Kathy Nottell, 68, retired as a nurse from Kent Hospital five years ago.
Now, with the state ready to open two field hospitals in preparation of a surge in coronavirus cases, she knows she can be of help.
She could not watch idly as the crisis unfolds, and when Dean Carlson, Kent’s senior human resources director, approached her, she volunteered to go back to work.
It’s a decision she didn’t make lightly, but she said Tuesday she and her husband are in good health, as is the rest of her family.
“I have concerns. I’m very aware of self-protection,” she said in an interview. She added that if she is diligent with self-protection and care, “I’ll be OK. I’ll do the best I can do.”
Staffing of the field hospitals was one of the issues Shannon Sullivan, Kent Hospital’s vice president of operations, touched upon in an exchange of emails leading up to media tours of the field hospitals at the Rhode Island Convention Center and the former Citizens Banks building on Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston Tuesday afternoon.
A third field hospital capable of housing 500 beds is ready to be built out at the closed Lowe’s at Quonset. Like the hospital in Cranston, the Quonset hospital would be operated by Care New England.
Sullivan said members of the Kent staff have offered to work at the Cranston field hospital, and Kent is also reaching out to retirees like Nottell as well as welcoming volunteers.
“We review, based on skill set, whether they are best utilized in the hospital or at the field hospital,” Sullivan explained.
A resident of the Greenwood section of Warwick, Nottell – who plans to work two days a week – will find a different environment than Kent.
Sullivan guided a tour of the Cranston field hospital, which has three wards with a total of 335 beds. She said the 123,000-square-foot former Citizens Bank office could be expanded by another 200 to 300 beds if necessary.
DiMeo Construction transformed the former office space, which required the creation of a negative pressure environment for containment, copper tubing for oxygen lines to each of the pods, re-flooring plus a myriad other renovations, over the last three weeks.
Dr. James Fanale, president and CEO of Care New England, lauded the work of his team, naming Sullivan and Dr. Laura Forman, Kent’s chief of emergency medicine, for their rapid work in staging the field hospital and making preparations for the one in Quonset. The Cranston hospital would be ready to accept patients as of Wednesday, Sullivan said.
She said the “team nursing mode” would be applied in the field hospital. Each of the wards would consist of “pods” with 18 to 24 beds and be staffed by a physician plus three others.
To give it a Rhode Island flare, each of the pods is to be named after a Rhode Island beach. The wards are named simply A, B and C.
Fanale noted that initially, the state anticipated the need for an additional 6,000 beds to meet the surge, a number that has since been reduced to 1,000. In the case of Kent, he said the hospital is currently at 60 percent of capacity and the intent is to first use Kent before referring patients to a field hospital.
He acknowledged the build-out of the field hospitals and their associated costs, which he couldn’t provide, may be the source of criticism should they not be needed.
Yet, he prefers that situation to not preparing for the worst and for it then to happen.
Sullivan said the hospitals are meant to care for low-acuity COVID-19 positive patients.
“However, based on what we know about the course of this disease, we have built these sites to be able to care for patients with a wide variety of acuity, as well as systems in place to be able to urgently transfer in the advent of an acute event. The field hospitals include on-site pharmacy, labs, EKGs, and other clinical functionality.”
She said full hospital lab and clinical functionality are not available at the site.
“We have worked to assure that patients who need a higher level of care than we can provide will be moved back to the main hospital quickly through ambulances off site,” she added.
What about contacting the field hospitals and the patients being treated in them?
“Patients are allowed their own cell phones and are welcome to FaceTime or call their loves ones,” she said. “We will have a family line available for family to call and get connected on information on their loved one, staffed by a clinical social worker. There will be no visitation at the field hospital.”
Nottell, who worked in the infusion unit at Kent before retirement, has remained actively involved in the Critical Incident Stress Management Team. A nonprofit organization, the team is made up of clinicians, first responders, peers and clergy. It’s a kind of volunteer work she has done long before her retirement and believes has a vital role in this pandemic.
“How are we going to care for staff to get through this?” she asks. Nottell recognizes the virus had added stress to everyone’s life, but even more on caregivers and first responders. She said the team does not seek notoriety and works “quietly” with those suffering from stress.
“They know we are there if they need us,” Nottell said of those on the front lines in fighting this pandemic.
Nottell feels everyone can help in these times, even if it’s calling a neighbor to see if they are all right or offering to pick up something as the grocery store.
In her case, she wants to be there for patients and to assist fellow nurses.
“To be useful is the most honorable thing to do,” she said.