Editor’s note: In past years, Health Care Heroes has honored individuals within the health care community for their dedication, expertise and professionalism. In this year — indelibly marked by the COVID-19 pandemic — Knox.biz and Knox News have changed the program to recognize the selfless service and tremendous sacrifices of ALL of our community’s health care workers. The 2020 Health Care Heroes awards program, sponsored by Lincoln Memorial University and First Horizon, is a heartfelt thank you to the thousands of medical professionals who have put their lives on the line to protect East Tennessee families.
Newborns entered a new world, both literally and figuratively, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Policies to protect patients and providers like limited visitation and new clinical care practices were implemented by staff in the maternity, labor and delivery departments at East Tennessee hospitals.
The obstetrics units, which have always warmly welcomed growing families, had to come up with creative solutions to care for new mothers and their children. Nurses became cheerleaders, photographers and – most importantly – family to patients.
“They just took it on,” said Dr. Robert Elder, vice president of the Center for Women & Infants at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. “They said, ‘This is something we’ve got to do, and we’re going to do it right.’ Everyone’s attitude was just unbelievable.”
Visitors during the virus
Local hospital systems collectively decided to limit visitors in the interest of safety during the early days of the pandemic. The new rules restricted visitors in obstetrics and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) more than ever.
Before COVID-19, patients could have several support people during birth and a crowd eagerly waiting outside to celebrate postpartum.
“We were very liberal on our visitation policies in obstetrics because it’s such a wonderful, happy time, for the most part, and such a family time,” Elder said. “COVID changed that.”
Patients in labor were allowed to have only one person present during birth. Just one person at a time could visit babies in the NICU.
Nurses at Blount Memorial Hospital, Covenant Health, Tennova and UT Medical Center stepped in to support families when they needed it most. Hospitals shared stories of nurses spending extra time with new moms, wheeling them to windows to see family and other special moments when patients were unable to be with loved ones in person.
Health care providers were able to lift some limitations as more was learned about the virus, but policies still prevent patients from having as many visitors as they like. Hospitals say that some patients prefer the privacy of a quieter birthing experience.
Laboring mothers now can have two people and a doula present during birth, and two people can visit children in the NICU. Things are not the same as they were before, but Elder said if anyone can comfort patients amid COVID-19, it’s obstetrics staff.
“Our nursing staff and our staff in general are some of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met in my life,” Elder said. “They love what they do, they love caring for these patients and babies, and it’s in their hearts.”
Keeping families connected
Covenant Health, Tennova and UT Medical Center obstetrics staff turned to technology to keep families connected amid the pandemic.
Nurses helped new moms set up video calling and were there to take the first photos of newborns. Elder said responses from patients have been “positive and somewhat overwhelming” because of their gratitude for capturing children’s first moments.
Virtual visitors at UT Medical Center also were able to see newborns in the NICU using its “Angle Eye” cameras. The streaming device shows babies in real time once patients share a link with loved ones.
The popularity of virtual communication proved that distance is no obstacle in obstetrics.
Care amid COVID-19
Health care providers came up against many challenges they never expected when COVID-19 cases spread across the country. Communication about the most recent research and best practices became integral to hospitals’ efforts.
“Communication among ourselves was a big challenge, so we developed huddles that got together on a regular basis to talk about impending issues,” Elder said. “It was not unusual for us to have something new happen that you know we hadn’t dealt with before.”
One initial concern in obstetrics departments was how to care for pregnant patients who tested positive for COVID-19 and how to protect pregnant providers treating COVID-19.
TeamHealth compiled the available information and created “COVID-19 and Pregnancy,” a document describing the clinical considerations for both groups. Other health care systems looked into the potential effects of exposure on the vulnerable populations.
When COVID-19 is cured
The world will be different when the coronavirus is contained, and obstetrics units are waiting to see what changes will stay.
Elder said although he hopes families will be able to gather in waiting rooms to welcome newborns soon, he’s interested to see what infectious disease specialists say about visitation policies in the future. Elder also is sure that people will take more precautions like wearing protective equipment.
“There is going to be a new normal,” Elder said. “I just don’t know what it is yet.”
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