Every year as the clock winds down — as a new year and, with it, new possibilities approach — we begin to think not forward, but back.
Who — or what — in the last year has had the greatest impact on Indiana’s oldest city?
It’s a difficult decision, one about which we debate, sometimes even argue a little.
Who will we most remember?
What best defines the year we’ve spent as a community?
At the end of 2020, however, there was no debate. There was no arguing. There were no questions — there was only truth.
The answer was clear.
It’s every physician who stayed up long into the night, reading, desperately searching for answers.
It’s every respiratory therapist who watched the chest of a COVID-19 patient rise and fall, praying their efforts would somehow prevail.
It’s every person who tidied rooms, changed bedsheets or scrubbed bathrooms.
It’s every X-ray technician who, perhaps, held their own breath in anticipation of answers.
It’s every caretaker that offered a word of love and connection to the outside world.
It’s every nurse who held the hand of a dying stranger.
2020’s Newsmakers of the Year are the health care workers on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.
It’s them that we honor.
“What they’ve done is overwhelming,” county health officer Dr. Alan Stewart said of his fellow front-line health care workers. “They’ve worked and worked and then worked some more. They’ve been selfless. They’ve risked their lives.
“It reminds me a little bit of when AIDS first hit. We didn’t know how that was transmitted and yet there were healthcare workers taking care of them when no one else would. These health care workers have worked knowing they could catch (COVID-19) at any time, working without sufficient equipment, and yet they’ve continued to persist.
“They are the real heroes.”
Local healthcare workers have, for months, been left alone to battle the novel coronavirus as it invaded Knox County, sickening nearly 3,000 and killing 38 people.
At first, in March, when the entire country was placed into lock down, doctors, nurses, technicians, therapists and even environmental service workers learned new procedures, how to sanitize and reuse Personal Protective Equipment amid a nationwide shortage and rearranged an entire hospital all in an effort to prepare for a surge that never came.
But as the weeks of waiting wore on into months, anxiety gave way to fear and then exhaustion at the local coronavirus caseload began to increase, sometimes with as many as 70 new cases reported each day.
Eventually, they found themselves living a nightmare.
“It’s taken both an emotional and physical toll,” said 24-year-old September McCarter, a patient care technician who has worked for months on COVID-19 floors at Good Samaritan.
“I’m always exhausted.”
As a patient care tech, McCarter sees to COVID patients’ most basic needs, whether it’s assistance in walking to the bathroom or dialing a cell phone to call loved ones.
“But the worst part,” she said, “has been seeing your patient one day not be so sick to coming in the next and they’re in ICU on a vent. It happens that fast.
“And we get so close to them,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “Their families can’t be there with them. So we step in, get to know them. You hear their life stories. And when they go from good to bad, it’s emotional. It’s been terrifying to see how sick these patients get.”
Mary Pargin, a nurse and director of emergency services at Good Samaritan, has watched as exhausted health care workers come back day after day, none of them willing to give up no matter how dark the days.
“We’ve really not seen anything like the stress this has put on our units,” she said. “All of the work we did early on, we were ready, at least in terms of having processes and procedures in place. But there is no way to emotionally prepare a staff for what they are going to see. That’s been the hardest part of all this.
“When you see your staff melting in a corner because they just can’t do it anymore, you begin to ask yourself, ‘What can I do for them? How do I get them to come back tomorrow and do it all again?’ ”
Having been in hospital administration for quite some time — one of Pargin’s many duties during the pandemic has been to report local coronavirus cases to the state Department of Health — she decided to train and re-enter hands-on patient care.
She wanted to connect with and support her staff, she said, as well as the coronavirus patients they were treating. When nurses were at their lowest, she was there to pick them up. They would share in warm memories, news of loved ones waiting at home and offer words of encouragement, gentle nudges to keep moving forward.
They’ve had a lot of wins, she said, but seen a lot of death, too.
And there’s simply no way to prepare for what has never been.
“I hear people say, ‘Oh, COVID, it’s not a big deal. It’s not real,’ ” Pargin said. “But when you walk through a COVID-19 unit and you see people on ventilators, patients on their bellies and it taking a team of six people to turn them.
“I wish those people would think about the people, the healthcare workers, who have to do this day in and day out and still come back and do it again.”
The stress, too, has been felt by Ashley Blocher, 30, an environmental services assistant at Good Samaritan.
As she’s cleaned rooms over the last several months, she’s seen first-hand how sick coronavirus patients can be. The idle chats she’s grown to love with hospital patients has given way to the heartbreaking whirs and beeps of medical machines in otherwise quiet rooms.
Many days, she felt like giving up.
“These patients, they can’t speak or breathe,” she said. “Watching that, it’s taken its toll on me, for sure. The fear of taking it home, that’s what scares me the most.
“There are some days where we just want to throw in the towel, but we don’t,” she said. “We can’t.”
Scott Evans has been a respiratory therapist at Good Samaritan for the last 20 years.
