Health Care Workers Face formidable Enemy

Beth Krupka, a charge nurse at Ocala Regional Medical Center, stays in an RV to isolate herself from her family when home after working with COVID-19 patients. Robert and Cheryl Moll, of the Village of Charlotte, lent her the RV through a Facebook group called RVs for MDs to Fight the Corona Virus.

Beth Krupka doesn’t know when she’ll hug her kids next.  After 12-hour shifts as a charge nurse in the COVID unit at Ocala Regional Medical Center, she doesn’t feel safe being around them. Robert and Cheryl Moll, of the Village of Charlotte, loaned their RV to Krupka, a stranger, so she could park it outside her home to keep her family close – from a safe distance. She misses being near her husband, hugs from her 6-year-old daughter and, most of all, putting her 4-year-old son to bed. Most nights, he falls asleep on her.  As the pandemic continues, health care workers are risking potential exposure in order to treat patients.  As of April 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified more than 9,200 health care workers in the U.S. who had COVID-19, according to a recent report. That’s likely an underestimate, the report stated, because only 16% of nationwide cases reported to the CDC included the occupational status of patients.  

“It’s frightening for a lot of people out there on the front lines,” said Dr. Robert McLean, president of the American College of Physicians. “They’re calling into their jobs to help patients and to do the best they can.”

Some health care workers are continuing to care for patients with acute and chronic non-COVID conditions. While the majority of patients are choosing video appointments, The Villages Health’s providers are still treating some patients in person.

“This is part of the reason why I went into medicine is to help people in times of their greatest need,” said Dr. Ashley Wood, medical director of Creekside Care Center.

Others just entering medicine volunteered to get close enough to potentially infected patients to swab them at The Villages Polo Club’s drive-thru site.

Lauren Aycock, a second-year medical student at University of Florida, knows she and her fellow students are getting a little more exposure than they would if they stayed at home.

But you couldn’t get her to stay away, she said.

Drive-Thru Testing

Lauren Aycock, a second-year medical student at University of Florida, knows she and her fellow students are getting a little more exposure than they would if they stayed at home.

But you couldn’t get her to stay away, she said.

Aycock has been volunteering at The Villages Polo Club’s drive-thru testing site, coming in close contact with infected patients.

Temperatures in the 80s feel more like 110 degrees beneath a mask, goggles, surgical gown and gloves, Aycock said.

A few hours into her shift, a cold Gatorade was the most delicious beverage ever.  

Aycock and other UF medical, nursing and physician assistant students performing nasal swabs at the Polo Club found out the details of the volunteer opportunity in an email the night before the training session.

“It seemed like a call to action,” said first-year medical student Jake Sammon.

Once testing commences, it’s basically a constant stream of patients, Aycock said. Swabbers collect samples from two to six hours, depending on the availability of kits that day.

Grateful patients try to make the experience easier, Aycock said.

For instance, one woman positioned her car’s AC vent toward Aycock so she could catch a breeze.

But there’s more on the students’ minds than hot temperatures.

Every time Aycock volunteers, she recalculates the minimum amount of time she’d need to self-quarantine before seeing her family.

Students are also juggling online coursework. Sammon said he had 30 lectures to catch up on over the weekend after five days of volunteering.

He knows the power physicians have to better patient lives. When he was 16, his then 14-year-old sister was diagnosed with cancer.  

“Seeing her go through treatment and how the doctors interacted with her, that had a really big impact on me,” he said. “I’m thankful every day for the doctors at Arnold Palmer who stepped up and saved her life.

He said he hopes to follow their example. Helping out now seemed a natural step.

Inside Covid Units

The students are getting their first experience working with patients in a pandemic.

After nine years as an infectious disease doctor, Dr. Elias Maroun is too.

Maroun’s the COVID team leader at UF Health The Villages Hospital.

Health care workers are worried, Maroun said.

“It’s more they’re worried about their families,” he said. “But at the same time, it feels good because I’m amazed by how people are selfless.”

Since hospitals have implemented no visitor policies with few exceptions, staff is making an effort to assist them beyond necessary medical tasks, Maroun said.

“For us, we’re spending sometimes more time, we’re holding their hands and being more conscious to give extra attention to these people -- and love,” he said. “We’re treating them like family members because we understand them, and we know how hard it is to be in the hospital by themselves.”

He tries not to think about the possibility of getting infected. He knows he has to stay calm for his patients’ sake.

But Maroun misses his family. To protect them, he’s opting for video chats.

Krupka decided to isolate herself from family after her unit had its first COVID-19 patient.

Her son has Down syndrome and asthma. He underwent open heart surgery at 2 months old. Though he’s in good health now, even a small cold can make him sick for longer.

Krupka’s grateful for the Molls, who found out about the opportunity to help through a Facebook page, RVs 4 MDs to Fight the Corona Virus.

“It is more important for his health that we do this than my want to be with them,” Krupka said. “They’re my family and they’re my life.”

After nine years as a nurse, Krupka said she’d never leave. Her father was a police officer, and instilled it in her that “it was our job as humans to serve others.”

“I guess this is exactly where I’m meant to be,” she said.

There are many factors motivating Maroun -- his family, community support, the nurses spending time with patients. There’s also his opponent.

“I like winning, beating this invisible enemy with the least amount of loss. That keeps me motivated. I want to win. I want to help us get out of this.”

But health care workers need allies, he said, asking the community to help them by staying home and practicing social distancing.

“They will be saving their neighbor’s life, their relative’s life, their loved one’s life, and they’ll be helping us,” he said.

Senior writer Ciara Varone can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5395, or ciara.varone@thevillagesmedia.com.