 months – not knowing what to expect or if it was going to get worse or better. It was absolutely exhausting.” She is honest about what we have heard across the nation- no one knew how to treat COVID, and we had to learn as we went. “What would work for one patient might not work for another, and it was very frustrating.” She says the hardest part was the emotional toll the illness took on families who were not able to be with their loved ones when they were sick and dying. She says it was so painful to be the one to hold the patient’s hand as they died or to hold the iPad while they said their final goodbyes to their family. Sometimes this would happen several times during a shift. She remembers her worst day ever as one in late September 2020 when six people died on her shift. She says that really put her at a breaking point.

When asked if she was ever frightened, she said she was not personally afraid but was afraid of taking COVID home to her family. Both Ashley and her husband, who is a deputy sheriff were essential workers but also had a 6 year old and 17 year old at home trying to home school, help with cooking and cleaning, laundry and keep things going. She says, “my 17 year old had to grow up too fast during all of that.” Ashley did all the grocery shopping, too fearful to allow her parents or her pregnant sister to go out into the community. “Sometimes I would work 60 to 80 hours in a week and then try to be a mother. It was hard.”  Ashley says that Rowan Medical Center was very fortunate to have enough personal protective equipment and to be able to weather the pandemic as well as they did. She and her husband are vaccinated, and she believes the vaccine has helped to slow down the pandemic and to help those who contract it have less severe illness. She encourages everyone to get the vaccine and says even her 6 year old will try to educate others on its importance. Thank you for being our hero, Ashley. We are so fortunate you are part of Rowan.

Cathy Teat, Pharm D

At the Community Care Clinic of Rowan, Cathy Teat has been instrumental in helping the CCC patients through the COVID pandemic. From being a part of the team that had to answer questions and coordinate testing to handling the vaccine strategy from procurement to storage, refrigeration and administration, Cathy has truly been a champion. Originally from Selma, NC, Cathy received her doctorate in pharmacy from Campbell University in 1999 and moved to Concord in 2000 with her husband, who is also a pharmacist. She initially worked part time in Albemarle at an independent pharmacy but was recruited to CCC by a fellow Campbell alumni and then pharmacist at CCC. Cathy began filling in at CCC in 2014 and came on board full time in 2015. She has a college age child, Braden, who just finished her first year at Western Carolina. When discussing the COVID pandemic Cathy says the thing that stood out the most to her was the loss of contact with the patients. “My role normally includes a lot of patient contact with providing education about medications and drug interactions, and when the shutdown occurred, the interaction with patients was very limited.”  Now, she is extremely happy to once again be able to interact with patients, a role she cherishes. Observing her in the clinical setting, it is amazing to watch her connect with patients, their love for her and her care for them. The CCC has a small and efficient staff, and really sing the praises of Cathy Teat, their hero.

 

Neil Patel, MD

I was able to grab a few minutes with Dr. Patel who was on duty at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center as the Intensivist overseeing the care of patients in the Intensive Care Units. Dr. Patel was certainly on the front line during the COVID pandemic, and continues to see patients with COVID. When asked what has been the most challenging part of working through the pandemic, Dr. Patel stated, “Seeing people struggle for such a long time with the illness, and watching what their families go through. Many families have had multiple people die of COVID, and it is just horrible to watch.” Dr. Patel says he is still seeing COVID patients come into the hospital but it has slowed down considerably. He says that now the patients are much younger, but many are still requiring life saving measures such as breathing tubes. He says his biggest frustration is vaccine hesitancy, and continues to try to educate people about the importance of getting the COVID vaccine.

Dr. Patel was born and raised in Charlotte, NC and attended Independence High School. He got an undergraduate degree from UNC Chapel Hill in 1989, and also attended medical school there finishing in 1992. He then completed an internal medicine residency at the University of Iowa, and went on to complete a Fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Iowa. Fortunately for us, he came to Rowan County when he finished his fellowship and joined Rowan Diagnostic Clinic where he continues to practice. He has served in many leadership positions at Rowan Medical Center including terms as Chief of the Medical Staff, Medical Director for Respiratory Care, Medical Director of Critical Care, and is now serving a dual role as a Pulmonologist (lungs) and an Intensivist (Critical Care) where he completes 24 hour shifts looking after critically ill patients. Dr. Patel is married, and has two grown children, Max and Anna and lives in Rowan County. Hopefully we won’t need his services but we are lucky he is there if we do.

