From the U.S. Air Force to Mercy Health: Dr. Gregory Stempky uses his past to fight Covid-19

A Mercy Health nurse at the healthcare facility’s drive-through Covid-19 testing facility. Photo courtesy of Mercy Health

Dr. Gregory Stempky is no stranger to crisis.

Previously a flight surgeon in the United States Air Force before beginning his career at Mercy Health 13 years ago, much of Dr. Stempky’s training revolved around responding to mass casualties and other disaster scenarios. A week after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Dr. Stempky, who was then serving in the Air Force, was deployed to Qatar, where he helped to set up U.S. military facilities for planes refueling on their way to Afghanistan.

Now, close to two decades later, he is using those experiences to help inform the way he and his colleagues are responding to Covid-19, a highly contagious respiratory disease that has killed about 76,000 people worldwide and close to 11,000 people in the United States, including 727 individuals in Michigan.

“When people come into crisis situations like this, a lot of times people will wait to see what happens before acting,” Dr. Stempky said. “But you have to plan for what could happen, and you have to have a lot of different preparations done. What you’re planning for might change in an hour or half an hour; you need contingency plans and you need to be able to adapt.”

For Dr. Stempky, who cared for patients at the Mercy Health Physician Partners Family Care in Spring Lake prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, and his medical colleagues, part of that planning has involved setting up a drive-through Covid-19 testing center at the Mercy Campus a couple weeks ago.

Dr. Gregory Stempky. Photo courtesy of Mercy Health

Located at 1500 E. Sherman Blvd. in Muskegon, the drive-through center has allowed Mercy Health to both expand its testing and better protect patients and workers, Dr. Stempky said. At the facility that can test up to hundreds of individuals per day, patients can receive the necessary swab to diagnose Covid-19 without leaving their car–which means fewer hospital workers have to interact with a potentially infected patient.

“When you have somebody tested in a hospital, they’re coming into the hospital with a fever and chills, and all of the people they come into contact with will have to have [personal protection equipment] on,” Dr. Stempky said. “The way the testing is done, there’s a nasopharyngeal  swab that goes deep into the nose, and it causes people to, a lot of the time, cough and potentially put droplets into the air. If we test people in their cars, only the person near the car needs the [personal protection equipment], so we can save equipment. With the center outside, we don’t have to worry about a room being sterilized.”

Covid-19, which has been deemed a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, is believed to spread primarily between people who are in close contact with one another and is passed through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Health officials have also noted the virus may remain on surfaces, such as plastic and stainless steel, for days.

A respiratory disease that can cause, among other symptoms, a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, Covid-19 is 10 times more fatal than the flu, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  In the worst cases, patients’ lungs will fill with so much fluid that no amount of breathing support can help, and the patient dies.

Because Covid-19 is a new disease and is highly contagious, it presents a slew of issues for a world fighting to contain the pandemic: humans have not built up an immunity to it, there is no vaccine for it yet, and its symptoms often don’t present themselves until two to 14 days after being exposed to the virus—which potentially allows a carrier of the disease to expose it to others without realizing they are doing so. As of now, health experts explain the most effective way to curb the number of Covid-19 cases is through social distancing—without it, there would be an even greater exponential explosion of cases than the world has already experienced. And even despite social distancing efforts, health care systems around the country and globe have become overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, including in New York City, Detroit, Chicago, and Italy.

In Muskegon County, there have been four deaths related to Covid-19 and 41 cases of the disease have been confirmed, according to public health officials. Muskegon, and West Michigan as a whole, may not be as hard hit as places like Detroit, Chicago or New York City, Dr. Stempky said—but he emphasized it’s crucial that the amount of testing for Covid-19 continues to increase in order to assess whether or not that’s the case. 

“Places like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Italy, you walk outside and people are all around,” he said. “There’s mass transit. [Covid-19] can easily spread. We’re a little better positioned here in West Michigan.”

Still, Dr. Stempky said he expects this area will struggle with Covid-19.

“Here in Muskegon we have a very ill population,” he said. “We have a sick population with a large amount of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. People with these diseases are hit the hardest. I do expect it to be bad when it comes here.” 

“We’re positioned well with the fact we haven’t consolidated in one hospital yet, so we have rooms available,” Dr. Stempky continued, referring to Mercy Health’s two campuses in Muskegon, the Mercy Campus and the Hackley Campus. “We’re positioned better than had we been consolidated already.”

The drive-through Covid-19 testing center at Mercy Health Muskegon. Photo courtesy of Mercy Health

Mercy Health officials too noted they have a “surge plan” to address a potential overflow of patients; the plan allows the Mercy system to “operationalize” 50 additional beds in the hospital’s new medical center tower at the Mercy Campus should the facility see an influx of Covid-19 patients. Another 27 beds, on top of that 50, have also been approved for expanded use, according to Mercy. The healthcare system has also partnered with Muskegon Community College, which will provide 50 beds at its Wellness Center in the case of a surge of patients. We have reached out to Mercy to confirm the total number of beds at both the Mercy and Hackley campuses and will update this article when they provide that number.

