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Volunteer Voices: The Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

The fight against COVID-19 is filled with heroes. But some workers on the front lines don’t always get the credit they deserve. Read the latest dispatch from a Project HOPE volunteer nurse deployed to Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico.

By Steve Bronson – Project HOPE Volunteer

At the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, we are the end of the line for many, with the resources, equipment, research, and support systems to deliver world-class care. Here at Northern Navajo Medical Center, it’s quite the opposite. The budget is much smaller. They have to make do with what they can, using resources and processes that can be much older.

Much of America relies on facilities like these. I was watching a national morning news program before work a few days ago and heard an infectious disease doctor speak about the potential of overstressing our medical systems — not in our big cities, but our smaller communities. These are places like NNMC that don’t normally see the volume and acuity that is occurring now. He was worried that we will overtax our system and burn out our frontline staff with long shifts, mandatory overtime, illness, and just an overall lack of resource availability.

I know NNMC has experienced this, having battled this pandemic since late February. The Navajo Nation has taken some extreme steps to shut down the spread of COVID-19, and, from what I can see, they have responded well. Currently, the Nation has been on a mandatory 54-hour curfew for the past three weekends. No businesses are open. You are required to shelter in place, and they have checkpoints stopping any travel. I’m required to have my badge with me, and I carry a letter explaining my role and the need for me to be traveling for work in case I get pulled over or pass a checkpoint.

The Navajo Nation has taken some extreme steps to shut down the spread of COVID-19, and, from what I can see, they have responded well.

– Steven Bronson

Amid all these precautions, I want to recognize a group of people who don’t often get recognized. They have to gown up just as much as the RN’s, layering themselves in PPE all day long so they can spend time in patients’ rooms and potentially expose themselves to this virus. As in many parts of our society, they go unseen, or even worse, unnoticed, going about fulfilling their responsibilities.

I’m talking about the medical assistants, housekeepers, unit supervisors, phlebotomists, and support staff who keep the system running. Without their efforts, delivering care at the bedside would be much more difficult and precarious.

Whether a facility is big or small, at its core it’s the same: a group of individuals, banded together, to do the best job they can taking care of their fellow community members.

Who are these people?

collage of medical staff in facemasks
A few of the frontline health workers at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, New Mexico. Photo by Steve Bronson.

A new medical assistant from Shiprock. A number of experienced long-term staff from the reservation. A new grad from Northern Arizona. Transplants from Tennessee, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Hawaii — even the Philippines. Some are Navajo, some mixed tribal, and some have no historical connection to the Nation. But one thing they all have in common: a desire to be here, helping their community.

Over and over, I’ve heard the same message sprinkled throughout my conversations: “I’m so appreciative to be here.”

Over and over, I’ve heard the same message sprinkled throughout my conversations: “I’m so appreciative to be here.”

That’s one of the things that always moves me — sharing this moment with professionals who want to be where they are, taking care of others. Smart, dedicated folks committed to the cause.

This afternoon I heard on the overhead paging system: “Discharge party – PACU – in ten minutes.” One of the staff who had contracted COVID-19 was being discharged from the hospital. Over 30 people gathered to cheer, encourage, and congratulate this young woman on beating this virus. They were staff on duty, volunteers helping at the hospital, and even staff who came in on their day off. Thirty people, clapping and singing to a song many of us know so well:

Celebrate good times, come on! 
Celebrate good times, come on! 

And then, later that day, we discharged four more patients home.

Steve Bronson is a Registered Nurse from Seattle, Washington, and a Project HOPE volunteer. He is deployed to Shiprock, New Mexico, where he is supporting the Indian Health Service at Northern Navajo Medical Center.

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