Charles de Comarmond, MD

Catching up with Dr. de Comarmond at the Bill Hefner VA Medical Center was a real learning experience in a “behind the scenes” view of managing a pandemic. As the Associate Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, not only was Dr. de Comarmond instrumental in the Salisbury VA response to COVID 19, but also managed the response for a 6 hospital VA district across North Carolina and Virginia, and with some very impressive outcomes. Dr. de Comarmond was born and grew up in the Seychelles (island country off the east coast of Africa), and went to medical school in Europe before coming to the United States for his medical residency. His residency was in internal medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, followed by a Fellowship in Infectious Disease at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Upon completing his Fellowship, he stayed on with WFBMC as a faculty member and head of a Hepatitis C clinic. In 2005 he joined the VA as an infectious disease physician located in Salisbury, and in 2008 he became Chief of Medicine and Infectious Disease. His wife is also a Pathologist with the Hefner VA, and he has a son, Mathias who just graduated from Duke. He lives in Salisbury and loves the area.

In recounting the evolution of the COVID pandemic and VA response, I was impressed with the readiness of the VA to address a respiratory pandemic. The VA had modeled potential responses based on the H1N1 flu, SARS, and Ebola – all airborne illnesses.  He discussed the initial responses of his team, followed by his 6 hospitals coordinated response, finally culminating in the VHA nationwide incident command strategy. He said that education of the staff and constant updates and trainings were a key to success for the VA, which approached the pandemic like a national disaster.  “Initially, every clinic was shut down, then we went to virtual visits, and initiated a very ‘common sense’ infection control strategy including masking and handwashing. There was a total cultural transformation in just a couple of weeks,” commented de Cormarmond.  Most remarkable was the effort he led to initiate the “fourth mission” of the VHA. While the VHA (of which the Hefner VA is a part) focuses on Veterans Healthcare, Veterans Benefits, and National Cemeteries as the first three missions, the fourth mission is “to improve the Nation’s preparedness for response to war, terrorism, national emergencies and natural disasters by developing plans and taking actions to ensure continuous service to veterans, as well as support national, state and local emergency management, public health, safety and homeland security efforts.” (VA.gov)

This fourth mission came into play early in the pandemic when skilled nursing facilities became hotbeds for the pandemic. On April 4, 2020 positive COVID cases appeared at several skilled nursing facilities in Salisbury, including the State Veterans Home. While not owned or operated by the VA system, the State Veterans Home, operated by Pruitt Health is a location for veterans. That was enough for de Cormarmond to step in and offer help. He gathered an infection prevention team, and assisted the State Veterans Home with guidance, new policies and procedures, setting up of isolation units and negative pressure units, and the provision of personal protective equipment which was, at that point, in shortage. Most impressive, de Cormarmond’s team physically rounded at the State Veteran’s Home three days a week, which included Sundays, and continued this for 10 weeks to assure that all possible measures were implemented and spread was under control. As a result the State Veteran’s Home had one of the lowest infection and death rates of skilled nursing facilities. Lives were saved by this action.

Additionally, de Cormarmond devised a temporary shield for use with patients undergoing procedures in order to prevent aerosol spread. The engineering department of the VA produced the device based on his drawings, which served well until more refined solutions were available with the arrival of more protective equipment. Drive through testing was implemented early, based on a previous drill including the Rowan County Health Department and American Red Cross. This preparation paid off with the VA being able to quickly set up drive through testing and eventually drive through vaccinations. During the pandemic, Dr. de Cormamond says he read the book, The Great Influenza, by John Barry and was astounded by the similarities in the 1918 pandemic and the COVID 19 pandemic. A pandemic is like the Superbowl for an infectious disease practitioner, who trains his entire career for such an event. Dr. de Cormamond, Tom Brady has nothing on you as you stepped up big time as a healthcare hero!

 

Thanks to all our Rowan County healthcare heroes for your service during the COVID pandemic and every day. You make Rowan County a better place to live!