‘These heroes persevered’

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Photos by Josh Fisher / For the Opelika Observer

By Hannah Lester
hlester@opelikaobserver.com

There are those who walked away from East Alabama Medical Center after surviving COVID-19 and there are those who took their final breaths behind the doors.

EAMC held a remembrance event on the front lawn to honor those the community lost over the last year due to COVID-19.

“I can certainly say this has been one of the most devastating and heartbreaking things that any of us have ever experienced,” said Laura Grill, EAMC president and CEO. “So many lives have been impacted. So many stories of tragedy and triumph and bravery and perseverance.”

Many families came and went at EAMC but the nurses, and the doctors, of the medical center returned each day to do their job, and do it despite the tears and pain.

“These heroes persevered, they fought the good fight day after day, week after week and month after month after month,” said Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller.

Wendy Morgan, a respiratory therapist in the ICU, said she was originally skeptical of the dangers of COVID-19, but soon realized how deadly the pandemic would become.

“To sit down, recall all that has happened this past year, all that we have seen and experienced, all the many roles we’ve played, all the changes we’ve made, the sacrifices, the tears we’ve cried, the hands we’ve held, the laughter, the joy, the moments of immense tragedy and elevated celebration, the things that we’ve learned, practices that we’ve changed, all the scrub hats worn, all the bonds we’ve formed,” said Courtney Sutton, a RN in the ICU.

Morgan credited the leadership at EAMC to educating employees for the seriousness of the disease.

Dr. Ricardo Maldonado, EAMC’s infectious disease specialist, said he was often checking in on his employees, making sure they were taking care of themselves and taking breaks.

“They would ask me when I would take a break,” he said. “But my answer was always the same. My answer was, ‘don’t worry about me. I was trained for this.’”

One day, Maldonado was asked if he had actually trained for this — a global pandemic. And he said, no, no one was truly trained for COVID-19.

“I knew from the very beginning that COVID-19 would test me as a human being, not only as a physician,” he said.

Fuller said that there were times his faith was tested over the past year in a pandemic. Sutton said quite the opposite.

“It was in these moments, it was in this year I found myself closer to Jesus and growing in my faith, possibly more than ever before,” she said. “And I would venture to say a lot of my ICU family can say the same.”

EAMC is a family, Sutton said.

A family that was tested, but triumphed. The EAMC staff became family to patients who could not see their loved ones due to restrictions.

“In this year, death and dying has not looked like it ever has before,” Sutton said. “This is where it gets harder. As a nurse in the ICU, we train to try to save a life, and when we can’t, we do all that we can to make passing from this life bearable. Without pain or struggle, and allowing the patient this time with their family that is dignified without chaos. That offers some sense of closure hopefully.

“These moments were difficult to create this year. In the beginning, as the patient was dying, we could be the only ones present with them.”

Morgan said that they hold onto all the hope they could, but there came a point when they knew a patient would not make it.

“When all hope was gone and we realized that another sweet soul would transition from this world to the next, we turned our focus to the comfort and dignity of our patients,” she said. “They would not die alone … We held their hands, we talked, we sang, we prayed and when their journey was complete, we cried.”

When patients did complete their journey, they left behind family members.

Maggie Lawrence’s husband, Johnny Lawrence, passed from COVID-19 in July 2020.

“2020, it left scars on each of us,” Maggie said. “And for some of us, they are not scars. They are, but rather open, gaping wounds on our souls that are not visible to the eyes of others. That is me, that is my daughter.”

Johnny was active in the community — as a Lee County Commissioner and former city of Auburn fire fighter.

“I want you to now that my family believed with all of our hearts that everyone involved in Johnny’s care were doing everything possible to restore his health and send him home to us,” Maggie said. “My faith in your skill and care was strong in July as you helped him fight this terrible disease. It remains strong today in each of you and your commitment to your patients.”

Maggie said that if Johnny were still here, he would have asked each of the doctors and nurses to reflect and take time for themselves.

“He would not talk to you about protocols and procedures,” she said. “He would ask you these questions: ‘How are you doing? Is it well with your soul? Are you practicing mindfulness and self care?’ Johnny understood intimately how the challenges of patient care can devastate someone’s mental well-being.”

But there were those who could stand at EAMC, *healed from COVID-19 and thank the staff themselves like State Senator Randy Price.

Price was hospitalized in 2020 with COVID-19 and many wondered if he would leave EAMC healthy.

“I owe so many thanks to so many people that are standing here and behind me and out front,” he said. “ … I was one of the fortunate ones because I survived, but it was not without a fight. But a fight that I did not fight by myself, but with the warriors right here at this hospital. The doctors, the nurses, the support staff and most importantly, God.”

Throughout the year, not only did EAMC support the community, but the community supported EAMC. There were many restaurants and businesses who donated food to EAMC, especially during the beginning of the pandemic, Auburn Mayor Ron Anders said.

Too, there were the organized events where many came and prayed in their cars at the top of the East Alabama Medical Center parking deck, with headlights turned to the hospital for healthcare workers to see.

“These prayer groups replaced a sense of helplessness with hope and help for a lifetime,” Price said.

There were those too from out of state, who came to pray over the patients and healthcare workers at EAMC. Price said that when he was released, COVID-free, he joined those in prayer on the parking deck.

“This has been a most painful experience for so many and I know that the folks here at the hospital on the front lines have felt the pain continuously over the past year,” Fuller said. “We cannot thank you enough for your service, your effort, your courage and your sacrifice.”

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