Shelley Schneer, a registered nurse at North Shore Medical Center’s Salem Hospital, remembers how the situation changed when a mother about to give birth tested positive for the coronavirus.
Schneer works in the special care delivery department at a Level 2B neonatal intensive care unit, where she tends to high-risk deliveries and premature births. Because of COVID-19 protocols, pregnant women are tested for the virus as they enter the birthing room. On the night of April 21, a pregnant woman tested positive.
“Now the delivery had a whole new meaning,” Schneer told the Journal.
In addition to her regular mask, Schneer had to put on extra personal protective equipment, including an N95 mask, goggles and a hat. After she helped deliver a baby boy, the mother could only take a quick look at her newborn before he was brought to a negative pressure space in an isolette – a clear plastic enclosed crib. Schneer could not touch the isolette or any of the buttons in the elevator; a separate nurse was assigned to do this. The baby’s grandmother was not allowed in the delivery room, although she was allowed to see photos of the infant boy when Schneer and the doctor walked out.
Schneer called the policy changes “quite an ordeal.” Adding to the challenge, when she and her colleagues do not have many babies in their unit, they are pulled to COVID-19 floors to work.
It’s a sign of how the health crisis requires an all hands on deck approach on the North Shore. Medical professionals who normally work in other areas of Salem Hospital are being called to help address an unprecedented situation.
Schneer has been a nurse for almost 30 years, with a background in adult medicine. For over half of her career, she worked in an emergency room, where she said she’s “seen some pretty horrific things, as far as things go.” She is married to Marty Schneer, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore.
“I’ve taken care of sick patients before, but I’ve never, ever seen anything like this,” said Schneer, when asked about COVID-19.
The new normal begins even before staff can go into the hospital to start their shift. On an app, they must answer questions about their health. Only when they answer “no” to all questions about whether they have coronavirus symptoms are they cleared to work that day.
While they reuse their N95 masks, hospital health workers can only wear their goggles and regular masks for one shift before disposal. Initially the N95 masks were sanitized and “no one knew who was wearing it before you,” Schneer said. “It didn’t sound right … I don’t care how well you sanitize – you sweat, it’s hot under all that gear.” Now, staff members put their name and unit on their masks.
Schneer saluted all the workers at the hospital. “They say it takes a village,” she said. “You have your housekeeping staff cleaning floors in the room, your CNAs (certified nursing assistants) in the room doing vital signs. A lot of the patients are immobile. You have to clean them, care for them. It’s felt by every employee in the hospital.”
Out of 98 coronavirus patients, she estimated that at least 21 are on ventilators. “The feeling you get when you’re in the hospital, on your unit – yeah, there’s a little anxiety,” Schneer said. “You just have to do your job.”
Cardiologist Michael Goldstein, who is affiliated with Salem Hospital, has been called to assist with COVID-19 patients as well. He describes the ICU as an overwhelming sight, “with every bed taken and people in the ventilators.”
“These are extraordinary times, just extraordinary,” said Goldstein, who is also a JCCNS board member. “We’ve just been really blown away by this, there’s been nothing like it.” To deal with the demand, specialists like Goldstein rotate through a coronavirus ward.
“We all take turns doing this, [then] go back to cardiology,” he said. “All my colleagues are pitching in.” Those peers range from endocrinologists to general practitioners.
He described a challenging adjustment period for specialists.
“I think initially everybody was really quite concerned,” he said. “It’s not really anything we ever dealt with or had done as traditional specialists in a pretty narrow area of medicine,” he said. “We felt comfortable in what we do every day. We were taken out of our zone of comfort and put into a new environment with pretty high risk.”
One of his colleagues got “pretty sick,” Goldstein said. “Of course we don’t know if it happened in the hospital or outside the ward. No one knows. Everybody is just a little paranoid.”
But, he said, “we have to do our work. It’s what we signed up for.” And, he noted, working in a community hospital takes on an added importance during the coronavirus response.
“One thing I think about is that when people are sick, they don’t go to Boston unless we send them there,” Goldstein said. “They come to their local hospital. It’s important to support it.”
While much of the spotlight on the coronavirus response has shone on hospitals, coverage has also included people at assisted living facilities. It’s something Mark Messenger has become familiar with over the past six weeks.
The president of Swampscott’s Congregation Shirat Hayam, Messenger is a physician who works for Care Dimensions in Danvers, primarily in a hospice capacity. He also provides general health care for patients across the North Shore, in their homes or in an assisted-living facility. In the last month, he saw 25 COVID-19 patients among the 400 to 500 individuals he visited.
He’s seen heartrending situations, including an elderly husband and wife in Salem who died within a week of each other. Their adult children got sick as well, but they have been getting better. In another tragedy, a daughter lost her parents and aunt within a week.
“I’ve been a physician almost 40 years. This is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen,” Messenger said.
Asked about the impact of the virus on assisted-living facilities, Messenger said, “You live in an institution or something where there are close quarters, it’s easy to spread from person to person. A lot of people have it and not know they’re sick.”
He praised staff at assisted living facilities for doing the “best they can” in a situation he called “very difficult, very scary.”
Messenger shares his experiences with his congregation during Zoom Shabbat services. He also participates in Zoom shivas, including two that took place last weekend. One was for a congregant’s father who died from COVID-19. The other was not related to the virus.
Meanwhile, he keeps in contact over Zoom with his daughter – who is due to give birth in July – and with his mother in New York.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and fear at night when you come home,” Messenger said. “It’s helpful to talk on Saturday morning.”