How'd community face COVID without Cleveland Clinic, impassioned nurse's plea?

How'd community face COVID without Cleveland Clinic, impassioned nurse's plea?

patrick dovet/tcpalm

Nurse Melissa Bennett’s impassioned description of life and death in her hospital’s COVID-19 ward was the most emotional part of Cleveland Clinic Florida’s recent news conference.

But one of the most salient points made Friday wasn’t really about COVID-19. It was about a broader issue: Cleveland Clinic’s 2019 decision to operate hospitals in Stuart, Tradition and Vero Beach previously run by separate community nonprofits.

After a panel of Cleveland Clinic experts outlined the unprecedented challenges given a record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and shortages of staff and supplies, Rob Lord, retiring in December as president of Cleveland Clinic Martin Health, provided some context.

“I’d hate to think of what this would have been like had I not had the resources, had we been an independent (health care group),” Lord said. “I am so grateful that we have the (Cleveland Clinic) resources at our disposal … any questions that we've had about how to deal with this virus from the beginning we’ve been able to talk to people who have been preeminent in that field.”

As a longtime Indian River County resident, I’ve had similar thoughts about our local hospital since the pandemic's outset.

We've always had talented medical professionals, but can standalone hospitals have the expertise to handle the most contagious and potentially deadly virus we’ve seen in our lifetimes, the stress on caregivers, indigent care and revenue losses associated with cutting some non-emergency surgeries?

“We would not have a hospital here if it wasn’t for (Cleveland Clinic),” said Marybeth Cunningham, the Indian River County Hospital District chair who helped bring Cleveland Clinic to town amid financial challenges of the previous operator. “I’ve said that in our district meetings several times … God blessed us.”

Cleveland Clinic’s integration of patients, physicians, staff and systems into its operation hasn’t been all grins and giggles. There has been a lot of frustration, resignations and retirements.

Some of that is to be expected.

Sure, elderly folks are hospitalized with COVID-19, including some who have been vaccinated. But unvaccinated folks in their 20s to 60s have been the virus’ prime victims, Cleveland Clinic officials said. In fact, 90% of Friday's inpatients were unvaccinated.

Few would have predicted half the folks in Treasure Coast hospitals would have COVID-19, intensive care units would be packed and there would be no end in sight.

What’s shocking is the public would not have known about these difficulties had Cleveland Clinic not stepped up weeks ago and sounded the alarm.

You’ve pretty much heard crickets on the record number of cases and hospitalizations from the Florida Department of Health and its local affiliates. It’s a shame. They did so well engaging the public in preventive measures earlier in the pandemic.

The biggest news out of HCA hospitals in St. Lucie County came in May when Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce unsuccessfully sought a judge’s order to take a 41-year-old nurse and mother of three off mechanical breathing devices. A judge ruled against them, and Genea Bristol remains hospitalized.

Other than that, HCA and Steward Health Care System, which owns Sebastian River Medical Center, don't offer much information. The silence of Steward, because it was founded and led by a team of physicians, is more surprising.

Although independent sources cited the Sebastian hospital as being about half full of COVID-19 patients last week, here's how Patty Montgomery, marketing director, replied to me when I asked for detailed numbers:

“In the spirit of consistency and uniformity, and keeping in mind our obligations to ensure patient medical privacy, it is our current policy to release Covid 19 data only through State and local public health authorities.”

OK, but how can people, amid a growing pandemic, make educated decisions when many state and local public health authorities have stopped regularly answering questions or releasing information on such things as death and hospitalizations by county?

Like Cleveland Clinic or not, its leaders have stepped up to educate the public amid a void of local information. They did so articulately and admirably. You can watch a repeat of the news conference at tinyurl.com/296cz2k

Hopefully, Cleveland Clinic's leadership and willingness to open its doors and expertise will help save lives.

Few people could have been as persuasive as Bennett, a mother in her mid-40s.

“This virus is real and the impact that it is having on us and as caregivers is  sobering,” she said, citing younger patients than in past surges. “They're struggling with complications that are caused by the virus and the way that this variant is attacking their bodies.

“I've seen too many patients die, especially over the last few days,” she said, beginning to get emotional. “And these are men and women who are my age or your age.

“Me and my nurses, we've held the hands of dying patients,” she continued. “I have had to console teenagers for the loss of their mom or their dad — and as a mother that is traumatizing.

“It's painful for me, it is painful for caregivers that I work alongside every day who are working tirelessly, extra shifts, 16-hour days.

“But we are also human,” Bennett continued, noting counselors have been called in to help caregivers with their grief. “And we're tired.”

“We're sad at what we're seeing in our community. We know that the vaccines are effective.

“As your team of caregivers, we urge everyone in the community, if you are eligible to get the vaccine, if you haven't got it yet, please get it,” she pleaded. “It can save your life. It can save your loved ones. It will prevent your children from crying and missing you.”

Earlier in the news conference Conor Delaney, president and CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Florida, told reporters 70% of its staff was vaccinated — a higher percentage than the overall local population.

The hospital didn’t, however, plan to mandate vaccinations for employees, despite the fact numerous caregivers have been out of work with COVID-19.

“We have been following practice of educating our team members,” Delaney said. “We're trying to do it through that, because we also respect our caregivers.”

The discussion reminded me of the one I had recently with Mary Pitman, a traveling nurse from Vero Beach who worked in a COVID-19 ward as New York City was ravaged by the virus in March 2020.

After seeing firsthand what the virus did to patients, Pitman said she had an easy decision on the vaccine:

“I decided there’s nothing the vaccine could do to me that would be worse than what COVID could do.”

Was your decision that easy?

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