UND alumni at the Heart of America Medical Center pull together through the 2020 pandemic.
Its title is fitting: Heart of America Medical Center. While the town is known for
being the geographical center of North America, Rugby’s medical facility is at the
center of health and wellness of the town – now more than ever.
Dustin Hager, a certified physician assistant, ’10, pulls out vintage photographs
to show how the campus has expanded from the original hospital into a multi-service
healthcare facility. His phone buzzes.
“I’m going to catch this message, real quick. It’s a thank-you message from the wife
of [a patient].” Dustin texts a reply.
Texts, calls or stops at the grocery store from community members with medical questions
are regular occurrences for Dustin who grew up in the area and is a leader in the
community. He’s one of seven medical providers at Heart of America who graduated from
UND. Being a rotation site for UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) students
has been a natural recruitment tool.
When COVID broke, many looked to Dustin, Chief Medical Officer and Operations Officer,
and Heart of America’s executive leadership team to prepare for the worst.
“We put some good plans in place and completely new processes that didn't exist before.
We developed a respiratory clinic; we figured out ways to separate hospital patients
from emergency room patients so they weren’t intermingling,” said Dustin. “It really
took a team – medical providers, nursing staff, business staff – to sit down and figure
out how can we collectively make this work. And then, we kept rolling.”
Pierce County was nearly untouched by the virus until October. Positive cases spiked
in November, hospitalizing [number] of patients. Dustin recalled his lowest point:
when COVID-19 got into the long-term care unit. Out of 47 residents, only 10 remained
COVID-free and 14 passed away. The mental exhaustion has been draining for staff,
especially because of the close connections common in rural communities.
Like every good leader, Dustin has found ways to support his team from catered cookouts
to voluntary chaplain-led prayers in the morning and debrief sessions.
“I have an open-door policy, and I've had multiple staff members sit in my office
and express their fears, their frustrations, their concerns and shed some tears. And
we talk through it, we work through it. That's what we do.”
I have an open-door policy, and I've had multiple staff members sit in my office and express their fears, their
frustrations, their concerns and shed some tears. Dustin Hager, '10
John Brandt, ’98, and Kayla Sendelbach, ’20, are two physical therapists (PTs) who
work in the COVID unit alongside Dustin and other clinicians.
When treating patients donning full COVID-19 personal protective equipment, simple
tasks such as helping them get out of bed become an extra challenge. But that’s always
“If we don't keep them functioning, keep them moving, they might never make it home.
And some didn't,” said John. “But then you saw others who made it through.” Like a
woman in her 80s who needed 10 liters of oxygen per minute to function. After a successful
medication and therapy regimen, she was discharged back home COVID-free. “Knowing
that you were part of that process and part of the team that helped, that feels good,”
Across departments, Heart of America employees talk about the important role of teamwork
in seeing positive outcomes throughout the trials of 2020. Whether more detailed patient
charting, increasing safety procedures, or simply taking time to check in on one another,
every little action went a long way in collective success.
Kayla rooms with former SMHS classmate and current PT colleague at Heart of America,
Katie Holzheimer, ’20. They have a built-in support system with each other and with
former SMHS classmates, hopping on Zoom calls to swap ideas and share struggles.
“It's nice to know that everyone's in the same boat – whether you’re treating COVID
patients or not – you're still having to go through all these precautions. Just making
sure that your coworkers are OK, I think is what has been the biggest thing throughout
all this,” Kayla said.
BRINGING WORK HOME
Upstairs in the new Human Resources wing, Lauren (Christenson) McClintock, ’19, is
relieved to see staff nearing full capacity once again. She described the difficulty
of managing personnel needs during a pandemic made easier by the willingness across
departments to fill in the gaps: nursing staff took extra shifts and her own colleagues
put a hold on board deadlines to pitch in.
“We would be coming in on weekends – I would do housekeeping or dietary – we just
needed the help at the time,” she said.
As UND students, it was a dream of Lauren and her husband (who tied the knot in true
pandemic fashion outside of the Gorecki Alumni Center last summer) to someday come
back to their hometown. Now, working in the same organization where Lauren's father
is the CEO and mother is the director of the business office adds new meaning to “bringing
work home.” It has also given her front-row seats to watching her family rise to the
Lauren’s father, Erik Christenson, even stepped away from his desk to use his longtime
pharmacy career to manage and distribute medications in the COVID unit, setting a
precedent for others. “He loves this community and would do anything for it,” said
The community showed love right back. Small businesses donated food, banks sent thank-you
gifts and the clothing store made t-shirts for healthcare workers. Faithful volunteers
have been eager to get back to work. “We had a ton of our volunteers here yesterday
just waiting in line for about an hour or two to get the vaccine because they wanted
to come back and just help,” said Lauren.
THE KIDS NEXT DOOR
Across the medical campus, Amy Peterschick, ’11, has dedicated countless extra hours
putting children’s safety first. Amy is the director of Kids Next Door, a childcare
center owned by Heart of America. At a time when families are scrambling because of
daycare or school closures, Kids Next Door has remained open to care for children
of Heart of America staff. Only once has it closed for disinfecting purposes.
Amy’s 19 years of prior experience at UND’s University Children’s Center have helped
her remain nimble while maintaining educational structure. This year, she has woven
COVID-19 precautions into daily activities. “Some of [the kids] have had grandparents
who have died, so they understand the gravity of this virus and have learned why we
wear masks, wash hands more carefully and distance when possible.”
Buy-in from parents has helped. “I'm lucky that I have parents who are providers,”
Amy said. She consulted with some to build a three-tier plan. Until recently they
operated in Tier 2: children ages 3 and up wear a mask, temperatures are taken four
times a day and regular health checks are conducted.
Unlike many daycare facilities, Kids Next Door has been able to take a financial hit
because they operate as a service of Heart of America. “Our CEO understands that we're
not making money now, we’re not at our max limit because of COVID but we are safe,”
It has also allowed them to alter their services. For instance, when Rugby’s school
went to distance learning, Amy took in the school-age children for full days and helped
them complete their virtual lessons.
Dustin, who has had four children enrolled in Kids Next Door, applauded the extra
work of departments like the daycare for keeping Heart of America running: “These
are the types of things you can do in a small facility – tailoring to the staff’s
needs so they can be more responsive for the organization's needs.”
These are the types of things you can do in a small facility – tailoring to the staff’s needs so they can be more responsive for the organization's
needs.Amy Peterschick, ’11
GETTING THE JOB DONE
Trials reveal what lies at the center. For this medical facility, located at the geographical
center of North America and the heart of the town, it’s teamwork, it’s flexibility
and it’s grit. As Dustin says:
“Ultimately, I would point to our team and the good staff that we have here at the
hospital coming together, in spite of everything that we've been through. You know,
pulling up the bootstraps and just getting the job done.” ///