Jerome Campbell cannot remember the last time he hugged his grandma.
His job as a firefighter puts him on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and, as a result, has caused him to switch visits with phone calls to older loved ones.
“That’s probably the hardest part,” said Campbell, B.S. ’16, who joined the Indianapolis Fire Department one year ago. “I’m really close with my grandparents. Knowing they aren’t as young as I am, or as healthy as I am, I could be putting them in jeopardy because I want to see them. Talking over the phone, that only does so much, but that’s the route I’m going to have to take.
“It definitely takes a toll on you,” he added. “You miss being around these people you love. Sometimes all you want to do is go hug them, it would make your day so much better. But it’s a sacrifice that comes with the job.”
While his title is firefighter, 85 to 90 percent of the job is medical runs — including caring for potential COVID-19 patients. Knowing the potential danger, however, he wouldn’t change his career.
“If anything, it’s given me a greater sense of respect for the people we’re working with,” he said. “This is part of our job. We serve the community. Giving back to people and knowing you can go out there and make a difference for someone is worth the risk. They are counting on me to give 100 percent every day, even on my worst day.”
He also feels a stronger sense of responsibility to his co-workers, to be mindful and make sure he’s taking all necessary precautions to avoid bringing the virus into their station.
As a firefighter, he’s used to putting on full gear for a run— a fire helmet, turnout pants and a jacket made of heavy-duty fire and moisture-resistant fabric, gloves, boots, and a self-contained breathing apparatus.
Now, medical runs also require a new normal of protective gear, including a jumpsuit over his uniform, along with an N-95 mask. A respirator can also be worn for additional protection. When arriving at a home, one crew member goes to the door to ask questions, to screen for potential COVID-19 exposure, and reduce the number of people going inside if someone possibly has the virus.
When the crew returns to the station, they sanitize all their equipment and leave the jumpsuit and any other exposed clothing in the bay with the trucks. This prevents accidental spread of the virus.
“It’s our job to show up for any situation, but we’re aware that we have to protect ourselves,” he said.
Having been an athlete most of his life, including playing basketball at IU Kokomo, he likes the team atmosphere of being a firefighter.
“You have to trust the people you’re working with, that they have your back. I’m trusting these guys with my life, and vice versa,” Campbell said. “We see things most of the public won’t see, and we understand the pressures and stress each of us face. Building that camaraderie with each other, the brotherhood and sisterhood, is one of the beneficial parts of this job.”
So far, he’s not encountered a COVID-19 patient in any of his runs but was tested when one of his colleagues had the virus. Thankfully, his test was negative.
He’s noticed extra public support for firefighters and other front-line workers during the pandemic — support that he appreciates.
“The community has been behind us even before COVID-19, they’ve always supported the fire department. But with everything going on, they’re getting behind us even more than before,” he said. “They understand we are putting ourselves on the line.”
Campbell is grateful to the health care workers, nursing home caregivers, teachers, and other essential workers also doing their part during the pandemic.
“We realize we’re not the only ones out there doing this work,” he said.
Having seen the effects of the virus, he urges people to take precautions to avoid it if at all possible.
“It affects people in different ways,” he said. “You might get a light case but expose someone else who gets it and becomes seriously ill. It’s not like any other sickness. You have to take the proper precautions and protect yourself and think about what’s important in life. You don’t have to be scared and you should continue to live your life, but protect yourself, and be aware of the situations you put yourself in.”
Leading in mental health care
During the pandemic, focus has been on physical health — but mental health has taken a hit as well.
CDC researchers reported in the New York Times that more than 40 percent of people surveyed in late June said they experienced a mental or behavioral health condition related to the pandemic. They found that reports of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts were up significantly in 2020 compared with previous years.
Nikki Brown was among the mental health care professionals supporting those affected, first as a student in IU Kokomo’s Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling, and, since graduating in August, as a full-time counselor.
From a phone in her living room, she walked her Integrity Counseling clients through depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues exacerbated by fear of the virus, the effects of suddenly having to stay at home, too much family togetherness, working from home while helping children with remote schoolwork, and other impacts.
“Everything else was unstable, but I worked hard to be stable for them and be someone they could rely and count on to be there,” said Brown, B.S. ’17, M.A. ’20. “I showed them that every week I am here to support you the best that I can. I was someone reliable in a time that many other things were uncertain. They knew that every week, I was going to be there.”
She found people who already suffered anxiety and depression were hit harder by the sudden changes.
“Anxiety and depression were heightened, and a lot of people felt isolated and confused,” Brown said. “People who already had anxiety, it made it worse for them with depression. Many of them felt isolated, hopeless, and uncertain.”
She found that techniques such as using technology to connect with others and stay in touch with loved ones, engaging in hobbies to relieve stress, and offering more grace to yourself and others helped her clients.
“Quarantining with family means we don’t get the alone time we’re used to,” she said. “Offer more forgiveness to yourself and the ones you love during times of ‘excessive togetherness.’”
She and her colleagues learned how to counsel by phone as they went, their jobs made a little more difficult by not being able to meet in person.
“It’s hard to judge someone’s stability over the phone, especially if it’s a high suicide risk patient,” she said. “It’s a lot easier when you are in the same space and can assess body language. Even experienced counselors were confused sometimes, so for us newer counselors, it was really challenging.”
Brown said her team met weekly to support one another, sharing techniques that worked for their clients, and talking over challenges to brainstorm ideas. Because she was also completing her mental health counseling degree, she also shared ideas and successes on regular Zoom meetings with her classmates and faculty.
Her work team returned to in-person appointments in June, after rearranging their offices to have at least six feet between counselor and client. Brown continues to serve some clients remotely, if that is their preference.