Respiratory therapists have been thrust into the spotlight in recent months as they’ve played a pivotal role in the fight against COVID-19 — placing critical patients on ventilators and offering life-saving therapies like high-flow oxygen.
Emotionally, he said, it’s been stressful to see how sick coronavirus patients become — and how quickly their situations can change.
“It’s a roller coaster,” he said. “They’ll have a couple of good days and then fall several steps back. We’re in a position where we’re trying to level the playing field for them, trying to keep their spirits up, but it’s hard because we don’t know what to expect either.
“The intensity of what we’re dealing with starts to wear on you,” he said. “These patients, they’re all so very sick. And the emotional toll it takes on them is as bad as the sickness itself.”
Dr. Lance Payton, an ER physician with Good Samaritan, said he has been both challenged and invigorated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Physicians across the world, as the pandemic hit, began to look at and study the novel virus, reading just-published medical journals and studies being taken on by colleagues about what seemed to work and, unfortunately, what didn’t.
“This was brand new. We knew nothing about it,” he said. “And it’s scary, but then you learn.”
Payton, too, said he’s watched as the mood at the hospital has gone from one of anxiety about what was coming to fear as it descended and depleted resources.
“Initially, everybody, even me, when you’re the first person to treat someone potentially with COVID, we were scared, absolutely,” he said. “As we’ve found out that our processes do work, it’s become easier. But when I go upstairs and walk around in the ICU, I see nurses that are tired, overworked, ones with multiple patients, seeing more and more death, and that’s really really hard.”
But with the arrival of the vaccine, there is now hope, too, he said.
“We’re getting better at what we’re doing. We’re learning,” he said. “We’re not seeing it as much in the ER. And now with the hope of getting the vaccine out to everybody, we are all looking forward to some kind of normal once again.”
Evans, too, said the vaccine will inevitably bring long-awaited relief.
“It will certainly keep some patients out of the hospital, and other therapies, too, are helping.
“Relief is coming,” he said, “if we can just hang in there awhile longer. We have to keep pushing.”
Stewart doesn’t consider himself a front-line worker. He claims to have largely stayed behind the scenes, although he’s been, for all intents and purposes, leading the charge.
He’s the one local elected officials and community leaders have looked to for guidance; he’s been a trusted source of information for many.
He’s the one who fought tirelessly to convince us all to stay home when so many simply didn’t want to hear it.
And all in the twilight of his long, esteemed medical career.
“It’s been busy, much busier than I ever expected,” he said. “But in some ways it’s also been gratifying. It’s been very educational. I’ve had an opportunity to get to know and work with a lot of extraordinary people.
“It’s been like fighting a war,” he said matter-of-factly. “There are those who have been lost, those who have gone on, those who have been injured and will never be the same again.
“But I’m ready to see this through. I’m ready to see it end.”
Good Samaritan officials say the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic has seen fewer healthcare workers take advantage of their opportunity to receive the Pfizer vaccine than considered ideal.
“We are estimating only about 20% of healthcare workers have chosen to be vaccinated at this point,” said Good Samaritan Chief Operating Officer Adam Thacker. “That’s a smaller percentage of workers than I would like to see.”
While still in phase 1A of the vaccine rollout, which prioritizes healthcare workers and longterm care facility staff, Thacker says the low turnout of group 1A is what prompted officials to begin offering open vaccine clinic appointments to educators and emergency responders early this week.
“Obviously our preference would be for our healthcare workers to step up and be vaccinated. We had the capacity for much more, thus our decision to push forward,” he said.
Though it’s not entirely clear why nearly 80% of Knox, Daviess and Pike counties 5,000 healthcare workers have opted out of the vaccine for now, Thacker speculates there are at least two primary factors.
A small group of medical professionals have already battled COVID themselves in the past couple of months, and therefore have some natural immunity to the virus.
“We have members who have contracted COVID and recovered and have natural immunity antibodies and are choosing to wait. Some of those employees continue to monitor their antibodies,” Thacker said.
Waiting until their antibodies dissipate frees up vaccine doses for other frontline workers who have no immunity to COVID-19.
More commonly, however, some healthcare employees are choosing to wait until they learn a little more about the newly-released Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
While Thacker says he personally hasn’t heard any medical professional say they are adamant against being vaccinated, he knows there is some trepidation.
“There is some vaccine hesitancy,” he said. “The majority of what I’m hearing people say is, ‘I’m going to wait.’ ”
But, Thacker says, the large number of healthcare workers waiting until later to be vaccinated sparks some concern about what happens when phases 1B and 1C begin this year.
Though no official start date has been given by the state’s vaccination advisory panel, Good Samaritan officials expect vaccination stage 1B to begin as early as mid-January.
“The concern is that as we roll into other phases, the next groups will be very large populations, so we will see much more pressure on getting people into the vaccine clinic in a timely manner,” Thacker explained.
