By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Since she was 18, Athens-Limestone Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Traci Collins has been doing the job she knows she was born to do: helping at a hospital, and making a difference in the lives of patients and staff. She started out right after graduating high school, working on the business office side of the house. She worked in Insurance, Information Services, as well as Patient Accounts. Then someone correctly discerned that she needed to be nursing patients, showed true belief in her, and she was on her way. She got her nursing degree at Calhoun, and then went on to get her BSN and her MSN, all while she continued to work at ALH.

Traci has now been at ALH for a total of 30 years, and has a guiding passion: patient safety and care. So, she is quick to point out that during the COVID crisis the hospital staff has “been amazing.” Here is the story of how the hospital “squared off” against corona back in March, and what has happened since. Traci told me, “On March 15, the senior staff had a meeting, and while we have trained often for all kinds of events, that was when we put the plan together. Thankfully, Dr. Matt Hanserd began doing specific research on COVID back in January, which helped so much.” They went on to reconfigure the hospital for isolation, and also reached out to the community for possible field hospital sites. Thankfully, since then, it is looking like the curve has been flattened successfully, and out of around 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Limestone County, there have been no fatalities. “We split up the ICU into what we call ‘clean’ (meaning anything that is not related to COVID) and ‘dirty’ (meaning everything that is connected to the coronavirus).” Traci wanted me to make sure that our readers understood that ALL of the hospital is kept at the highest level of cleanliness, and that the terms “dirty” and “clean” are just hospital jargon for dealing with a pandemic.

I asked Traci what has been the toughest thing about the last couple of months, and she told me, “Not knowing is the hardest part. We’re in unchartered territory, and we really don’t know what we are up against. It’s eerie to have whole wings empty. Knowing that there are people who have had to put off surgeries or other treatments because of this isn’t easy, either. We want to take care of all or our community, not just a part of it, and we can’t until we get the all-clear.”

Traci went on to tell me that the staff, which has always been close, is like family. “We have cried and prayed together, and we have also had a COVID miracle. One of our employees got it, and was in intensive care for three weeks. She was really, really sick, and we almost lost her. Our staff took care of one of our own, and there are no words to describe what it means to all of us that she is going to make it. She was discharged home on Monday and it was emotional for all of our staff! The great care she received from our ICU staff truly saved her life. It’s one of those ‘intangible’ things,” she said.

“Tell me about the good stuff,” I said. We had to do the interview by phone, and I could hear Traci get choked up. I imagined her going through a long list of memories that won’t leave her or her crew anytime soon. “The outpouring of love and support from the community has been unbelievable. People have brought us food. We have had churches, restaurants, businesses, and families checking on us to see what we need, and then they’ve gotten it. Then there have been the park-and-prays. A church did a parade to say thank you. They’ve played music on a loudspeaker, sent us letters. All of it has made us stronger and better. And, other hospitals reached out to us to ask what they can do to help us,” she said. Being a part of the Huntsville Hospital Health System is also a huge advantage for ALH. They have been supportive in procuring PPE and supplies throughout this pandemic.

“What else do you want people to know?” I asked. “Don’t be afraid to come see us when we re-open,” Traci said. As Governor Ivey re-opens Alabama in stages, people will need to go to the hospital for care, and people who love and care for them will want to come visit. The question on the minds of the hospital leadership is how to best meet the needs of patients and their families, and in that regard, nothing has changed. And when the doors re-open, Traci Collins and the entire staff will be there to take care of our community with excellence.
By: Ali ElizabethTurner

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