Sherrie Walker has invested her entire health care career in one organization.
A nurse practitioner, she has cared for patients at St. Martin's Healthcare in Garrett for more than 15 years. Like many other health care providers, Walker has at times been overwhelmed with the difficulties posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19,” she said, “has been a real challenge for us at St. Martin's, both for the staff and for our patients.”
Temporarily restricting visits to phone-call only last spring as part of social distancing to prevent coronavirus spread was frustrating. Beyond the patient-provider conversations, Walker tries to maintain eye contact for visible cues, but that can't be done during phone calls.
“It reduces the camaraderie of interactions when we have to do something virtually,” said Walker, who last year cared for more than 25% of all patients at St. Martin's.
Precautions continued last year, even when the medical and dental clinics at St. Martin's reopened for in-person visits by appointment only. Before being allowed inside, patients are screened for COVID-19 symptoms from their cars with questions concerning symptoms and possible exposure to the virus. Once inside, the patient's temperature is checked and, for added safety, the screening questions are repeated.
Walker's team doesn't turn anyone away, however. If there are concerns about allowing a patient inside, a clinic staff member goes outside to see how the clinic can help the individual.
St. Martin's is a grassroots organization started in 2005 to serve underinsured and uninsured residents of DeKalb and Noble counties. St. Martin's is funded by community donations and grants; it does not receive government money, Walker said.
The clinic's largely volunteer operation includes more than a dozen part-time employees, a medical director, and a full-time executive director, according to its website.
The clinic offers a range of services, such as those offered by a family practice office. It also offers mental health counseling, hearing screenings and vision clinics.
Walker commutes to the clinic from the St. Joe area.
She is grateful her husband and three adult sons who she joked are “emancipated” and staying healthy.
She is doing the same.
As of late February, Walker had not made a decision about getting the vaccine.
She avoids large crowds and when shopping for groceries takes disinfectant wipes.
“I really think a lot of it is logic and thinking ahead and not risking other people or yourself,” she said.
It's not just the patient interaction that has changed. Staff interactions have suffered, too.
“Here at St. Martin's, we are like family,” Walker said.
She misses the daily routine of eating lunch next to co-workers – just one of many sacrifices to meet social distancing guidelines.
Walker's main concern about the pandemic is not knowing what comes next, but she said the workplace culture has been motivat-ing.
“Everybody that I work with is ready to adapt to whatever happens,” Walker said.
“They will go with the flow when we need to make adjustments. We are doing the best we can,” she said. “All of us love our jobs.”