This op-ed is by Wendy Trach, who was born and raised in Norton Shores and has been a registered nurse at Mercy Health Muskegon for more than 40 years. She is the Chief RN Steward for SEIU.
Although more than 5,000 Michiganders have tragically lost their lives to the coronavirus, there are tentative new signs of hope. Here in West Michigan, where I live and work, after we saw a recent alarming increase in COVID patients, new cases now seem to be declining. But we are certainly not out of the woods yet, and there’s a real possibility that we will see spikes in cases this summer and coming fall. As a frontline nurse, I’m calling for ongoing safeguards for all health workers so we can protect our communities, families, and ourselves over the long haul.
I was born in Norton Shores, have lived here my whole life, and raised a daughter here who’s now in college. I started out as a nurse’s aide at Mercy Health Muskegon more than 40 years ago because I wanted to give back and provide the highest quality, compassionate care for my neighbors. I then put myself through nursing school and have been a registered nurse at Mercy since 1980.
The nursing profession is not just about caring for the physical needs of our patients, but also their emotional well-being. In addition to all of the medical duties I carry out, I make sure to ask my patients about their lives and really listen to them. This results in a trusting bond with my patients, and once they’re out of the hospital, they often walk up to me in the community to reconnect.
In my current position in Mercy’s heart and vascular department, it has become even more important to provide comfort to patients because they are particularly vulnerable. Many of them are older, and in addition to undergoing invasive procedures like getting pacemakers implanted, they’re also grappling with the terrifying fear of contracting COVID-19.
When the first cases started to arrive at our hospital, we were alarmingly short of personal protective equipment (PPE), like almost all other healthcare facilities across the country. Fortunately, my fellow caregivers and I are members of a strong union, SEIU Healthcare Michigan. This gave us a united voice to advocate with the hospital administration and government leaders, as well as reach out to the broader community for donations of supplies.
We set up weekly meetings with the hospital management and demanded that all nurses and healthcare workers who were caring for COVID-19 patients get fitted for N95 respirator masks. We also requested more face shields, goggles and gowns. Healthcare delivery requires an entire team, including doctors, nurses, techs, nursing assistants, lab workers, and housekeepers who are the frontline of infection control. All of us came together to support each other, and together we insisted on protections for every worker.
We did not just wait to receive those crucial protective supplies from the administration, we also asked our neighbors, community groups and other unions for donations. In a beautiful show of kindness and generosity, our community came together and we were flooded with protective equipment. My colleagues and I distributed the supplies throughout both campuses of the hospital. After those donations came through, the hospital administration also began to address our concerns and distribute personal protective equipment more widely.
Still, having enough protective equipment is an ongoing issue, and my fear is that if we have another surge in cases, we could start to run low again. Nurses and caregivers also need to be supported in other ways. Members of SEIU across the country have been calling on employers, state elected leaders, Congress, and the White House to make sure that all health workers have sufficient protective equipment as well as paid sick days, access to testing, safe staffing levels and affordable medical treatment if we fall ill.
This pandemic has shown that all Americans are connected to each other, and the safety of any individual depends on the health of everyone. As we navigate reopening, there needs to be a clear, coordinated, transparent plan from the healthcare facility level to Washington, D.C. to ensure health workers are supported in our jobs. We need ongoing protections so that we can continue to be by our patients’ bedsides and get Michiganders through this crisis.