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Recovered from COVID-19, some Detroit healthcare workers back on the job

Andrea Piacquadio for Pexel

Thousands of healthcare workers in the Metro Detroit area have contracted COVID-19 in the last five weeks. And while at least 7 have lost their lives and others have been hospitalized, the majority are returning to work - knowing some coworkers haven’t been as fortunate.

“You see that and you just think, ‘Why was I OK?’” says Cyndi Engelhardt, a critical care nurse who’s also a manager in one of Henry Ford Hospital’s Intensive Care Units. “And...I had some survivor's guilt with that.”

Working beside them - and in their place while infected staffers were quarantined - are hundreds of doctors and nurses who’ve been redeployed, many to work they’ve never done before.

“It’s a hospital I’ve never been at, on a unit I’ve never been on, on a shift that I’d never work,” says Heather Haener-Svoboda, a nurse who’s now doing overnight shifts on a COVID ward, coming from an office job in Beaumont Health’s Quality & Safety Department. “It felt surreal. I haven’t done this kind of patient care in 20 years.”

“You feel like you’re helpless”

Cyndi Engelhardt woke up at 5 a.m. one morning last month, and laying there in bed, she just knew it. She was sick.

She’d had some chest congestion the night before. Now her muscles ached. So, in those dark early hours, she got up to take her temperature: 102 degrees.

"And I went back to my bed and I just put my head in my hands. And I was just crying. And I was thinking, how am I supposed to help everybody when I’m stuck at home?” says Engelhardt, an assistant clinical manager at an Intensive Care Unit in Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. “It just makes you feel like you’re helpless.”

Credit Courtesy of Cyndi Engelhardt
Cyndi Engelhardt, a critical care nurse and administrator in an ICU, contracted COVID. Pre-pandemic, one patient's final wish was to get to see his dog, so the staff made it happen.

Part of Engelhardt’s job is caring for other nurses - including putting together the massive monthly shift schedule. And just then, they needed her more than ever. Over the last few days, their unit had been filling up with COVID patients. Engelhardt had been scrambling to help reorganize and get the staff as much personal protective equipment (PPEs) as the hospital could find.

Now, alone in her home, she reached out to her manager.

"The first thing I said was, ‘I'm so, so, so sorry. But I think I may have COVID.’”

Two days later, a test confirmed it: she was positive.

A growing club

Dr. Lamont Jones is Vice Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery at Henry Ford. And he started having symptoms shortly after his wife, Dr. Tenisha Wright-Jones, got sick. They’d driven together to get tested, and her results came back first: positive.

“It was eye-opening, that it sort of hit home,” Jones says.

So they brought their daughters, ages 10 and 14, into the room and broke the news.

“We had a real discussion about that their mom had tested positive, that I had gotten tested. And it's likely that that I would be positive, and what it meant for them, they likely they were or eventually would be positive,” he says. “So it was a pretty real conversation, and one of my daughters did start crying afterwards. Because she had been reading everything in the news about people coming down with COVID-19 and that people were dying from it.”

When Jones’ test came back positive as well, he joined a growing club: healthcare workers in the Metro Detroit area who’ve contracted COVID-19.

Nobody knows how many, exactly, because some health systems aren’t sharing or collecting that data. But we do know that between Beaumont Health, Henry Ford Health System, and Michigan Medicine - all of whom have reported employee numbers publicly at some point - more than 2,600 healthcare workers in the area have either been out sick with COVID-like symptoms, or tested positive for the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate to have very robust testing in the system, and we’ve been prioritizing the testing of our employees for COVID-19,” Dr. Betty Chu, Henry Ford’s associate chief clinical officer and chief quality officer, said in a virtual press conference last week. Most recently, the health system says more than 900 employees have tested positive, representing about 2.7% of their total workforce.

But the context here is important, Chu says.

“We recognize that the number of employees who’ve tested positive may sound high to some people, and I would caution folks to realize that of course, if we’re testing employees, it may seem that we have a higher number than other health systems that may not be doing as much testing or other areas of the country that don’t have as much access to testing.”

