Just more than 4,800 miles away in Tongeren, Belgium, a fourth COVID-19 wave is besieging the community.
The virus has engulfed Tongeren at a 70% positivity rate. In a hospital comparable in size to Kootenai Health, nurses are working around the clock to save patients’ lives.
The caring hearts of Kootenai Health’s nurses are going out to their European counterparts.
“Their hospital is the same size as ours, but they have half as many nurses,” Kootenai Health nursing excellence director Nikki Graham said. “Their ratios are double. Our nurses really feel for them.”
Algemeen Ziekenhuis Vesalius, known as AZ Vesalius, is Kootenai Health’s “twinning” hospital through Magnet4Europe, a project funded by the European Union to improve mental health and wellness among doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in European hospitals.
The partnership was established early in 2020 just as coronavirus began to spread along the East Coast.
Graham said several CEOs kept leaving to take phone calls, recalling the Nursing Constituency Council meeting she attended in Maryland.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on?’” she said. “They said, ‘There’s this bad illness that’s hitting us. It’s overwhelming our hospitals.’”
Kootenai Health’s nursing program has held Magnet status for nursing excellence since 2006. Every five years, a 4,000-page document is submitted to the American Nurses Credentialing Center to reaffirm the designation. Kootenai Health is one of only two Magnet hospitals in Idaho, the gold standard for nursing excellence.
To be recognized as a Magnet hospital, health care organizations must pass a rigorous and lengthy review process demanding widespread participation from leadership and staff. Only 8% of American hospitals maintain Magnet status.
“We measure everything that nurses do,” Graham said. “The clinical bedside nurses do projects to improve the care. We solve problems from the bottom up instead of the top down. That’s why we’re Magnet. The voice of the nurse is heard all the way to the board. The clinical nurses make the decisions.”
As a Magnet hospital, Kootenai Health enjoyed yet another honor when it was selected for Magnet4Europe. Just 1% of U.S. hospitals are chosen for this prestigious opportunity.
Graham said Magnet4Europe is the “elite of the elite.”
“We’re one of only 70 hospitals chosen to do this,” she said. “When the opportunity came, we said, ‘Heck yeah, we want to do that.”
Through Magnet4Europe, Kootenai Health and AZ Vesalius have been performing a gap analysis to determine what steps are necessary to improve their nursing structures, as per the Magnet Model. Graham speaks with AZ Vesalius leadership each week, and Kootenai Health nurses and doctors have been building communication and relationships with their overseas colleagues.
Six Kootenai Health nurses were planning to visit Belgium this fall, but postponed the trip upon receiving news from the lead AZ Vesalius Magnet director that the area is entering another pandemic surge.
“When we planned the dates, their rate was dropping quickly and there was much hope for recovery,” Graham said in an email to nursing staff. “They have begun community vaccinations but they received vaccines long after we did and have not been able to vaccinate outside of the hospital and their high-risk populations. It is hoped they will vaccinate their entire community by late winter.”
When the nurses heard the Belgium trip was canceled, they did what nurses naturally do — they asked, “How can we help?”
Graham and registered nurse Gena Faggion have announced a card campaign to send notes of support to Belgium nurses. Manila envelopes containing cards have been placed in units for nurses to sign and write words of encouragement that are being delivered this month.
“Our nurses care about them,” Graham said. “They’ve been following what’s been going on.”
Kootenai Health’s own 1,300 nurses are bracing for impact, as another pandemic spike is underway in northern Idaho and is anticipated to continue until the vaccination rates in the region increase.
Faggion said she is in awe of how hard Kootenai Health’s nurses work.
“The usual dose of chaos has been multiplied tenfold as we have been dealing with COVID,” she said. “There are still all of the usual. Now there is that added layer of detail.”
Kootenai Health uses a color rating (green, yellow, red, purple) to communicate at which level it is operating, depending on how many beds are available, how many patients are waiting in line and other indicators.
“The only time we’re purple or red is in the winter during peak pneumonia time,” Graham said. “We’ve been purple and red for over a year.”
Summers are normally green, she said, and nurses look forward to the rest that comes with a quieter hospital.
This is not a normal summer.
“We haven’t had rest in over a year,” Graham said.
The pressure felt here at home has created compassion for Kootenai Health’s nursing counterparts across the globe.
“Through all of this, nurses not only show up to every shift, but are also still attending shared governance meetings and even volunteered to prepare and give speeches to our Belgium twinning hospital to tell them about how much better Magnet will make their work environment,” Faggion said. “The cards are a small gesture of solidarity and better days to come.”