CORONAVIRUS – ONE YEAR LATER: GOING INSIDE OAKVIEW TERRACE
BY JEREMY WALTNER
PART 1 OF 2
“There is celebration in this.”
That statement from Nikki Mehlhaf, director of nursing at Oakview Terrace, may sound like a paradox considering the challenges the coronavirus has presented over the past year, but for her and other members of the team at Freeman Regional Health Services (FRHS), there is truth in that.
“As ugly as Covid has been, we realized right away how resilient we are as a team and as a group of people,” said Mehlhaf, who started as director of nursing three months before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in South Dakota in March of 2020. “We were able to find out quickly who was invested in this facility, and every darn one of them was invested and willing to do whatever it took to keep the residents and themselves safe and healthy.
“As a group, we have really come together; those relationships have really blossomed.”
Even before the pandemic dramatically altered ways of life across the United States last spring, the leadership team at FRHS was monitoring the impact COVID-19 was having in other countries and well aware that it was only a matter of time before it hit home.
When that finally happened, the staff responded in both attitude and action.
“It was fierce love,” said Amanda Mettler, who has been with the health care facility for 11 years and is the director of social services. “A strong desire to protect our residents from anybody who interacted with them. We all had the mindset that we were going to do whatever we could to make that happen — whatever needed to be done.”
One of the most impressive and telling changes that came out of that mindset happened last fall, when the waiting room across from the business office in-between the hospital and nursing home wings was converted into a family room.
The timing couldn’t have been better; Mettler believes it was providence.
Early on, the staff at Oakview Terrace worked hard to make sure residents and families could connect in some way. That was done through window visits and conversations on cell phones, FaceTime and Skype, but also through interaction utilizing the facility’s outdoor courtyard.
Because of the nature of how it’s set up — large, with multiple entrances into the Oakview Terrace wing — residents and families could safely and comfortably interact through the fence in those spring and summer months. Quickly, the space that was also used by activities director Natalie Arens for exercise, water gun fights, patio parties and musical entertainment, became a meeting spot for loved ones, even in those restrictive first few weeks and months.
“It was a lot of work, but it was totally worth it,” said Arens, who came on as activities director just before Covid hit. “We were getting people out there who didn’t typically want to go.”
As the months passed, leadership began brainstorming what else could be done.
“We were seeing Avera come up with different visitation plans,” said Courtney Unruh, CEO at FRHS. “So we got the team together and thought, ‘What is this going to look like for Freeman Regional? Can we use these Covid dollars to add on to our building?’ And through those conversations, through that whole effort, we came up with that front entrance area.”
Charly Waltner, who works in maintenance at the facility, stepped in to hardwire the room, which is set up for sound so loved ones can easily communicate through the glass window that separates the space. There are two large television screens on the walls for remote communication, and the space was renovated by Koerner Construction.
And, importantly, there is a separate ventilation system from the rest of the facility.
“The evolution of it was so impressive,” said Mettler. “Charly got to work and he was amazing all the way through it. And hats off to Koerner Construction; they were here and got to work and were ahead of schedule.”
The space was ready by October.
“I think God’s hand was in it because we could literally open it and start using it the first two weeks of October, and that is when we had a cold snap,” Mettler said. “Between the courtyard and the family room, we never had a time we couldn’t have a family visit. It gives me goosebumps.”
Seeing the interaction between residents and family members has been touching. There have been kisses and hand-to-hand touches through the glass and comments that generate tears.
“And the smiles — oh the smiles,” said Mehlhaf.
For a brother and a sister who hadn’t seen each other for two years, the first words were, “Is it really you?”
And Arens heard a resident, on her way to see her husband at the family room, say ‘I feel like I’m going on my first date.’
“She was just so excited,” Arens said, “and I think he was, as well.”
The family room represents the “celebration” that Mehlhaf talks about — the silver lining that has come with a difficult past year. But there have been other developments and deep growth inside the walls of Oakview Terrace that need to be noted, including the relationships among staff, residents and their families, and all the emotion that has gone along with that.
“It’s been hard and it’s been beautiful and it’s been painful and then the joy just bursts,” said Mettler. “It’s just been a rollercoaster.”
More on that next week.