Thursday morning, staff members of the Samaritan’s Purse emergency field hospital in Lenoir donned their protective equipment and entered the "hot zone" — where COVID-19 patients are treated — for the first time.
The very first patients of the field hospital were transferred from Caldwell UNC Health Care hospital on Thursday. The hospital, made up of several large, white tents, is set up in UNC Caldwell’s parking lot. It took about a week and a half for it to be planned, organized, built and opened, UNC Caldwell CEO Laura Easton said.
On Dec. 23, the field hospital was just a vague idea, Easton said. She wondered if Samaritan’s Purse, which has provided aid for the COVID-19 crisis around the world, would consider setting up an emergency hospital in Lenoir, just down the mountain from the organization’s headquarters in Boone.
She contacted leaders of four nearby regional health care systems: Catawba Valley Health System, Frye Regional Medical Center, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System and Carolinas Healthcare System Blue Ridge. They all agreed a field hospital could lift some of the burden hospitals are facing due to increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations.
On Dec. 28, hospital leaders had a call with Samaritan’s Purse officials, who said in order to set up a hospital there would have to be enough health care workers willing to come to Lenoir from around the country. By the next day, dozens had volunteered to work at the hospital, Easton said.
By Dec. 31, supplies were being delivered. A week later, it’s open.
“We created this hospital in seven days,” Easton said. “That is amazing to me. It’s amazing, and it’s needed, and it’s unheard of, and it took everyone.”
Caldwell UNC staff and staff of the emergency hospital, who are contracted and paid by Samaritan’s Purse, gathered Thursday morning for a short ceremony before the first patient was delivered.
Edward Graham, the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, spoke on behalf of Samaritan's Purse. He said during the ceremony that the hospital is there to support the community they call home.
“During this pandemic with COVID-19, it has ravaged this community here in Lenoir,” Graham said. “Lenoir is home to us. I’m from Boone, born and raised, and this is just off the mountain. … To see the community affected the way it has, it breaks my heart. And so for the medical staff here and the nurses especially that are working so hard to save lives, we have a resource that we think can help and we’re here and our wonderful volunteers and we have come to assist this hospital.”
The field hospital, which can hold 30 COVID-19 patients who require hospital care but don’t need ventilators, brings a glimmer of hope, Easton said. As hospitalizations have grown, hospital staff are getting tired, she said.
“A couple of weeks ago I saw in the eyes of my staff, ‘Oh my gosh, what more can we do?’” Easton said. “When the trucks arrived (for the field hospital), the emergency department staff was looking out, and I could just see a sparkle return to their eyes of, ‘Help is coming.’ This is a little bit of hope and an acknowledgement that this is a big deal.”
After nine months of treating COVID-19 patients and the pandemic worsening in recent weeks, the tent brought some relief, Caldwell UNC Director of Cardiopulmonary Services Kelli Ace said.
“After spending some time out here (at the field hospital) with the nurses, I got home and I immediately felt relief,” Ace said. “I called my dad laughing instead of crying.”
Ace added, “I can already feel the burden has been lifted. We’re over capacity and everybody is tired and we’re pulling together, but it’s hard. Them being here is very humbling that they volunteered to help us. It’s like a dream.”
Inside the hospital, the roughly 40 volunteers are excited, too — despite what lies ahead: two to four weeks of 12-hour shifts every single day.
Shelley Kelly, a family nurse practitioner from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said she’s driven to help patients and staff.
She has taken part in Samaritan’s Purse aid efforts for 10 years and been in about a dozen emergency hospitals, she said. This is her third COVID-19 emergency hospital.
“You get to help the patient, and you’re helping the staff, too,” Kelly said. “I think across the nation if we can help each other out in any way shape or form it’s an honor.”
Four tents will hold patients with hospital beds and curtains dividing each area. For staff to get into the patient area, they have to don layers on layers of protective equipment, and it can take 10 to 15 minutes to put it on, Kelly said. They wear gowns, two layers of gloves, masks, face shields and hair nets, and everything is sanitized. Once they’ve geared up, they can’t leave the hot zone without going through another 15-minute process, Kelly said.
Patients for the hospital will come from Caldwell UNC, but other hospitals can transfer patients to reduce their patient load.
The hospital will offer high-quality care so the region’s hospitals can continue to treat anyone who needs help, whether for COVID-19 or otherwise, Easton said.
“I think that’s what this field hospital brings to our region, it brings a hope that we will definitely be able to provide access to compassionate and expert care to every citizen who arrives at the doors of these five hospitals.”