“A different ballgame”

In the meantime, hundreds of people like Heather Haener-Svoboda are being redeployed.

When Beaumont started surveying the staff about possible redeployments (which hospital would you prefer to work at? What shifts could you do? What kind of care do you feel most comfortable doing?) she was up front: she hadn’t done that kind of patient care in 20 years.

She’d been working an office job doing administrative work for the health system over the last several years. Before that, she’d been an OR nurse.

“But we all felt like, we’re nurses. We’re reading to step up to the plate. The people of Metro Detroit need us,” Haener-Svoboda says. “So I think everybody is out of their comfort zone. But everybody is realizing, they’re pretty brave.”

Now she’s working the overnight shifts in the unit where COVID-19 patients are sent after they’ve left the ICU.

"They're so helpless and they're so scared. And you just really feel like you're doing something important."

“And they're so helpless and they're so scared,” she says. “And, you know, you really just feel for them. And, you know, we're doing the best we can to take care of them, and keep them comforted and encourage them, and holding their hand. And you just really feel like you're doing something important.”

That’s how nurse Dealla Fakhouri feels, too. As a clinical research coordinator in Henry Ford Health System’s Department of Neurology, Fakhouri works with patients enrolled in MS studies. But the pandemic put that research on pause.

“I had enough vacation days to be off for a month,” she says. “But I became a nurse to help out and to be of use, especially during times like these.”

Credit Dealla Fakhouri
Dealla Fakhouri was a research nurse working with patients enrolled in MS studies. Now she's been redeployed to the ICU.

Now she’s been deployed to the ICU. She worried her skills wouldn’t be up to par, she says, but her team has been supportive.

“Nothing could really prepare me enough for what my very first COVID patients [were like,] and how sick these patients were,” she says. Before she started, she’d talked with friends who were already doing this work. They how to use her personal protective equipment, how to put it on and remove it safely, and what their experiences with these patients were like on the floor.

“But it wasn't the same as actually walking into a patient’s room who had coded, and who was on a ventilator and probably four or five drips. That was really my go-to moment of [realizing] you know, ‘I’m not in MS research anymore.’ I realized that I was in a different ballgame.”

Guilt, hope and wanting to help

After 14 long, frustrating days stuck at home, Cyndi Engelhardt has returned to work at the ICU.

“The way that they handled everything [while I was gone] just, like, brought tears to my eyes,” she says of her coworkers. “Because I just felt so proud of them and how they've just taken this on and ran with it.”

But while she was out, another nurse at Henry Ford Hospital, Lisa Ewald, died after testing positive for COVID-19.

“Knowing that we had lost one of our nurses, not in my unit, but in the hospital while I was off, just made me think, ‘How come I was OK?’” Engelhardt says. “And I didn't really have any major symptoms. I didn't need to be hospitalized. So there was a little bit of survivor's guilt.”

Dr. Lamont Jones and his wife have also returned to work, even though she’s still experiencing some shortness of breath.

Since so many of his surgeries have been postponed, Dr. Jones has volunteered to clean and disinfect hospital rooms, and work in the ER.

He says in some ways, having COVID has actually been an asset there. Because he presumes he’s likely immune, he’s taking over some of the higher risk procedures for his colleagues.

"Look, I'm ok, and I'm right back here to help you guys. I think that just gave them a little bit of relief, that if I do contract it, this doesn't [have to] mean death."

"And so to some degree, it made us feel like we could be more helpful,” he says.

Engelhardt also feels like there has been one good thing to come out of her illness: it’s given her coworkers a present, human reminder that there is hope.

“They saw a lot of hurt,” she says. “You know, these patients being alone [when they died] and so...me coming back and showing them that, ‘Look, I'm good, I'm OK, I'm you know, I'm healthy, I have energy, and I'm right back here to help you guys.’ I think that just gave them a little bit of, a little relief, that if I do contract it, this doesn't [have to] mean death.”

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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