BY LISA EISENHAUER
April 21, 2020
Updated April 22, 2020
When Centura Health asked some of its registered nurses if they would join a team to offer relief to their counterparts at Catholic hospitals hard hit by COVID-19 patients in New Jersey, Mara Doyle was one of those who raised their hands.
The deployment meant she would be leaving her husband and children – ages 9, 8 and 1 – and a system that has so far escaped the worst of the pandemic to work for at least three weeks at a hospital with wards crowded with patients with the highly contagious and potentially lethal illness. "I just feel like this is part of my calling as a nurse," said Doyle, an emergency room nurse at Centura’s St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo, Colorado. "Part of our job as nurses is to really step up when we're needed."
A United Airlines plane set to take off with a team of 34 nurses from Centura Health gets a firehose salute on the tarmac of Denver International Airport on April 21. The nurses are bound for Catholic hospitals in New Jersey where they will offer relief and reinforcement to providers caring for patients with COVID-19.
Peter D. Banko, president and chief executive of Centennial, Colorado-based Centura Health, said within two days of the call going out April 13 for 34 nurses to assist at the New Jersey hospitals, they had more volunteers than available slots. On April 21, the team and one administrator headed east on a commercial flight courtesy of United Airlines. A welcoming committee that included Newark Bishop Manuel Cruz greeted them at Newark Liberty International Airport.
'Heroes helping heroes'
The day before she left, Doyle said she didn't know any of the other nurses bound for New Jersey from four Centura Health hospitals in Colorado. In addition to St. Mary-Corwin, they work at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco and Penrose Hospital and St. Francis Medical Center in Colorado Springs. Banko said the request for volunteers didn't go out systemwide because some Centura Health hospitals were too busy to spare nurses while others had nurses on paid time off because of the pandemic-related downturn in some areas of care. Centura Health is a member of Catholic Health Initiatives, part of CommonSpirit.
On their temporary assignments, the nurses will be working at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth; and with hospitals in the St. Joseph's Health system in Paterson and Wayne and in the Saint Peter's Healthcare System in New Brunswick; all of them are part of the Catholic Healthcare Partnership of New Jersey. The New Jersey hospitals are housing the Centura Health team and providing a food allowance. Banko said Centura Health is working out how to cover compensation with the New Jersey hospitals.
Gary Horan, president and chief executive of Trinitas Regional Medical Center, said the past few weeks have been challenging for his hospital. On Wednesday, the hospital was set to celebrate the discharge of its 500th patient who had recovered from COVID-19.
Horan was among those at the Newark airport to greet the Centura team and he said their willingness to pitch in to help his staff was inspiring. "They are mission oriented and you can tell that," he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that 746,625 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 nationwide and that 39,083 of those victims died. The number of people known to who have died of the illness in New Jersey stood at 4,377; in Colorado, it was 449.
"These are heroes helping heroes," Kevin J. Slavin, president and chief executive of St. Joseph's Health said in a press release about the deployment. "We're thrilled to welcome our colleagues from Centura Health to New Jersey and are grateful that they have stepped up to help us care for our communities."
Connected Catholic system
Though Centura Health hospitals have treated many COVID patients and still had 180 victims of the illness under their care on Monday, Banko said the pandemic had not overwhelmed the system. "We've been able to meet the demand, fortunately," he said. "The surge that we expected didn't come, so the work from our governors in Colorado and Kansas has paid off."
Centura Health nurses wave as they wait in line at Denver International Airport on April 21 before boarding a plane bound for New Jersey, where they will assist in the care of patients with COVID-19.
Both states are among those under statewide shelter-in-place orders.
One reason that Centura Health is sending nurses to the systems in New Jersey is that Banko used to work there and has kept many connections, including with Slavin, who chairs the New Jersey Hospital Association. Banko said that he was happy to be able to answer the call for help from former colleagues in Catholic ministries. He hopes other systems do the same, if asked.
"We're all one big connected ecosystem," he said. "Catholic with a small 'c' is universal so we're a universal church. If there are other communities in the country that need help and some of us can, I'd encourage them to reach out and connect and we can reach out and support one another."
Amy King, senior vice president and chief people officer at Centura Health, is the administrator accompanying the nursing team to New Jersey. Her role is to be an ambassador between the systems and that will include seeing that the Centura Health nurses get to their assigned spots.
King said she is hopeful that after the team completes its mission, its members will return to Colorado with a sense of pride and honor. "I spoke with every single one of them over the weekend when they raised their hand to go on this deployment and every one of them in their own way was excited about the opportunity to go in and help," she said.
A worker at Denver International Airport holds a sign showing support for the team of nurses from Centura Health who flew to New Jersey on April 21 to help at several Catholic hospitals that have been hard hit pandemic.
While the public sees the heroic efforts being made by care providers who are on the frontlines of the pandemic, King said she doesn't know if those outside of hospitals appreciate the sacrifices being made by the providers' families. "That's one thing that I think that's oftentimes left off the table, thanking (the families) for their support for us to be able to deploy (care providers) and help out," she said.
Doyle said her family is concerned about her temporary assignment in New Jersey. "The kids, of course, don't want to see mom go, but they understand that I'm going to help and I'll be back as soon as I can," she said.
In the meantime, she is eager to share her skills and offer compassion in a place that is combatting one of the worst blows from the virus. "I can't imagine being one of those patients terrified and without any visitors in the hospital," she said. "You need somebody that really wants to be there and I think that me and the other nurses have that heart."
» Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila leads a blessing of the hands ceremony for Centura Health nurses before they depart for New Jersey to help care for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.