“The patient had been doing great during the day, but then started acting differently. The patient deteriorated, and we had to call a Code Blue and elevate the patient to the ICU. We were in a position of rapidly needing to put them on life support. Very quickly, everyone knew exactly what to do, how to intubate them, get them on the ventilator. We were able to take care of that patient, give them the care they need and keep moving with the other patients in our care.”

That’s respiratory therapist Sue Palmer, describing a COVID-19 rapid response incident at Cone Health’s Green Valley campus. Green Valley is one of the only healthcare facilities in the state that exclusively treats COVID-19 patients, and Sue has been working there since April 2020.

The Green Valley campus keeps the community safe by isolating COVID-19 patients, and also allows for more specialized and coordinated COVID-19 care, like Sue described. In a crisis, every doctor, nurse and therapist is completely focused on COVID-19–ensuring patients get the high quality care they need.

Creating a COVID-19 only hospital

Just before the biggest public health crisis in a century, Cone Health moved its Women’s Hospital from a standalone facility into a new tower attached to the main Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.

This turned out to be very good timing–the move occurred just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread across the country.

“We were starting to hear the nightmarish stories in New York about not having enough capacity, and we had a building sitting there empty, ready and available to be used,” said Debbie Cunningham, Senior Vice President and President Behavioral Health Services.

The Cone Health team realized they needed to prepare the community for the pandemic, and in just 28 days, the transformed facility created a safer environment for patients as well as healthcare workers. 

But there’s no question about it – repurposing an entire facility is no small task. Ensuring a hospital that formerly treated women and newborns was ready to treat adults with COVID-19 required some updates, and more than 80 team members came together to make it happen within weeks.

Cone Health created a negative pressure environment throughout the ICU and several floors of the facility, which means air circulation is limited. This reduces the spread of the virus, which allows employees to use less personal protective equipment (PPE).

It sounds simple, but according to Sue Palmer, simply using less PPE reduced stress, allowed more time for patient care, and ensured healthcare workers felt safe. 

Dedicated healthcare workers like Sue and her colleague Marisa Cullen volunteered to treat patients while risking their own exposure to the virus, a situation that did cause some anxiety.

“The biggest concern for me was getting the virus,” said Marisa, a Cone Health nurse. “I’m a person of faith, and I found myself praying before I would enter the building that I wouldn’t get it, and if I did get it, I would have good outcomes and survive it. I had never done that in over 20 years–prayed in my car that I wouldn’t get it. I’d pray for patients or hope everything would go well, but never for my safety.”

But Marisa also shared that the experience of working at Green Valley had powerful and inspiring moments, too, especially in being there for patients who desperately needed her care.

“This virus makes people so fearful. When I look in patients’ eyes, I’ve never seen the level of fear,” she said. “And it’s super isolating, not only are you fearful, you don’t have the people who comfort you, your family can’t be there to hold your hand, and that has been really challenging. But we are able to come into those rooms and be with them and hold their hands and comfort them, and that’s been inspiring.”

The Greensboro community has rallied behind Green Valley and responded to the dedicated providers with an outpouring of support. In response, Sue Palmer wanted to make one thing clear–that dedication isn’t going anywhere, even as the state faces current and future waves of the crisis.

“We’re there, we’re continuing to be there, and we’re going to stay there until we get this under control,” she said. “We’re not going to give up, so we don’t want you to give up either.”