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Taking care of us all

Maui’s frontline health care workers get special honor

Maui Memorial Medical Center Maui South staffers, including some who worked in COVID-19 units this year, gather for a photo. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Fighting the instinct to save someone without first protecting yourself is one of the hardest adjustments for Maui’s frontline health care workers, a tight-knit group that thrives off community and sacrifice.

Before March — when the pandemic began to hit the Valley Isle — putting the patient as priority was a no-brainer for those in the emergency room of Maui’s main hospital.

“We are here to save lives,” said Jessica Rozet, Emergency Department assistant manager. “Everyone wants to jump in and save the patient.”

For the first time, the tables turned quite quickly: the rescuer could now become the victim.

“As ER nurses, a lot of time you don’t even think of your safety because you just want to go in and save the patient,” said Julius Montehermoso, Emergency Department manager. “We have to remind people: In order to keep helping people, you need to keep yourself safe and healthy. If you just jump into any patient that needs help without protecting yourself, next thing you know you are going to be a patient too.”

Julius Montehermoso

The Emergency Department of Maui Memorial Medical Center has been the first line of defense against the coronavirus.

People with illnesses and injuries as diverse as each individual make their first stop there. But with the pandemic, every patient must be assessed for COVID-19 and every staffer must suit up for a potential case. It’s high stress and high risk.

“We depend on our staff to identify who is high risk,” Montehermoso said. “They put themselves in the line of fire all the time. Even if they have PPE, we still don’t know who is bringing in what kind of disease.”

All the while, frontline health care workers toil for hours in head cover, eye cover, double mask and other personal protective equipment. Montehermoso said PPE feels like you’re “always swimming.”

“It’s very hot,” he said. “Mentally, it will break you.”

Jolynn Constantino

Their ER team is resilient, willing, adaptable, flexible and strong, Rozet and Montehermoso said. No one had to pick straws for tough COVID-19 jobs. And no one has quit yet, added Montehermoso.

“It’s the love of the job and the love of the community that keeps me here,” Rozet said. “I’m born and raised here. I grew up here. This is my home. I’m not going to leave. We do everything to make it better and take care of everyone.”

The community — in and out of the hospital — is also why Jolynn Constantino, Maui South and Maui East nurse manager, said she continues to show up.

“We have such amazing nurses in this hospital,” she said. “It’s just our culture here on Maui — everyone is so caring. They really want to do what’s right by our community and our patients.”

Constantino established the COVID unit back in March, along with some of her staff. They worked lengthy hours to adapt to changing protocol.

Back then, the novel coronavirus was still so new. Early testing machines had long turnaround times. Patients would show negative results and would later produce positives.

“The scariest part in the beginning was just all the unknowns,” Constantino said.

She said the COVID unit is unique because of its different levels of care. Critical care nurses, telemetry nurses and staff in various areas of the hospital collaborated to provide treatment.

“Everyone worked well together — from the respiratory therapist to housekeeping to maintenance,” Constantino said. “It really took the entire hospital and all the disciplines to come together to make the unit work.”

Housekeepers led by Nelida Stauffer, Environmental Services director, have important roles, hospital staff said.

The team has been working double duty due to stringent sanitizing measures for COVID — on top of standard cleaning procedures. Plus, the work is physical — stripping beds, wiping, cleaning, rinsing, replacing, disinfecting. All the while, protective gear is worn.

Stauffer said their job is worthwhile, though, because the team knows it’s making a difference.

“The most rewarding piece is to see we are containing the infection,” she said. “We celebrate actually. We huddle every morning. And when we see our number of COVID patients go really, really low, we are so happy. We know everyone is getting better.”

Lora Zorich, respiratory therapist, highlighted a noticeable shift since the onset of the pandemic.

When COVID-19 first hit, Zorich said she experienced shock, frustration and fear.

After all, there are 18 respiratory therapists who live and work on Maui, and resources in Hawaii are limited.

Departments came together to work on procedures and soon, businesses in the community reached out to provide PPE.

“Maui Plexiglass provided a lot of face shields and several other businesses provided masks,” she said.

Zorich said the hospital’s doctors, nurses and administration continued to adapt. Soon, the atmosphere began to shift.

“As we worked to solve problems, create new procedures, and the community came out and showered us with support, the mood started to change from frustration and fear to solidarity, courage and hope,” she said. “I am extremely proud of how our hospital ohana pulled together during this difficult year.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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