By Michael D. Chason
Director of Public Relations Emeritus
Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College
TIFTON—The words tumbled onto my phone’s screen, each one conveying a sense of urgency in a time of need.
“So, I know it’s late, but I just thought of something. Our main problem we are having right now is a shortage of personal protective equipment. I thought about the ABAC Chemistry Lab. Are there any goggles or plastic gowns that could be donated? At the rate we’re going, we could be out of protective equipment by Saturday. We do have a positive case at TRMC tonight.”
The sender of the text was my daughter, Dr. Tracy Nolan, an ABAC graduate who is the first female general surgeon in the history of Tift Regional Medical Center. As the Director of Public Relations Emeritus at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, I knew her reasoning was sound.
ABAC does have multiple chemistry labs and with all classes going online for the remainder of the spring semester, this was a request in a situation where ABAC could have an instant impact on a virus that’s leaving hospitals across the country short of the necessary protective equipment.
A quick email to ABAC President David Bridges and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Paul Willis brought immediate results.
“Let’s see what we have, gather it up, and get it to them,” Bridges said. “We need to do what we can for Tift Regional.”
As the clock ticked toward midnight on March 19 an hour after the initial text, Willis affirmed that ABAC did have some of the supplies, and he had already put the request into motion.
ABAC staff members inventoried the supply closets in the laboratory sciences building on March 20 and by mid-afternoon, the equipment was assembled and ready for pickup.
Nolan texted Geanie Vines, the charge nurse for the TRMC operating room. In her own vehicle, Vines met me at the west entrance of the ABAC lab sciences building. Willis arranged for two officers from the ABAC Police Department, Ryant Wright and Joe Weatherford, to assist Vines in loading the boxes into her vehicle.
Less than 20 hours after Nolan’s initial text, Tift Regional had a small supply of splash resistant goggles, gloves, and a box of laminated polypropylene aprons headed back to the operating room.
“Omg. Thank you!! That’s awesome,” Nolan texted. Just one example of how entities in rural communities can communicate and help each other.
But there’s more.
Flashers flashed but no horns honked. And the vehicles, mostly cars but some trucks and at least one motorcycle, kept coming. For 45 minutes, the vehicles circled Tift Regional Medical Center, loaded with community members, offering up prayers for the doctors, nurses, staff members, and patients involved in the coronavirus battle.
Organized by Dr. Fred Evers, pastor at Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, the motorists gathered in the Affinity Clinic parking lot at 4 p.m. on March 22. The line of vehicles streamed slowly out of the parking lot and assisted by Tifton Police Department officers, crept down 20th Street toward Tift Regional.
Tears streamed down many faces both in the cars and on the sidewalk as hospital staff members stood outside the hospital, thanking the Tift Countians who came out in prayer support.
Chris Dorman, President/CEO of Southwell, waved to every motorist as he stood just outside his facility dressed in scrubs, apparently ready to support his health care professionals in any way that he could. Dorman said every Southwell employee was honored and appreciative.
“Thanks for the prayers and support from our local residents,” Dorman said. “It really gave a boost to our team of medical professionals who are here to serve.”
“It was just something we could do,” Evers said. “These men and women do so much for us. It’s the least we could do for them in their time of need.”
And there are many other examples of community members opening their hearts and lives to those in rural hospital settings.
ABAC President David Bridges drove to Macon in the pre-dawn stillness on March 23 to meet a friend who ran a welding supply business. Bridges paid for a carload of protective masks and other equipment, turned his vehicle around and headed back south down I-75.
“I had a contact, I knew he had the masks, and together we got it done,” Bridges said. “I called Chris Dorman when I was at the Brighton Road exit, and he arranged for someone to meet me and pick up the masks near the hospital. I knew I didn’t need to take them in. It all worked out.”
Lisa Reinhardt and Gina Chambers are leading the charge for a determined band of Tifton mask-makers for Tift Regional employees, and many more concerned citizens in the community are helping the effort.
Kathy Baker, wife of ABAC Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jerry Baker, has made 12 of the protective masks. Each one has a slightly different pattern. She intends to make more. Just to do her part.
Nolan, who has postponed many of her elective surgeries, said Tift Regional employees appreciate the support. Working inside the facility has a different feel to it in these stressful times.
“Every employee has to go through a screening of five questions and get our temperature taken every day,” Nolan said. “All the screenings are outside. We are all asked the same important questions. Do you have a fever? Do you have a cough? Have you had contact with a person who might have been exposed to Covid-19? Have you worked at another health care facility? Have you traveled out of the country? We get a different sticker every day.”
Nolan has operated on a few of her patients with breast cancer, and she continues to put in ports for chemotherapy patients.
“It’s a different time in the hospital,” Nolan said. “I can see that some people are sad or scared. But nobody’s complaining. This is what we do. We take care of people on their worst days.”
In times of need, rural communities rise and show support for their own health care facility and the medical professionals who are on the front lines in the fight against coronavirus. Small town America at its best.