Foundations for the future
Providing high-quality medical care to the people who need it when they need it is like building a three-legged stool. If one leg is short, the whole thing falls down.
Caring for our caregivers
CMH's facilities and medical equipment make up two legs of the stool. While securing ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) was challenging during 2020, our biggest concern was taking care of the third leg of the stool — caregivers.
Like many people in our community and across the country, our caregivers found themselves managing multiple crises at once in March. Lacking child care and losing income from furloughs left many caregivers struggling to both come to work and pay the bills.
"I knew we needed to do something quickly to help, so I put Foundation Director Mark Kujala to the task of easing burdens our caregivers were facing," says CEO Erik Thorsen. "His priority No. 1 was to help caregivers in need weather this stormy time."
Kujala established and led a caregiver support team that worked to ease COVID-19-related problems with the goal of helping staff continue caring for our community. The team worked on child care, distributing food and supplies, providing emotional support, preventing burnout and easing financial hardship.
In several cases, the short-term solutions developed by this group have proven so beneficial that they've been made permanent.
It takes a village
When schools and day cares closed, it became vital that we help caregivers with young children find alternate child care quickly. CMH worked with Warrenton Prep and the Astoria School District to create child care options for CMH families.
"When COVID-19 first hit and schools closed, child care became one of our biggest concerns. But the Warrenton and Astoria School Districts and Astoria Parks Department stepped up to help our medical staff get back to work so our community could be prepared for what might come next," says Kujala.
Even after day cares began reopening in mid-summer, there were very few options for families, especially for those with infants. In July, The Astorian reported that only five of 12 child care centers had reopened.
To help increase child care spaces, the hospital donated $10,000 to the city-run Lil' Sprouts Academy. This was matched by a grant from the Samuel S. Johnson Foundation. These funds allowed Lil' Sprouts to renovate and move to the Astoria Yacht Club, where they can accommodate up to 80 children — nearly double their original capacity.
The hospital also established a child care stipend in late summer. This benefit became permanent as a monthly flexible spending account contribution by the hospital for caregivers who qualify based on income.
Bridging the gap
In addition to child care woes, some of our caregivers were struggling financially. With spouses out of work and hours being cut, some staff found they couldn't pay their bills.
CMH's administration quickly established a $100,000 relief fund to help caregivers who were struggling due to COVID-19. The application process was rigorous and required that the applicant show supporting documentation. Assistance was only provided when applicants could show that they had an emergent need caused by the pandemic and had exhausted all other programs available.
The fund helped 13 CMH families bridge the gap between the start of the lockdown and the federal stimulus relief.
Throughout the pandemic, the support shown by our local community has been tremendous. Businesses began sending hospital caregivers meals from local restaurants. Kind community members sent flowers and gifts. The outpouring of generosity was heartwarming. It helped caregivers know that what they did mattered to you.
As the weeks and months wore on, many staff began to report that they were feeling worn down. Our Care Management team expanded their services to provide free counseling to staff seven days a week.
"Some of the most resilient people I know have struggled this year," says Allison Whisenhunt, Director of Care Management. "The amount of focus on staff support is something I've never seen before. It's been phenomenal."
Kristen Moss, Patient Experience Manager, was inspired by a presentation about resiliency by CMH medical oncologist Mark Sundermeyer, MD. She looked for ways to share the lessons with others. With a team of co-workers, she developed a workbook to teach caregivers how to identify burnout and fatigue and develop their own plan for coping.
These workbooks became part of a Resiliency Kit that included comfort items — like dark chocolate — to help caregivers manage stress.
Rolling out the vaccine
Another huge part of helping staff feel less stressed was to get as many caregivers vaccinated against COVID-19 as possible.
CMH Emergency physician Steve Donnelly, MD, sums up many caregivers' feelings: "Getting this vaccine means so much to me. Not only is it protecting us as health care workers, it is protecting all those we care about most — our family, friends, patients and community. The full impact of this vaccine is hard to put into words."
Resiliency and recovery
Although 2020 is in the rearview mirror, the programs developed to help caregivers will last for many years to come.
"We've developed a strong foundation," Kujala says. "We've established some programs that were designed to deal with an emergency, but those same partnerships and frameworks can be used to help the hospital and community in good times and bad."
If you've been struggling to cope this year, you aren't alone. CMH has temporarily expanded our services to offer counseling with our licensed social workers. Visit columbiamemorial.org/behavioral-health to find the support you need.