As Mercy Health  braces itself for an increase in Covid-19 cases, the healthcare system faces a number of issues, including the fact that Trinity Health, Mercy’s parent corporation, just furloughed 2,500 workers. A spokeswoman for Mercy Health did not specify how many employees at Mercy Health’s Muskegon facilities would be impacted by this decision.

“Management is still finalizing the plan; various positions are affected, but mainly non-clinical; and while some clinical staff has been furloughed due to the cancellation of elective procedures, we are working to redeploy clinicians to other roles to address COVID-19, as we are able,” Mercy Health said in an emailed statement.

Additionally, Mercy Health nurses and other staff say they do not feel adequately protected in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. A number of unions, including the Michigan Nurses Association and the SEIU Healthcare Michigan, said at the end of March that Mercy nurses and other hospital staff do not have the personal protection equipment, such as N95 masks, that they need to deal with the pandemic. SEIU Healthcare Michigan spokesman Kevin Lignell confirmed on Tuesday, April 7 that those concerns continue. 

“Workers are very scared, very anxious,” SEIU Healthcare Michigan President Andrea Acevedo said in a March 25 interview. 

Dr. Stempky referred questions about the PPE situation in Muskegon to a Mercy Health spokeswoman, who sat in on the phone interview with the Muskegon Times and Dr. Stempky. In an emailed statement, Mercy Health said it has prioritized the well-being of its employees.

“Safety is a core value for Mercy Health, and we are deeply committed to providing the appropriate level of personal protective equipment [PPE] for all of our colleagues,” Mercy Health said in the emailed statement. “We continue to work daily with suppliers worldwide and with government agencies to secure additional PPE as we navigate a global supply challenge.”

“To be good stewards of our resources, we purposefully ordered reusable PPE, including shields and gowns, to avoid some of the supply issues being faced across the country, and world, while dealing with this pandemic,” Mercy Health said in the same statement.

[To see information about donating protective equipment to Mercy Health and SEIU Healthcare Michigan, please click here and go to the end of the article.]

A nurse at Mercy Health Muskegon’s drive-through Covid-19 testing center. Photo courtesy of Mercy Health

As Mercy, and hospitals across Michigan, the country and the world, face a series of daunting challenges in the wake of Covid-19, Dr. Stempky said an increase in testing “will be a game changer.”

“We can find out the prevalence in the community, and that can give us a head start on when we could expect a surge,” he said.

Further testing can also provide people the needed push to go home and isolate themselves, rather than, for example, going to a grocery store and continuing to spread the disease.

“People who test positive are more likely to go home and quarantine themselves,” he said.

As the pandemic continues, Dr. Stempky said it will be a rough path ahead of us—but, with continued social distancing and a kindness towards others, he said we’ll be able to make it out to the other side of this crisis, to a place where the hardships engulfing us will fade into memory. That path, of course, is a long one—and it’s one filled with sickness, anguish and death. That said, these dark times are not ones without light: we live in a world filled with endless compassion. We live in a world in which people, every day, are risking their own lives to take care of others—and those people, those healthcare workers and first responders, among so many others, are going to need our love and support in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead, Dr. Stempky emphasized.

“This affects not only healthcare workers but first responders, family members—this affects everyone as a whole,” Dr. Stempky said. “Psychological counseling afterwards is going to be very important. I think we as doctors and nurses, and everybody involved in healthcare, want to do everything we can to help; we treat this as a long sprint.”

“Whenever there’s a critical incident, like this pandemic, there’s always that thought of, ‘what happens to the people who are connected to the event?’” he continued. “That is something I think a lot about and that I wish I had answers for. There will be a lot of people who need a lot of counseling to get through what happened.”

But, for now, Dr. Stempky said he hopes people will continue to support one another as best they can.

“People should be nice to one another—all the time, but especially at times like this,” he said. “You don’t know what people are going through. A kind word or smile can do a lot for one another. I think saying ‘thank you’ means a lot, too, whether it’s a nurse or doctor or any provider. Be kind to everyone.”

About Mercy Health’s Covid-19 drive-through testing center:

For those who suspect they may have Covid-19, they may take a virtual screening online at www.mercyhealth.com, where they can be referred for a virtual visit and potential follow-up test. They can also see a primary care provider, who can order the Covid-19 test if necessary. You must be referred by a doctor to receive a test at Mercy Health’s drive-through center.

Covid-19 test results will be available within 24 hours. Before the patient leaves the testing center, the nurses give the patients information on how to quarantine within their own homes.

The Mercy Health Muskegon drive-through testing center is located at Mercy Campus, 1500 E Sherman Blvd, Muskegon. The center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

For more information, visit www.MercyHealth.com/COVID19.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing muskegontimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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