She also graduated in August, and transitioned from her clinical internship into full-time employment at Integrity Counseling.
She anticipates assisting clients with ongoing pandemic-related issues into the future.
“Depending on what was going on in their homes, many people didn’t have the supports in place that they needed,” she said. “For people who weren’t in healthy homes, they could see long-term impacts. Or for people with OCD, all the germ prevention we were doing reinforces the idea that the world is dangerous, and germs are everywhere.”
Leading in schools
Two weeks before David Barrett planned to bring more than 1,000 seventh and eighth graders safely back to school, disaster struck.
Barrett, assistant principal at Lafayette’s Tecumseh Junior High, tested positive for the virus. So did his pregnant wife, and all five of their children. None of them had felt sick, but he decided to get everyone tested after coming in contact with another person who contracted the virus.
Within days of finding out, Barrett was as sick as he could ever remember being — and feeling guilty on top of it for being home so close to the start of school.
“It was rough being at home and being stuck, and knowing my co-workers were busting their tails to get us back in school,” he said. “Two weeks before school starts, that’s when the pressure is on. I missed orientation, when I typically would do a lot with student services and clubs. It really made it hard to come back that first day.”
Barrett, B.S. ’09, and his family all recovered, and he was cleared to return to work the day before classes started. Even then, though, he wasn’t at 100 percent.
“I felt like I could barely breathe when I was walking up the stairs,” he said. “It took me a week to get back into the swing of things.”
Coming down with the virus brought home the seriousness of the illness that closed his school in mid-March, a week before spring break. Even knowing it was the right thing to do, it was challenging to move such a large number of students and teachers to virtual learning.
His job was supporting teachers as they pivoted to virtual instruction. Plus, it was important to check the well-being of students not showing up in virtual classes or completing work so they could be counted as present.
“It was hard for our students to adjust during that time,” Barrett said. “While our teachers did a great job making adjustments on the fly, our students really struggled without having the constant presence of a teacher. It was hard on the teachers, trying to figure out the best way to manage the pandemic and do the best they could for their students.”
Once the spring semester ended, the work began to prepare for the next school year. While they considered many options, including all virtual, all in-person, and a combination, everyone agreed that in-person was the best option. The biggest challenge was waiting for guidance from the state, so plans could be solidified, and the last-minute mask mandate that supported their plans.
“We got a lot of pushback on wanting to require masks,” said Barrett. “Once the governor made that mandate, it helped with what we were doing.”
About 300 students chose virtual school. The rest returned in person with new rules, including physical distancing, extra space in the cafeteria and rooms available for dining outside the cafeteria, and staircases and hallways designated to go one way only.
It’s been hard to manage those changes, given the age group of his students.
“Our teachers have had a lot of extra patience this year,” he said. “Junior high is a tough environment. They come in really immature, you add all these rules, and not being able to go outside to run off some of their energy because of contact tracing, it makes it harder on everyone.”
Barrett appreciates the support he and the teachers have felt from the community for themselves, and for their students.
“There was a huge outpouring from our community, recognizing what we were doing to try to help the kids,” he said. “We appreciated the shout outs and recognition. We’re not the doctors, but we’re still out here trying to do what’s best for our kids.”
Leading in health care
When Amy Lennon Kinder heard about a shortage of medical care providers in New York, she felt called to offer her service.
Kinder spent 12 weeks in New York City during the spring, working 12- to 16-hour shifts, without a day off, for 21 days, at the Coney Island Hospital, which was only treating COVID-19 patients.
She described her experience as “a whirlwind of emotions,” with tears flowing every day after returning to her hotel room following each shift.
The dire needs of her patients broke her heart, and she saw more death during her time in New York than she had during her previous six years as an emergency room nurse in Kokomo. Kinder described an ER packed with more than double its capacity of patients, all desperately ill, and little she could do to help.
Her co-workers were mostly health care professionals from outside New York because the local nurses were either sick or burned out from the relentless work.
“I knew I was there for a reason,” said Kinder, B.S.N. ’14, M.S.N. ’16. “We’re all in health care and have a shared goal of taking care of patients, and making sure they are loved while they are here.”
The impact of the coronavirus is unlike anything she had ever seen.
“COVID-19 literally attacks your entire body. People think it’s just like the flu, but the flu doesn’t affect the coagulation of your blood, and your kidneys, and your liver,” she said. “The disease progression is so fast.”
Kinder did this overwhelming work in heavy, hot PPE. A typical day’s attire included a protective suit zipped over her scrubs, an N95 mask, eye protection, hair covering, and two sets of gloves, with one pair worn for the whole shift and a second pair over them that are changed between patients.
The patients kept her going, though, with many from the nearby neighborhood, home to many Russian immigrants who spoke little or no English. She knew many of them were frightened, being urgently sick, alone, and treated by doctors and nurses in unusual garb.
“We utilized whatever resources we had to help them, like other staff who spoke their language, or video calls with family members, to get past those barriers,” Kinder said. “If that didn’t work, we just did our best to be present and give them the utmost respect and care.”
Once her contracted time was up, Kinder returned home to Kokomo, where she had to isolate herself for 14 days before she could see her family or return to work. Worn down in body and spirit, she coped by teaming up with either other health care professionals to write a book about their experience, “Covid-19 Frontliners: Against All Odds”.
Published June 30, the book is available on Amazon. Writing her part helped her process what she had seen.
“It was a very calming experience to get all of those emotions out, and get them on paper, and easier than talking about it,” she said.
While it’s not always easy to discuss, she has found that people at home want to hear her first-hand experience, having read about it in media.
And, yes, she would do it again.
“It was so humbling. It made me a better person, and a better nurse. It taught me a lot as a nurse, and I will never regret my experience in New York City.”