Northern Michigan healthcare professionals worked tirelessly on the frontlines when the pandemic hit the region and the battle continues. We’re sharing some of their stories here—stories of incredible interdisciplinary teamwork, grit and resilience, long hours beyond normal responsibilities, gratitude for colleague and community support and capable task forces remain intact.

COVID-19 hit Northern Michigan, as it did the country, with a sudden urgency—the likes of which most of us have never seen. While Munson Healthcare and McLaren Northern Michigan work every day to prevent infections, secure patient and staff safety and care for patients with skill and compassion, the pandemic has put both healthcare communities to the test.

Frontline healthcare professionals throughout the country, and the world, have performed heroic acts, and Northern Michigan healthcare professionals dove into the fray with commitment and vigor, remaining vigilant in the face of this virus. The following are just a handful of the many local healthcare heroes.

Kathy Stutzman, BSN, RN-BC
Manager of A2 Cardiothoracic/COVID Unit // Munson Healthcare

As manager of Munson Hospital’s A2 cardiothoracic unit in Traverse City, Kathy Stutzman, BSN, RN-BC, is used to being flexible in high-pressure situations. But COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge. The reality of the pandemic hit home for Stutzman on St. Patrick’s Day 2020—when her Munson Medical Center unit was designated as the best place to care for COVID-positive patients. Knowing this meant a huge effort to relocate the unit’s patients to another part of the hospital and gear up for COVID-19 patients, Stutzman arrived home that night in tears. Her husband reminded her that she was prepared for this.

Stutzman worked closely with her unit manager, Resource Nurse Clinician Tim Nastbergen, to relocate cardiothoracic patients, opening up their unit to accommodate COVID-19 patients. They worked daily from 6:30 in the morning until after 9 at night to ensure patients were transported safely—all while navigating ever-changing PPE protocols.

“On the cardiothoracic floor, we look for the positive,” Stutzman says. “It is a special group of people. It was high pressure, but we worked together to get it done. Nurses from various specialties throughout the hospital stepped up and volunteered to care for the COVID patient population.”

Due to hospital restrictions, COVID patients are unable to receive visitors. This leaves Stutzman and her team to provide comfort for patients facing the prospect of death without family members present. “My motto is ‘no one should ever have to die alone.’ When we took the Nightingale Pledge, we said we would care for those who needed care,” Stutzman says.

Stutzman is proud of the way Munson leadership, staff, nurses and providers have united to give outstanding care to COVID patients. She was heartened by the incredible outpouring of support from the community—from notes and banners to cowbells and cheers at shift changes.

Her proudest moment to-date navigating the pandemic is sending home the first COVID patient who had been intubated. When he was discharged, everyone involved in his care, from respiratory therapists to physical therapists, nurses and others—a true cross-section of the hospital—was there to see him off with a dance while playing his favorite song, “Sweet Caroline.”

Amy Milbrandt, MLS (ASCP)
Infection Preventionist // McLaren Northern Michigan

Amy Milbrandt is responsible for analyzing data and developing protocols to investigate and prevent infection at McLaren Northern Michigan facilities. Her job is to make sure both patients and hospital personnel are safe. COVID-19 upped the ante. In March 2020, she received a call over a weekend asking her to join McLaren’s incident command team forming to address COVID.

“I was impressed by the team,” Milbrandt says. “We got together and went right to work. We focused on PPE and bed and staff availability. We made it a priority to be prepared.”

Milbrandt was tasked with setting up isolation units for COVID-19 patients. Additionally, she defined protocols for “donning and doffing” (taking PPE on and off) in a sustainable manner and educated staff on CDC and state guideline changes. She is an integral team player and the primary decision-maker when it comes to reviewing whether PPE meets CDC guidelines. She works day-in and day-out to make sure all McLaren staff, providers and community members have the latest safety information.

“I work closely with three infectious disease doctors and our clinical education team to make videos that loop on the floor showing providers how to don and doff PPE,” Milbrandt says.

Milbrandt is proud of how her team came together and collaborated, sharing priorities and working long hours. She also appreciates how the community presented creative solutions, such as Petoskey Plastics shifting gears to make face shields and gowns for the hospitals, local distillery Gypsy Vodka making hand sanitizer and community members coming together to sew masks.

Enda McGonigle
Manager of Logistics // Munson Healthcare

We all now know the challenges of ensuring our frontline healthcare workers have the PPE they need to provide care safely. At Munson Healthcare, that responsibility fell upon the shoulders of Enda McGonigle, Munson’s manager of logistics, who is responsible for ensuring Munson sites across all of Northern Michigan have PPE and supplies. McGonigle worked tirelessly during the initial days of the pandemic to ensure the health system was prepared to serve COVID-19 patients. However, he is quick to say that no one person is a singular hero in the success of Munson’s COVID response.

“It was a team effort. No one person on this team could have made this work,” McGonigle says. “I have more than 150 team members across the Munson System and we rely on medical and non-medical staff to help us be good stewards of PPE to keep people safe and protected. Frontline staff are the heroes we are here to support.”

In the face of unpredictable pandemic resource demands, McGonigle had to ask staff across all Munson hospitals and ambulatory locations to be adaptable. Early on, he was asked to be a part of Munson’s incident command team representing logistics. Logistics played a vital role in incident command, which included leadership from every hospital within the Munson system providing two daily updates, seven days a week.

The crux of McGonigle’s work was developing a supply chain plan for each site to see that resource allocation considered PPE preservation and conservation needs. He also led the resource allocation committee that met daily to focus specifically on monitoring PPE preservation and conservation. They were responsible for devising creative solutions to keep Munson’s emergency preparedness inventory prepped—from masks and sanitizer to respirators.

