Q&A with Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Chantal A. Branco
Q. What is your title and position at Lehigh Valley Health Network-Cedar Crest?
A. I am director of patient care services and have been in this position for almost two years.
Q. How long have you been caring for COVID-19 patients?
A. Our first rule-out patient arrived in January. This was a patient who was suspected of having COVID-19 but did not have it.
Q. How did you prepare for the pandemic surge?
A. We had lots of meetings with the emergency preparedness team and infection control colleagues. In conjunction with my infection preventionist, all nurses, nursing support staff (technical partners) and other directors and physicians, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners were trained. There was a strict infection control plan from the beginning, and since we are a teaching hospital, training is continuous.
Q. What is different in treating a patient with COVID-19?
A. Ensuring we are wearing the proper protective equipment is the biggest and the most important thing. We wear N95 masks, surgical masks over that, eyewear, face shields, isolation gowns, which are fluid resistant, and two pairs of gloves. Our supply chain management team made sure we had an adequate supply of personal protection equipment for everyone. As the national picture changed, we looked at that closely, and the supply chain management team made sure we had a backup plan. I work in the intensive care unit. During the height of our surge, we were a dedicated COVID-19 unit. The busiest time caring for COVID-19 patients was the beginning of March through the end of May. My area, which has 12 beds, was full during that time. April was the toughest month for the network.
Q. What is the most difficult part of treating a patient with COVID-19?
A. These patients are in respiratory failure, and we treat them and take care of them every single day. Many of our patients do not get better. We are doing our regular work to take care of these patients, but many of the patients do not respond to the treatment. This is very disheartening to a health care provider.
Q. What toll has this pandemic taken on you, your family and other hospital staff?
A. I have young children at home, which has been my focus to make sure I did not get them sick. I ensure I’m wearing all of my protective equipment, and I change everything including shoes before I go home. I take a shower as soon as I get home before I interact with my family.
Everyone at the hospital is exhausted. We are running like crazy to take care of these patients. Once they get admitted, they are so lethargic that they need care. There are three COVID-19 units. During the height, we had five or six COVID-19 units. I am in intensive care, where the severely ill patients are.
Q. How do you help the patients in the hospital who are unable to have loved ones around them?
A. We use a lot of technology resources, so families can see their loved ones. We try to keep the families involved. It is difficult for the many patients who are on ventilators. Nurses usually take time twice a shift to update the primary contact on their loved one’s condition.
Q. How do you and other hospital staff de-stress?
A. Many of my staff are runners, so that may be a way for them to de-stress. We almost became a much stronger team because we went through this together. The support together is what kept our stress levels handled. For my family, we spent a lot of time taking walks, we got a puppy, and I did the best I could to distract them from the pandemic.
Q. When COVID-19 was at its highest, was hospital staff working additional hours?
A. Ninety-five percent of hospital shifts are 12 hours. We worked out a plan where we had teams of nurses, working three 12-hour shifts on alternate days, and we all worked many additional shifts and hours.
Q. Do you feel the appreciation the community has shown to first responders?
A. We see the signs around, which are appreciated. We were very aware it was happening as our senior leadership team made us aware of the parades and appreciation. Food and coffee would show up in our unit. You’ll never understand how much that has meant during this crisis.
Q. What can residents do to help prevent the spread of COVID-19?
A. Stay home, don’t go out if you don’t absolutely have to. This is not over yet. If you have to go out, wear your mask and wear it properly, which is over the nose and mouth. Don’t touch the front of the mask while you are wearing it. Put it on and leave it there. Sanitize your hands constantly. I think it is necessary to cover your eyes if you are in close proximity to someone who is not wearing a mask. It is a droplet organism that could get in your eyes.
I think people should know this about nurses and health care workers. We’re risking our lives every day coming to work, and regardless of political affiliations, this is a very real situation. The gatherings and not wearing a mask is really just a blatant disrespect for health care workers who have been working harder than they have ever worked in their entire lives for the last four to five months.
Support your fellow health care workers. With the flu season, which is usually our busiest time of the year, and COVID-19, it will be very unpredictable as we head into the fall.