June 2021
collage of healthcare alumni
Left: Eryn Johnson, BS '14, Urgent Care Physician Assistant
Top row: Kevin Just, BA '02, Nursing Director and Rhonda Niemann, BS '15, ECMO respiratory therapist
Bottom row: Samantha (Voeller) Hinderks, BA '09, Therapist and Young Vue, BS '21, student paraprofessional worker

Republished with permission from Concordia University, St. Paul. View the full original article, which was published in the university’s summer 2021 magazine.

Five alumni share how they met the physical and mental health needs of their communities during the pandemic.

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, words and phrases like “flatten the curve,” “social distancing,” “PPE” (personal protective equipment), and others entered into everyday vocabulary. Much of this terminology and the early communication from public health officials was intended to protect frontline healthcare workers and not overwhelm the healthcare system.

Some of these frontline workers are Concordia alumni. Living out their vocations to care for mind and body, these dedicated individuals (and all others on the front lines) deserve a great deal of gratitude and admiration. They have cared for their communities since the earliest days of the pandemic with perseverance and grace.

The pandemic begins

As an urgent care physician assistant with North Memorial Health, Eryn Johnson, BS ‘14, is used to patients coming in for sore throats, flu-like symptoms, sprains, broken bones, and other medical issues and injuries. However, at the outset of the pandemic, patients stopped coming in, and Johnson and her colleagues were on furlough for a few weeks.

When they did return to work, they began providing COVID tests at their clinic, first for healthcare workers, and then for symptomatic patients as their supplies increased. “I can’t even count how many people I’ve tested for COVID-19,” she quipped.

For Rhonda Niemann, BS ‘15, a respiratory therapist who specializes in ECMO at the M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, an intense work environment was the norm pre-COVID. ECMO, short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, is a life support system for the sickest of the sick patients, typically those with heart or lung issues. “This is, on a scale of 1-10 for life support, a 15,” she explained.

Niemann shared how difficult it was for ECMO patients to be unable to be present or communicate with their families other than through an iPad screen. “That was really hard — I can’t imagine not being able to see your loved one,” she said.

Mental health professionals also experienced dynamic circumstances as the pandemic escalated. Kevin Just, BA ‘02, also works for M Health Fairview as Nursing Director, Adult Inpatient Mental Health & Addiction Services. They started planning for the pandemic as early as late January 2020. “I didn’t quite understand the gravity of what was ahead of us,” he intimated.

Just shared that because PPE isn’t typically a concern for mental health providers, like many others, they had to figure out the correct way to use it to keep providers and patients safe.

Just and his colleagues also rapidly shifted into utilizing telehealth for many of their patients. While this technology was in the longer-term plans for M Health Fairview, he shared that they got it up and running in three weeks.

Telehealth also became a necessity for therapist Samantha (Voeller) Hinderks, BA ‘09. “Although telehealth has been around for a while, therapists really haven’t utilized it because we haven’t had to.”

Hinderks, co-owner and therapist at Turning Leaf Therapy, expanded her staff from six to ten providers in response to an increased demand for mental health services.

Existing clients who otherwise may have finished with therapy experienced new levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Likewise, new clients began therapy in the face of stress brought on by lost jobs, isolation, relational conflicts, loss of milestones and celebrations, and other life events. Hinderks noted that frontline workers, teachers, and students were especially affected.

A “new normal”

Adjusting to a new normal proved difficult at times for these frontline workers. Best practices, policies, procedures, and treatments changed daily and from patient-to-patient. “With COVID, it’s new and changing everyday, so I have to keep up with the news and the studies that are coming in,” said Johnson. “It’s a constant learning curve.”

“Everything we knew about running ECMO really shifted because this was such a new diagnosis,” recalled Niemann. “What worked for one patient, didn’t work for another.”

Hinderks observed how the shift to telehealth provided opportunities to make therapy comfortable for clients. However, for clients who lacked an internet connection, video calls were not an option, so she and her staff had to care for their clients over the phone. The pandemic forced her to consider, “How do we try to streamline services so that people don’t miss their sessions?”

In October 2020, while still an undergraduate student, Young Vue, BS ‘21, received an opportunity to work in a Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory as a student paraprofessional worker. In his role, he reviewed patient demographic information to ensure accuracy of samples prior to sending them for testing. Despite starting this work in the midst of the pandemic, Vue felt prepared to take on the responsibility.

“Coming from a biology background and knowing proper techniques and also wearing proper protective equipment, the fear of the pandemic or working with the virus was not as bad as it could have been,” he recalled. “It was really cool to apply what I was learning in school to a job.”

Just shared how, about a year into the pandemic, there was an increase in inpatient mental health clients, some of whom had neglected to address mental health issues earlier in the pandemic.

Johnson also noted the effects on patients who neglected physical ailments throughout the pandemic. “We’ve actually found out later that a lot of people, because they didn’t come in, are having more medical complications,” she shared.

Life after COVID

These alumni expressed hope for brighter days ahead, reflected on their experiences, and shared what their work looks like moving forward.

Johnson shared her optimism about the impact and availability of vaccines, hoping that people take the opportunity to receive theirs. “I think that’s the best way to fight this,” she remarked.

“I would be shocked if [telehealth] goes away,” said Hinderks. Just also affirmed the value of telehealth moving forward for his work, especially for patients already so comfortable using the technology.

Seeing the positive results from wearing a mask, Johnson plans on continuing to do so after the pandemic, especially during cold and flu season. “I’ve been so healthy this past year,” she observed.

Niemann stressed the importance of respiratory therapists, hoping that people consider a career path in that field. “[W]e’re a huge part of our hospital,” she said, sharing that her team has become closer throughout the pandemic. “We’ve grown to rely on each other more.”

Vue is looking forward to continuing his career in healthcare as he heads to medical school. “I love to help people understand concepts or ideas, and I think [by] going to medical school, I will be able to help many people understand their conditions or diseases so that they can live life to the fullest,” he shared.

“[The pandemic] shined a light on how important mental health is for holistic health,” Just observed. Hinderks agreed with that sentiment, and hopes more people take inventory of their mental health as they do with their physical and spiritual health.

“We can control coping skills, we can control how we take care of ourselves,” she said.

“Sometimes all you need is to go to that first appointment or make that first call.”

“I’ve never worked so hard but felt such great purpose in my entire life,” Just affirmed, reflecting on his and his colleagues’ efforts to maintain the level of care for their patients. “Part of my calling in the medical field is to do the greatest good for the most amount of people.”

By Billy Schultz