Sally Dersch’s new job at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton normally calls for her to work with new nurses, orienting them to their new workplace and helping with continuing education.
But with COVID-19 numbers reaching peak levels this winter, these aren’t normal times. Dersch hardly spends her days confined to an office.
“Right now, it’s all hands on deck,” Dersch said in a recent interview. “Just before I read my email, I was (in the hospital) starting IVs and medicating patients. Anytime they need me, I go out there and either take patients or assist with the flow — whatever they need me to do.
COVID-19 has been hard on many, but for these frontline health care workers, its effects are an everyday reality. Over the next two weeks, we share the stories of a few of those who have risen to the occasion and done their jobs well in the face of unmatched pressure professionally and sometimes personally. We need heroes in this battle, and through their dedication, they have shown us what that looks like. We worked with Northeast Georgia Health System to identify those we are profiling, and this series is being made available free to nonsubscribers. Thank you to our subscribers for making our work possible. If you are not a subscriber, please consider supporting our work by subscribing to The Times. If you have a story about a frontline health care worker who has made a difference, please submit your story to email@example.com. For other stories in this series, visit gainesvilletimes.com/hometownheroes.
“Even when I’m educating, I’m doing it on the floor in real time with real patients,” she said of her new post, which began in September.
Winter is busy anyway in the emergency department, where Dersch is based, because of the seasonal flu and related illnesses.
“The COVID on top of that has just added to our volume,” she said.
Overall, COVID-19 “has changed the whole dynamic of nursing,” said Dersch, who has been in nursing 12 years and at the Braselton hospital since 2017. “You’re used to getting sick patients, but you’re not used to all of your patients being really sick.
“And it takes a toll on you.”
Dersch, 46, said she and her fellow health care workers are worn out by the end of the day.
“Everybody goes home tired. Everybody is earning their paycheck 100%, if not 150%, every day,” she said.
And job satisfaction can be challenging.
“I think there’s a lot of feeling of failure on our part because we want to make everybody better,” Dersch said.
To cope with pressures at work, “you have to really develop that shell around you that protects you from a lot of that, that you learn not to take it home and not take it personally,” Dersch said.
Despite those pressures, even on more intense days, the career taps into a lifelong passion to serve others.
“You find that job you just love, and nursing is it for me,” said Dersch, a Pennsylvania native who grew up in Georgia and now lives in Jefferson. “I enjoy the thrill of getting someone in (the emergency room) and … trying to figure out what’s wrong with them, while at the same time taking care of them.”
She added: “I really enjoy helping people, making people feel better when they feel down, when they’re scared.”
One thing Dersch hadn’t seen before in her career was the empty emergency rooms at the beginning of the pandemic but before the crunch of COVID-19 patients.
“Some people are more scared of the virus than what could actually be going on with them,” she said. “We saw a decline in the number of people (being seen for) heart attacks, of (people with) strokes not coming into the hospital. They were still having them. They just weren’t seeking treatment.”
Dersch said she hasn’t had the virus or experienced symptoms. And neither have her husband and her mother, all living in the same house.
She has one biological son and four stepchildren — all who take great precautions in visiting with Dersch.
“You social distance, you wash your hands, you make sure you take all the precautions, but I can’t safely tell (family) I don’t have (COVID-19) because I’m exposed pretty much on a daily basis,” she said.
Even at home, she and her husband live in the basement while her mom stays upstairs.
“We do interact, but we keep our distance within our house,” Dersch said.
A hot tub she and her husband bought for the house about a year ago has become her happy place in an especially difficult year.
“That was perfect timing. That’s how we relax,” Dersch said. “We made our backyard an oasis, a getaway place. Now with the colder weather, we still go in the backyard, but we just use the hot tub as our escape now.”
And it helps to imagine a time when COVID-19 isn’t the threat it is now.
“As much as I need to wear a mask, I would love not to wear one,” Dersch said. “I would love not to cover my face.”