By Chris Barber, St. Bernards Healthcare
The year 2020 has reached unprecedented heights from a modern health perspective. With tens of thousands of COVID-19 infections across Arkansas and millions of cases nationwide, this global pandemic has forever changed our country. It has taken and threatened our loved ones, forced difficult medical and business decisions and heightened anxieties related to isolation and spread.
COVID-19’s impact does not fall into hyperbole. Future generations will study this virus based on our readiness and response, gleaning valuable health care and economic safeguards from our experiences. While they will learn much from what has gone wrong, they will also learn what we have done right.
One of my heroes, Abraham Lincoln, once said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” Like Lincoln, I choose to focus on the roses blooming from 2020’s thorn bushes.
First, we celebrate knowing we can still work together. At St. Bernards, our relationships stand strong. We rely upon every level of government — city, county, state and federal — for support. If any of these separated powers fail, our health care system fails. As is often the case, our elected and appointed officials have availed themselves and their agencies, assisting to provide a safe and socially distanced public environment. Furthermore, through extensive COVID-19 research, funding and testing support, they have ensured that health care remains a top priority throughout our country.
Within the health care community, we have seen an unprecedented coalescence of partnerships dedicated to fight COVID-19. Health care providers, ranging from small, independent providers to our largest health care systems, have jointly ensured that no person goes without care and our individuals caring for them are protected. In addition, through the work of the hospital association, local organizations and volunteers, vital information disseminates and critical funding assures providers’ most vulnerable components, such as PPE supplies and testing kits. We must keep these partnerships healthy and active because they serve collaborative functions essential to future successes.
Secondly, we give thanks for effective tools that, if widely adopted, can reduce virus transmissions. Facial coverings — or masks — used in conjunction with social distancing and good hygiene serve as our best tools to combat COVID-19 spread for the near future.
With about 6 percent of Arkansas’ COVID-19 cases attributed to health care workers, we know our team members are particularly vulnerable to virus exposure. At our flagship facility, St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro, we implemented universal masking, COVID-19 screening and social distancing requirements months ago. Doing so has added protective layers to each individual entering our hospital while also greatly limiting exposure risks.
The saying is true: “I wear my mask to protect you.” Wearing a mask is a simple and effective gesture that we care for one another.
Thirdly, we quickly learned that telemedicine and other virtual practices have unlimited possibilities. Prior to COVID-19’s presence in Arkansas, we launched a publicly available telemedicine service, St. Bernards Go, to save patients an unnecessary urgent care visit. We did not know the service would organically thrive in a looming socially distanced environment.
Upon COVID-19’s arrival, we retooled St. Bernards Go as a free virus screener, giving sick individuals face-to-face interactions with a physician or APRN. Our providers, in turn, could prescribe care or recommend the individual come to a designated facility for testing and hands-on care.
St. Bernards Go also carries a vital mental health function. During a time of shuttered health care services, social distancing, quarantine and isolation, St. Bernards Go allowed our mental health providers to connect with new and established patients without fear of virus transmission or canceled appointments. We believe the service will only expand its usefulness in meeting patients where they are.
Fourthly and finally, St. Bernards celebrated its 120th anniversary in July. Our health care system began during a regional malarial fever epidemic, continuing 120 years later during a global pandemic. Throughout this year, our team members have encountered physical, mental and economic stressors, only to emerge stronger and more resilient in our mission of providing Christ-like healing to the community.
I recall the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when an EF-3 tornado ripped through the heart of Jonesboro, leaving 22 people injured and millions of dollars in damage. It was Saturday, and every employee had worked long hours that week. When I arrived at the hospital, our team members and physicians rapidly began pouring into the facility, an overwhelming response in a time of need. Thankfully, we had no loss of life that night, and I offer thanks for our individuals dedicated to provide care to all who need it across a 23-county area in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri. They provide the foundation of St. Bernards’ 120-year service history.
Many more roses will bloom from 2020’s thorns. We may not see them initially, but buds will flower. Our choice is whether to complain or rejoice.
Chris Barber, FACHE, is president and CEO of St. Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro.