Lake Martin Community Hospital director of radiology Candice Chappell was full of nerves and high anxiety when the first coronavirus patient came through the doors. But she quickly realized these were just sick people who needed medical attention and weren’t so intimidating after all.

“The very first time I was dressing in my (personal protective equipment) it’s like putting on armor or something,” Chappell said. “I was just so overwhelmed with anxiety going into that patient’s room. But I get in there and I’m like, ‘This is just a precious person who is sick.’ All the anxiety was gone. It was like ripping off the Band-Aid.”

When Chappell’s staff had to do portable chest X-rays on new patients in the beginning, they held hands and said a little prayer to calm their nerves.

“Once we got in there I said to my ultrasound tech, ‘This is not even scary,’” Chappell said. “It’s incredible seeing all my co-workers come together. I’ve been so blessed through it at the same time.”

Two months later, the new routine of gearing up and facing COVID-19 has become seamless.

“These people just want to have a conversation,” Chappell said. “You feel like it’s your own grandparents or family member and think about how lonely they are since their family can’t visit. I’ve enjoyed getting to know all of them; they’re so sweet and kind.”

Chappell said Lake Martin Community Hospital has received many of the coronavirus positive patients from surrounding nursing homes and although many present with pre-existing conditions, they are doing surprisingly well.

“Because we’re doing so well with these patients, multiple nursing homes have contacted us and send us their (COVID-19) positive patients,” Chappell said. “We’ve had amazing results. When you see we’ve got patients in bad conditions and surviving the coronavirus under our care, it’s incredible what our little community hospital is doing and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

A patient must test negative twice before returning to a long-term care facility to reduce the risk of exposure and spread amongst other residents. Staff members also limit the number of times a day they enter a coronavirus patient’s room to keep those exposure levels down.

“Our staff is taking such good care,” Chappell said. “We have an incredible nursing and (certified nursing assistant) staff. A lot of our staff was scared taking this on because it’s so unknown but everyone has made me so proud with the way they’ve been fearless.”

Lake Martin Community Hospital even converted an old wing in the building that used to be for patients more than 30 years ago and now acts as business offices back into patients’ rooms.

As a working director and with hours being cut down, Chappell said she still works with one-on-one patient care constantly. She often is the first person someone will see in the morning to do a routine chest X-ray and finds herself doing whatever it is the patient may need.

“Because we’re already dressed out, if that patient needs anything, we’re not just there taking an X-ray,” Chappell said. “In that room, we do whatever they may need. You’re the one that goes ahead and helps where you can.” 

Starting at Lake Martin Community Hospital as a technician 11 years ago after graduating from Southern Union Community College, Chappell often forgets she has been the director of the department for almost four years. As a result, she is willing to step in and help out in any way, including running a shift alone and acting as a tech.

 “A lot of our department managers are having to do that and for years we’ve had to run on the minimum (staff) but nobody will complain,” Chappell said. “We all feel compensated. It’s like a big family up there. (Ivy Creek CEO) Mike Bruce has always been so creative in ways to continue our hospital being open and finds ways to keep revenue coming in and keep us paid. It’s incredible what he and his wife have done.”

With the help of the personal paycheck protection loan, Bruce provided added compensation for his dedicated employees.

“I just remember being completely overwhelmed and in tears that we would even get that,” Chappell said. “None of us expected anything like that. We’re doing our jobs.”

The community has also rallied around the frontline workers and gone out of their way to supply food to the hospital.

“It’s been so overwhelming,” Chappell said. “My husband owns (Chimney Rock Landscaping LLC) and our insurance agent that represents that, Stephanie Daughtry, reached out to me and said, ‘I’d like to bring a meal to you guys.’ People like that that have nothing to do with the hospital are going out of their ways to help others.”

With a 1-year-old son, Henry, at home, Chappell has been extra cautious about who watches him while she works because daycare is still not reopened. She is also careful to take off her shoes and scrubs after her shifts before entering the house.

“This has not been easy with the daycares being closed and being an essential worker,” Chappell said. “And because we have coronavirus patients, I don’t feel comfortable asking just anyone to watch my son.”

Chappell’s parents and sister have traveled from other towns in Alabama and taken time to come watch Henry.

“The sacrifices my family has made so I can continue to treat (COVID-19) patients is amazing,” she said. “They also took a risk coming here to be exposed to my son, my husband and me.”

What seemed extremely frightening in the beginning, especially with all the unknowns, now appears in a more optimistic light.

“What you see in the media is all the nursing homes being wiped out and I think, ‘What are they doing wrong? Because our patients are doing great,’” Chappell said. “We are taking care of them wonderfully and they are kicking this coronavirus. It’s just incredible.” 

Amy Passaretti is a staff writer with the Alexander City Outlook.