The Healthcare Executive Forum (HEF) of Western New York is very proud to recognize and award the following amazing individual as a “WNY Frontline Hero.”
Amy Hiam: Above and Beyond Doesn’t Even Begin to Cover It
Amy Hiam, a 22 year veteran of Catholic Health’s Father Baker Manor in Orchard Park, who has worked in multiple wards with patients of all health conditions, is one of those amazing individuals that can lay claim to having seen just about everything from the front lines of an elderly and rehabilitation care facility. So when Amy says, “This Pandemic is like nothing I have ever been through before in all 22 my years,” you can be sure she means that her world completely changed at the beginning of 2020, giving her all to others at the very front lines of what we are still learning was the emotional focal point of the tragedy that took the lives of so many elderly Americans. “It was the first time, and let’s hope it is the last I ever see of something like that again,” she says. A Registered Nurse at Father Baker, Amy often works a regular 12 hour shift as ‘normally’ one of 3 nurses for a 40 bed unit of subacute patients in the 160 bed state-of-the-art skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility. ‘Normally’ refers to pre-pandemic times, of course, before the large numbers of staff who came down with COVID-19 symptoms were themselves quarantining at home, necessarily leaving a skeleton crew of Amy and her colleagues to work well beyond 12 hours a day.
“At the beginning in March of last year, we were just getting used to the all the changes we needed to quickly put in place, such as temperature screening, increased admissions protocols, and using more PPE. Then we had a couple of patients that became ill and tested positive. We had to then quickly discharge patients that weren’t ill so they could avoid contact, while putting in place strict protocols limiting family members from visiting all patients staying with us…protocols that basically remain in place up to today,” says Amy. “This was all really hard on many of the patients who were used to having their families frequently interact with them to now have to switch to relying on us every day…especially those patients suffering from various cognitive issues and dementia, who had to get used to seeing staff in scary looking masks,” she says. “For those patients, we are happy to just do everything for them, as they could no longer rely on their family members for help.”
“I still do put in extra hours whenever I can, trying to help with even 16 hour a day shifts like before if they need it, just to support our dear patients and our team who are still going through so much.”
Amy noted she and her teammates became pretty good at teaching patients about the latest technology so that they could at least try to Zoom or FaceTime their loved ones, but often it was the nurses who end up staying with patients to make sure they remain connected to the outside. Amy feels things have gotten better as everyone has become more used to all the changes over time, with some loosening. She says, “I still do put in extra hours whenever I can, trying to help with even 16 hour a day shifts like before if they need it, just to support our dear patients and our team who are still going through so much.”
When asked what she does on a normal day, Amy will nonchalantly tell you, “I work the floor, carrying out assessments, wound treatments, discharges home, helping with screening, and those sorts of duties.” Yet, this simple statement doesn’t begin to reflect the distraught faces she saw during the heyday of the pandemic, even up to the present, where things like screening, providing human contact, and discharging from elderly care facilities have somehow become bureaucratically political, albeit deeply emotional for all involved. It also doesn’t account for having to jump on just about any new task as staff go down sick, such as doing laundry, dietary prep, and really any job necessary, which Amy mentioned she was happy to do to keep things on track for the patients. Some patients have lived in Father Baker since the 1990s while others were new additions, but as any nurse in a facility like Father Baker will tell you, it’s always hard when you really get to know the patients, only to see them pass. At one point in the beginning of May 2020, local news outlets reported that Father Baker recorded more COVID-19 cases and deaths than all other such facilities in Western New York. Yet, the high numbers were due to the meticulously professional screening, testing and assessing that was carried out by nurses like Amy compared to other facilities. Many of those places’ statistics soon caught up when they adopted excellent procedures like those pioneered at Father Baker. Still, during the beginning of the pandemic, nurses at such facilities in Western New York were literally watching the patients they had spent so much time and care on, die right in front of them. Those individuals went without their loved ones at the last minute, looking up at people like Amy to be their last touch of humanity. Although families are now specially permitted into Father Baker in those end-of-life situations, even today, full PPE gear is a requirement for some staff, making skin grooves on faces from constant mask wearing, and deep impressions to skin, body, and mind, the norm. Who knows how long those impressions will last?
“Personally, it was hard on my family from start. I actually had to quarantine for 14 days myself as I contracted COVID early on, which was hard knowing I couldn’t contribute as much as I wanted,” said Amy when asked about how all this has affected her. “I lived in a camper in the driveway for much of that time, which was right when my kids were just going into a new High School, making it hard for me to help them with the transition and eventual online schooling.” Returning to her family after such a difficult time, it is clear her ‘other’ family also helped to get her through the Pandemic. “A lot of us at Father Baker love our jobs and just love taking care of patients. The staff here is so wonderful and everybody feels the residents that live here are truly an extension of own families. We hold their hands, celebrate their birthdays with balloons, and just treat them like those in our own homes,” says Amy. She remembered one patient, testing positive around her 80th birthday, confiding prophetically to Amy that she likely wasn’t going to make it. The patient’s husband was sick at home and couldn’t come in. Amy helped give her a truly happy birthday anyway, caring for her all the way to the end. “Professionally, the Pandemic served to build more teamwork. We leaned on each other for everything, through the good and the bad, from birthdays to seeing our patients pass. Even those nurses that were pregnant stayed to help out, while our first-year nurses quickly become prepared to face anything. Throughout such an ordeal, we became an incredibly strong team,” she notes with affectivity.
“We leaned on each other for everything, through the good and the bad, from birthdays to seeing our patients pass. Even those nurses that were pregnant stayed to help out, while our first-year nurses quickly becomE prepared to face anything. Throughout such an ordeal, we became an incredibly strong team”
With such a devoted and humble staff, Amy characteristically didn’t ask for much when questioned about how Western New York healthcare leadership could better support people in her position. Rather, she turned it around with a message of unity, saying, “I want to thank leadership for stepping up, pitching in, and thank my fellow staff at Father Baker, who are all like a big family. I would say thank you all for being there, thank you for working together to take care of patients and helping them through such a difficult time. There was some negativity and real difficulty at the early stages, but now we are just hearing ‘Thank You’ and much praise from families as well as colleagues, as more people learn what we are going through. This means so much.” Rather than focus on herself, Amy reminded us all just how difficult it is for nurses—having experiences not far off from soldiers coming back from war. Yet, just like many returning soldiers mentioning the plight of those they fight for, Amy reminds us that we should all think of the patients in facilities like Father Baker, many of whom can never go home, might not ever see their loved ones again, and are blessed to have a strong care team like Amy and her colleagues.
What is clear as we emerge from the fog of this fight, is that just like the aftermath of a great war, the lives of people like Amy, and most of us in healthcare, will never be the same.