EDITORS NOTE: Healing Hands is an ongoing series featuring the personal stories of health care workers who spend their days on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
LEWISBURG – No one could say that cardiac and rehab stress testing nurse Kathy Bingman lacks career experience.
Now at Evangelical Community Hospital, Bingman has 42 years of nursing under her belt, and is well versed in the challenges and rewards a career in health care has to offer.
That said, nothing could have prepared her for the global health crisis that is COVID-19.
“Only in my wildest nightmares (could I have imagined this),” she said. “ Nurses tend to be like Girl Scouts: we tend to be prepared. And so you have to think about things like this, hoping that they will never happen. There has always been a certain amount of emergency preparedness. But no, I have never lived through anything remotely like this.”
‘We need to make a plan’
Bingman became wary of the virus in March as she followed news of its rapid spread overseas from Wuhan, China.
She thought that unless certain measures were put into place, such as keeping people who had come back from infected areas in isolation, our country would be in trouble.
“That didn’t exactly happen, so I could see it coming at that point,” she said. “And then things kind of got real at the hospital too. Fortunately, our administrators also saw it coming and said, ‘We need to make a plan.’ ”
For Evangelical Community Hospital, this meant being extra judicious with supplies and coming up with a potential strategy to utilize nurses who no longer worked inpatient but still had the skills to monitor patients.
While Bingman, who easily could have been one of those extra nurses (she worked at Evangelical’s ICU in the ‘90s) is thankful things have not come to that point, her own workday has been drastically shortened.
Cardiac Rehab, an outpatient monitored exercise program that also includes education and counseling for people who have had heart events, was temporarily shut down in the interest of patient safety. While Bingman’s department still offers stress tests — a yearly necessity for most heart patients — many decided to put the task off for fear of entering the hospital. She went from solid, full-time work to getting maybe 30 hours in a few weeks.
For the first time in 42 years, the veteran nurse had to file for unemployment.
“That was probably just slightly ahead of the curve, the big wave that the unemployment compensation system saw,” she said. So I had no problems getting through, filing my initial claim. But who would ever think that in healthcare you’d need to do that?”
Moving to yellow
As more Pennsylvania counties transition to the yellow phase, Bingman said her section of the hospital is starting to return to normal — albeit a new one.
More people are coming in for stress tests, and plans are being made to reopen the Cardiac Rehab Program. Bingman, who describes a large part of her role now as “manning the door,” facilitates taking the touchless temperatures of both staff and patients, asks preemptive questions concerning possible virus symptoms, and gives masks to those who are not wearing any for the protection of others.
Since the introduction of this new phase, she admits she has noticed a somewhat negative change in patient attitudes. But Bingman does not hold this against them. Instead, she empathizes with their frustration.
“When the pandemic was at its worst, the patients that you saw were definitely kinder, more appreciative. And it’s funny, working the door now, I see people becoming a bit impatient coming in. . . I’m going to give you an example—I saw an elderly couple approaching the door, holding hands. I thought, ‘I don’t know which one is the patient, but they’re going to want to come in together. And I’m not to allow that.’ So we put them through the screening process and I said, ‘Now which one of you is the patient? And where are you headed? I’ll make sure that you get there.’ And it was the gentleman that was the patient and the woman who I assumed was his wife said, “We do everything together.” I said, ‘I understand. My parents do the same thing. But unless he needs help, I’m going to have to ask you to go back out to your car. . .’ She was just really not happy at all with that. And I understand. I really think it’s because people are getting fatigued with all the precautions. I think maybe they thought the yellow phase was going to stop some of that— but it really can’t yet.”
Plan for the family
As for her own family, Bingman makes sure to take the proper precautions when coming home from work. She immediately takes off her uniform and shoes, wiping down her watch and everything in her pockets with alcohol.
While it is only she and her husband who live in the house, her husband occasionally babysits the grandchildren there. When the United States reached pandemic status, she had a conversation with her son and daughter-in-law and made a plan that they were all comfortable with—one that involves Bingman leaving the home if she comes into contact with any COVID-19 patients.
“We need to think of each other as one household, because what one member of the household does affects the others since the children are going back and forth.”
‘Strong dose of human compassion’
While Bingman respects the desire to go back to work (so long as the job can be done safely using social distancing measures), she cannot agree with lockdown-protesters.
Though she has not run into any herself, she grows angry when she sees them on the news. “Yes, we have our rights. But I’m going to quote an old social studies teacher of mine. He used to say, ‘Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.’ And when people say ‘It’s my right not to wear a mask, I don’t care if I get the disease’—and that would be fine if that mask was just protecting them. But remember what I said? It doesn’t really protect them.”
To go forward safely and successfully, Bingman calls for a strong dose of human compassion and creative problem-solving.
“It’s gonna take a lot of cooperative and creative thinking. We aren’t going to be able to just throw our hands up and say, ‘Well I don’t know how we’re gonna do this.’ We have to find a way.”