January 1, 2021, was the first day in more than 250 days that Donya Neal got to take a day off as an Infection Control Practitioner at the Vanderbilt Bedford Hospital. Since mid-April 2020, she had worked seven days a week for more than eight months straight. Donya’s job in ICP is to track the positive and negative COVID testing results. Before then, the hospital knew that something was coming. On the news, there was a new case popping up somewhere in America. The next day, four new cases. Then, twenty cases, until the number started to snowball. They knew it was coming to Middle Tennessee. They took every precaution. They strung up plastic to separate beds. Donya was preparing for the worst. But then, the hospital had no COVID patients. No rushing to the emergency room for care. No hospital beds in the hallways… until May and June of 2020 brought an explosion of cases in the area.
“We were getting multiple patients a day,” Donya said. “We have 60 beds here. Half of the occupied beds in the hospital were occupied by COVID patients. It was everywhere you looked. We had patients in the ER, ICU, everywhere.”As the hospital staff did what they could to prevent the spread of COVID, some caught COVID outside of the hospital walls. The spreading of the virus had started within the staff. “The hardest part for us was when the staff started getting sick,” she said. “Seven nurses in one department out with COVID for two weeks. We had to start finding ways to get around half of our staff being out.”The hospital had to begin cross-training nurses to move departments. Emergency room nurses would now be trained to work in the CCU or ICU departments. “It got really scary there for a while,” she said.
The COVID cases didn’t slow down until months later. This constant flow of newly sick patients kept everyone at the hospital on their feet. It kept some going into work every day for more than 250 days—a feat only a true hero can claim. It’s not easy being a hero. When you work every day from April to December, it begins to take a toll.
Donna not only made an impact on her own family, but also on families across the county. One of the motivators to keep going was helping other families. “The biggest motivator was my attachment to the community,” she said. “I love working in the community I live in. Seeing people out at Walmart or Kroger and they come up and say ‘I remember you! Do you remember me?’ It’s nice to see the people you take care of and they say ‘you took care of my mother’—we appreciate that.”
Donya’s sacrifice made a difference in the hospital and in the county. A sacrifice only a true hero could make.-GN