When Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center went into surge mode at the end of November, many medical specialists were required to change their roles to help care for the growing number of COVID patients.
Even hospital staff who have kept the same positions as before had to start dealing with new pandemic-related challenges in their day-to-day jobs.
Kodiak natives Zoya Herrnsteen and Ella Saltonstall, twin sisters who both work in the health care industry, have taken these changes in stride. They have learned to deal with the daily challenges brought by the pandemic.
Herrnsteen is a physical therapist who now acts as a nurse extender by helping nurses care for residents at the Chiniak Elder House.
“This has given me a chance to get to know the elders as well as the staff, and really see how everything works,” Herrnsteen said. “There is nothing like walking in someone else’s footsteps.”
As a nurse extender, she brings residents their food, helps them go to the bathroom, answers call lights and goes for walks with them when they are not restricted to their rooms.
In her new role, which is expected to last until the hospital is no longer in surge mode, Herrnsteen uses her past experience as a doula — where she supported women and their partners during labor — to comfort residents as they experience the pandemic away from their families.
“A part of my job is to be there and give them support and let them know that we are there with them,” she said.
Although she loves her new role, Herrnsteen has increased her hours at work and has to wear numerous layers of protective gear.
She works 50 hours a week, compared to her previous 20 to 30 hours. Her schedule has shifted to the late afternoon and runs through the night. Her children have had to get used to seeing her during her dinner break before they go to bed.
Like other frontline workers, Herrnsteen spends hours wearing personal protective equipment, which can get hot and sweaty.
“With the CNA work, we are all in N-95 masks, (face) shields, plastic gowns,” Herrnsteen said, adding that “there are times when the face shield fogs up and the gown is sticking to my arms.”
Despite these challenges, she said she has fun with the residents and staff.
“For me, it’s been getting to know this whole incredible group of people in the Elder House, the staff and residents,” she said. “We have fun, we laugh, we work hard together.”
Herrnsteen’s sister Ella Saltonstall also works at the hospital. Although she has retained her regular job as a speech therapist during the hospital’s surge period, COVID-19 has posed significant challenges to how she conducts her work.
Saltonstall wears a face mask with her non-COVID patients. When she works with patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, she wears shoe and hair covers, a gown, double-layered gloves, an N-95 mask and a face shield.
The added layers of PPE, while important for keeping the virus from spreading, has made it difficult to communicate mouth and tongue movement to patients. During a typical swallow evaluation, she has patients mimic her actions to assess their function, but with masks on, this task becomes almost impossible.
“The whole essence of what we do as speech therapists, a lot of focus on communication has been robbed from us because people can’t even see our mouths,” Saltonstall said. “You can’t convey those basic actions you need people to do for articulation therapy.”
Adding to the difficulty is the noise from fans in the negative-pressure rooms on the hospital’s COVID-19 floor, which makes hearing difficult.
“Basically, my job becomes a lot harder because they can’t see you and they can’t hear you,” Saltonstall said, adding that she now relies heavily on whiteboards to help her communicate to patients.
She is also acutely aware of her risk of contracting the virus when she works on the hospital’s third floor, which houses the COVID patients.
“The nature of my job is like any of the providers on the third floor going into COVID rooms and doing what needs to be done,” she said. “They are amazing. Everyone on the third floor is phenomenal.”
As frontline health care workers, Saltonstall and Herrnsteen have already received their first doses of the COVID vaccine. They will receive their booster doses in early January.
The sisters — who have kept their social bubbles small, wear double masks when going to the store and practice social distancing — said they were excited to be vaccinated.
Herrnsteen and Saltonstall both said they felt comfortable getting their shots because of the number of participants in the clinical trials and how effective the vaccine has proven to be.
Moderna, one of the biotech companies whose vaccines are being distributed, is reported to have enrolled 30,000 patients for its clinical trials, which showed it to be 95% effective against COVID-19.
Both sisters said that even after receiving their second doses, they plan to continue wearing PPE and masks because it is still unknown to what extent the vaccine protects against asymptomatic transmission.
However, they remain excited at the prospect of eventually being able to spend time with each other indoors.
“You and I haven’t hung out inside a house (together) since March,” Herrnsteen said to her sister during the interview. “We’ve kept our bubbles completely separate, we’ve gone on walks but I’m looking to hang out on each other’s couches again.”