Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Nurses at Alaska Native Medical Center dedicate their careers to caring for patients. But as they face unprecedented times working to care for the sickest Alaskans infected with COVID-19, they also find themselves caring for one another.

“The words ‘family first’ mean so much to us and to our staff,” said ANMC Director of Nursing, Critical Care, Progressive Care, Respiratory Therapy and Hemodialysis Jacque Quantrille. “And it’s true, that’s how we practice: family first. Each one of these patients are our family and each one of these staff members are our family members.”

Quantrille oversees a group of 170 nurses, respiratory therapists and other staff who provide care for the sickest Alaskans every day, including those trying to heal from illness in the intensive care unit.

It’s emotional, demanding work even on the best days. Quantrille said before COVID-19, staff were used to busy days or even seasons -- months at a time where the ICU was filled with seriously ill patients. But those seasons -- whether for flu or other respiratory illnesses like RSV -- were broken up by times that were less demanding.

But since COVID-19 began surging in Alaska this summer, the influx of patients hasn’t slowed, and there’s no end in sight.

“There is no manual for leading in a pandemic,” Quantrille said. “... I don’t know if it would be a good read even if there was one.”

Quantrille said that means nurses can spend their 12-hour shifts so focused on patient care they hardly have time to sit down or finish a warm cup of coffee.

It’s made more challenging every day with strains due to changing procedures and additional personal protective equipment. With limited hospital visitation, nurses are stepping in to take on the caregiver role usually assigned to family and visitors, a duty that can add emotional drain to an already difficult situation.

But as times become challenging, the idea of “family first” has brought the nurses together to provide exceptional care for both patients and each other.

“When you have a really hard case or a really hard day, or something affects you because of personal experience with it outside of your job, it sometimes just takes an extra second for someone to say ‘Go grab a coffee, get a splash of cold water, I’ve got your assignment for a minute,’” Quantrille said. “And that can be the difference in that nurse being completely impacted by that moment or how that nurse can turn their day around and help impact others.”

Little moments, big emotions

Brian Faix, manager of respiratory therapy at ANMC, said that patient care continues to be exceptional even during COVID-19. People are working together, and in some ways are stronger than they’ve ever been.

“Every day you encounter things that you see that are sort of remarkable,” Faix said. “I can’t say it’s really one situation, it’s just every day you see how well people work together.”

He said sometimes that’s little things, like checking in on one another during the day, or simple gestures like asking to relieve a coworker who has been working a long shift so they can eat a snack or take a bathroom break.

Nurses are trained to respond quickly to emergencies and to put patients first. That urge to put patient care above themselves can make it difficult for nurses at times, according to Morgann Jensen, a respiratory therapist.

Jensen had an incident early in the pandemic where a mask she was holding on a patient slipped, causing air to spray under her mask and into her face. It was unknown if that patient had COVID, and Jensen was shaken by the incident.

But her colleague pulled her aside, gave her juice and offered to cover her while she took a break to compose herself.

“I was able to take a deep breath and know my co-worker had my back,” Jensen said.

Often those little acts of kindness extend beyond the boundaries of the Alaska Native Health Campus, whether staff members are checking in on each other via text message outside of work or making food deliveries to colleagues who have been exposed to COVID.

“It’s a team sport; it’s kind of like the job doesn’t end when you leave work,” Faix said. “I mean, there is always something to be done.”

Ilona van der Ven, a critical care nurse at ANMC, worked with colleagues to introduce “crafternoons” for ICU nurses and fellow staff. The crafternoons allow employees 15 minutes to break away to focus on something that isn’t related to the stress of the work days.

The program started before COVID but has extended into it with additional safety mitigation measures in place. The hospital hosts a “crafternoon” approximately every one to two months.

Staff get a chance to think about a little project -- like making a macrame plant hanger, painting a mandala or crafting a terrarium -- instead of focusing on the stress of the work day.

The crafternoons cater to both the day and night shifts so regardless of when someone is working they get a chance for a break. It’s been well received by staff, van der Ven said, with others working to make sure their colleagues’ shifts are covered so everyone can participate.

Little things like the crafternoons have improved overall staff morale, Quantrille said, but it also comes down to the small acts of day to day kindness. Even little conversations have taken on a more significant tone, Quantrille said.

“Now people are taking extra seconds to really, genuinely ask ‘Are you OK?’, which I think is huge,” she said. “I am so very fortunate to be on the ANMC Critical Care Team. I am humbled by all of our staff’s commitment to our purpose.”

Those little moments are making a big difference, for both staff morale and how it translates into better patient care.

“You have your family when you go home, but you also have your work family,” Faix said. “And our greatest work successes are when we take care of each other.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.