He credits Munson’s distribution center and the Northern Michigan Supply Alliance—a collaboration with Trinity and Spectrum Health to share supply chain knowledge—with putting Munson in a preferred position at the beginning of the pandemic.

“We had space, trucks and a pretty sophisticated approach to inventory management,” McGonigle says. “The development of the resource allocation committee is really groundbreaking because it brings together the clinical team across Munson Healthcare as well as reps from nursing administration, ethicists and educators to thoughtfully operationalize change.”

McGonigle is thankful for Munson’s Foundation for Charitable Giving and the at-home heroes who stepped up to supplement cloth masks for patients and visitors, as well as Iron Fish Distillery for providing hand sanitizer. He’s also impressed with the team approach and excellent integration to respond to the unprecedented crisis in the supply chain.

Find this and more articles about health and fitness in Northern Michigan in the free, digital edition of MyNorth’s 2021 Medical Insider below; or get Medical Insider in print each year for free when you subscribe to Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, delivered to your door each month.

Karen DenBesten, M.D.
Director of Infection Prevention // McLaren Northern Michigan

Karen DenBesten, M.D., organized McLaren Northern Michigan’s COVID-19 response. No small task. DenBesten assembled an interdisciplinary incident command team that invested thousands of hours to ensure the safety of staff, patients and the community. The team worked together to develop a respiratory isolation unit, source and access testing materials, procure PPE and create protocols for COVID-19 safety and treatment. DenBesten led the charge every step of the way, staying on top of changing CDC recommendations and updating best practices and protocols daily.

There was an initial surge of cases at McLaren, which the team handled skillfully. Since then, there continue to be changes that present new challenges to DenBesten’s team. There is no letting up: The task force continues to meet daily to address ongoing changes.

“I’m so incredibly proud of the hospital staff, administration and community,” DenBesten says. “We listened to science and rose to the challenge. We came together to create a safe experience.”

DenBesten is proud of the safety precautions McLaren’s interdisciplinary incident command team put in place. To date, no staff members have contracted COVID-19 as a result of their work at the hospital.

“We’ve saved some really sick COVID patients, making the work incredibly rewarding,” DenBesten says. “The most challenging part has not been the long hours or my concern for my safety and the safety of my family. It has been the disregard for how serious this is from some members of the public. This is a highly contagious and potentially lethal and debilitating virus that needs to be taken seriously and respected.”

Christopher Ledtke, M.D.
Infectious Disease Specialist // Munson Healthcare

When COVID-19 arrived at Munson in March 2020, Infectious Disease Specialist Christopher Ledtke was tasked with answering some critical questions. How will we screen, test, isolate and treat COVID-19 patients? Where will we put COVID-positive patients? And, who will care for COVID-19 patients? Addressing those challenges quickly became much more than a full-time job.

Throughout the pandemic, Ledtke has maintained his normal day-to-day hospital and clinic responsibilities, while adding 3-4 hours of meetings, texts and calls around the clock to ensure timely infectious disease expertise is available to every Munson facility. If there’s a question about COVID-19 protocols, it goes to Ledtke and his team.

“It has become a 24/7 job. We answer questions like, ‘Can you review this protocol?’ or ‘This doctor or nurse is sick or has been exposed, what do we do?’” Ledtke says.

Ledtke, along with his partner Mark Cannon, M.D., PhD., and the entire infection prevention and infectious disease team writes and reviews protocols to prevent the spread of disease throughout the nine-hospital system of Munson Healthcare. They do everything from determining the safest way to plan for surgeries to being mindful of testing resources and making sure sick patients have the resources they need.

“We are trying to be as adaptable as we can,” Ledtke says. “We have a really strong group of administrators running the show here. We are dealing with limitations in supplies and a system with many locations that are all trying to get on the same plan, which is a challenge. Our response has been excellent.”

Ledtke applauds Munson’s frontline staff who have stepped up. He called out Infection Prevention Coordinator Megan Priede and VP of Quality and Patient Safety Joe Satangelo as all-stars in Munson’s response to this pandemic.

Rebecca Somerville
Respiratory Therapist // Grayling Hospital, Munson Healthcare

Rebecca Somerville is fueled by adrenaline. Her favorite places to work in the hospital are the ever-changing intensive care unit and emergency department. She is not one to be fearful. But COVID-19 frightens even this brave respiratory therapist.

“We were blindsided,” Somerville says. “We went from 0 to 100 within one day, but our department pulled together 150 percent.”

Somerville says her department, the cardiopulmonary department, collaborated with the inpatient team and other ancillary services to ensure they had enough resources to provide critical care.

“We would not have functioned without every single person in our department. It was a huge team effort for the hospital as a whole,” Somerville says.

The team at Grayling Hospital went from wearing no masks to working in what they dubbed “battle gear” nearly overnight. In the past, the Grayling team would stabilize and transfer respiratory patients. COVID changed that. COVID-19 patients were not stabilized and transferred, they were stabilized and admitted and Sommerville’s department needed to rely on hospitalist physicians and surgical nurses for additional support to meet patient care needs.

“It brought us closer as a team,” Somerville says. “Everyone was sharing ideas. We were dealing with modes of ventilation we hadn’t dealt with for a long time. We were at the forefront of treating COVID patients, and our whole team did a great job.”

Somerville is thankful that her team never lacked PPE and that the Grayling community showed amazing support by making masks, providing food to employees, writing encouraging messages on the sidewalks and posting signs.