Despite the hesitancy of many healthcare and other frontline workers, Thacker says spirits inside the walls of Good Samaritan are lifting as the availability of a vaccine provides hope for the staff on the second and third floors who work long hours caring for COVID-19 patients.
“A few weeks ago I think there was still a lot of anxiety about whether or not we would get the vaccine allocations we were anticipating. In this pandemic we have been on a rollercoaster ride with receiving supplies — PPE, COVID tests, to the vaccine now,” Thacker said.
But, he says, with consistent delivery of allocated vaccines each week, there is cautious sigh of relief amongst hospital staff and administrators.
Already, longterm care facilities have worked in partnership with CVS pharmacies to have their employees and residents vaccinated onsite. A welcome relief for individuals who have been so vulnerable and isolated the past ten months.
Thacker is hopeful that in the coming days and weeks everyone will take the time to educate themselves about the COVID-19 vaccine in order to make an informed decision.
“Be educated with reliable sources,” he urges, pointing out that memes or opinions shared on social media, which can be written and posted by literally anyone — no matter their background or how unsubstantiated the claims — are not the best ways to make healthcare decisions.
Fact-based information about the novel coronavirus as well as available vaccines can be found on the CDC website, Indiana’s state COVID-19 site, and soon on Good Samaritan’s website.
“These are sites with information from healthcare leaders who can tell you the fact-based information on the safety profiles of the vaccines,” Thacker said.
Though his role at Good Samaritan is COO, Thacker’s background is as a pharmacist, and he says he personally has spent hours combing through information about how the vaccines were made and how the trials were facilitated.
“I firmly believe they moved at the speed of science and not based on some predetermined date that said they had to have a vaccine ready by the end of the year,” he said.
“I believe the vaccines are safe and effective.”
Pointing to pandemics and infections of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Thacker notes they ceased because of a good vaccine.
“This vaccine is what returns us to normal — to gathering at the holidays and for birthday parties,” he said. “This is how we get back to that.”
At nearly the eleventh hour, the Salvation Army received a large, anonymous donation to help the organization reach its annual red kettle goal of $75,000.
Capt. Karla Salsbury had some concerns as Christmas Eve quickly approached with faithful bell ringers having collected only about 70% of what the nonprofit entity needs to provide services throughout the year.
“But we had a very generous donation that came in toward the last, which brought us a little over our $75,000 goal,” Salsbury said with relief and excitement. “This is what keeps our doors open and our lights on.
“The red kettle campaign is a major portion of what keeps us able to serve.”
Though the number of volunteer bell ringers was down this year, Salsbury says there were still many who stepped up to help fulfill Christmas wishes for families across the county.
Several area churches — and even individuals and businesses — got on board this year, each taking a day and volunteering to fill the bell-ringing slots.
“People just stepped up, and I am so grateful for that community support,” Salsbury added.
The Salvation Army, nationwide, is only allowed to raise money as part of its annual red kettle campaign from Black Friday through Christmas Eve, so there is a lot of pressure on that four weeks of fundraising.
The organization has, however, seen a boost in recent years as both city and county elected officials and members of the city police and fire departments have used a bit of friendly competition to bolster fundraising efforts.
The Bell Bash, a competition between city elected officials and county elected officials took place in December and, with the county emerging victorious, raising nearly $5,000 in a single day.
Battle of the Badges, the competition between the Vincennes Fire Department and the Vincennes Police Department, too brings in thousands of dollars annually for the organization.
For Salsbury, the volunteers themselves were a special gift this year.
“I had to be gone during the week of the toy distribution for my brother’s funeral,” Salsbury said of her family’s loss.
In her absence, during perhaps the busiest week of the year for the Salvation Army, volunteers stepped in to become the hands and feet for Capt. Salsbury.
“I had volunteers just step up and handle everything,” she said. “They are amazing people who showed what they are made of.”
“They said they would handle everything so I could be with my family, and they did,” she said, clearly moved by the dedication of so many in the community who are committed to the organization’s mission to serve.
All told the Salvation Army was able to make the Christmas dreams of more than 384 youngsters come true through the Angel Tree program, distributing nearly 3,500 toys as well as gift cards to 57 teen angels this year.
Too, 356 Knox County families were assisted with food boxes in order to ensure they had a filling Christmas dinner.
“To volunteers who rang bells in the cold and rain, or those who packed food boxes or organized Angel Tree toys, I just want to express my heartfelt gratitude. We could not do it without that help,” she said.
While the number of applicants for toys and Christmas meals were down this year, Salsbury says that was a nationwide trend in 2020, though the reasons aren’t yet clear.
Though Christmas has come and gone, monetary donations are accepted year round and can be dropped off at the Salvation Army during normal business hours at 2300 N. Second St.
People can also visit www.savincennes.org and make an online donation from that page. The money, Salsbury said, comes straight to Vincennes, and donors can print a receipt for tax purposes.