Faculty Organizing Emergency Response in the Region of the Country Most Endangered By Covid-19 in the World: “The Young Have Shown Us That They Are Not Lost At All!”

Foto Jiří Stavovčík

I set out on my trip to Olomouc. I learned that students of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Palacký University had become deeply involved in emergency response in the region and staffed the newly established tent that served as a Covid testing facility. My meeting with teachers and students of the Faculty of Health Sciences and a visit to the testing tent provided material for the following series of interviews.

Dean Martin (50): “That we are a really well-functioning team we know thanks to the crisis.”

I came to Olomouc for the second time in my life not knowing that I would start from the top university echelons only to end up in a tent. I could not miss the red testing tent and a bus set up on a parking lot at the entrance to the complex built on the “Olomouc Hospital Hill” comprising of the University Hospital, the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Health Sciences. The line outside of the tent was not too long and was regulated by police officers keeping an eye on mandated social distancing. However, I was told that the best time to come was before noon when the line thins out. The entrance to the complex is protected by a monumental statue of Hippocrates adorned with an indispensable mask that was gifted to him by local students. The statue, the students themselves, breakfast in the food court, all seemed a bit festive to me as the world was opening up again after two months of quarantine; and the door to the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences Martin Procházka’s office opened for me too.

Dean Martin, would you say that your faculty that is sharing a building with the Faculty of Medicine is as newly minted as your office?

The faculty is older. It has been here for 11 years. I have been in my position as the Dean of the Faculty since last November when the Academic Senate elected me. All three organizations that you will find on the “Hospital Hill”, i.e., the University Hospital and both faculties are strongly interconnected. For example, I am the Head of the Department of Genetics at our hospital and I teach at the Medical Faculty, my Vice-Dean Andrea Drobiličová is also the Deputy Director for Non-medical Occupations at the hospital and the same goes for many of my colleagues from our faculty. You could say that this hill of ours is one body and our faculty is one of its new practice-oriented organs: we educate general nurses, midwives, rehabilitation workers, and two of my four Vice-Deans came directly from practice, which proved to be very appropriate in the current crisis. Take the Vice-Dean for Foreign Relations, Jiří Stavovčík, who brought you here. He was hired based on his economic experience but when the crisis struck, he just completed his course in emergency response and became a linchpin of one of two main initiatives that our faculty organized in response to the crisis: the testing tent. 

I will add that the second initiative was integration of your students into the emergency response of the county. Did you have to motivate them?

Not really. When the students were called to work duty, it concerned only medics in their 5th and 6th years of study. I put an announcement on our website addressing it to all our students regardless of which year they were in because they have had enough hours of practice in their fields to fulfill their work duty in the hospital. The announcement went up on Tuesday and by Thursday about a quarter of our students volunteered.

Was the study load adjusted for those who volunteered? And how did your curriculum changed for those who “stayed at school?”

We moved state exams for our volunteers to the end of August; however, our third-year students who “stayed in school” are expected to work on their bachelor’s thesis. Those were the ones that you have probably seen here today. Clearly, there is one positive outcome of the crisis. Our academics learned how to educate students online. Our faculty, thanks to the crisis, got an opportunity to prove its existence. Our management, academics and students showed that we are a team.


Vice-Dean Andrea (42): “The young have shown us that they are not lost at all.”

While Dean Martin and Vice-Dean Jiří, left for a faculty management meeting, I settled in Jiří’s office that he shares with a very kind Irena Jedličková, an International Relations Officer, who offered me doughnuts and made ginger tea, which is wonderful for boosting immunity. Sipping my tea I was going through flags of all countries the faculty has exchange programs with: the most important EU countries, also Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Australia. I learned from Irena that she has recently had atypical duties. She is trying to process paperwork for those students who are supposed to come and leave even though she does not know when the borders open again and whether her effort will be warranted. I am waiting for a meeting with the main coordinator for student volunteering and blood draws in Olomouc, Andrea Drobiličová, the Vice-Dean for Quality and Practice at the Faculty of Health Sciences. Andrea’s time is precious and every minute counts. I got allocated 15 minutes but at the end she devoted 45 minutes to me. Our interview started with a personal question:

I gather from what I heard that you are well prepared for the role that you have been fulfilling in past days…

Yes, you can say that. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from our university and then went to work as a nurse anesthetist. My specialty is intensive care. I have worked at the University Hospital for 20 years. I started as a nurse practitioner at our Internal Medicine Department, then Intensive Care Unit and Surgery. I went from a general nurse all the way to a head nurse. It motivated me to learn more about management and I finished my Health Management studies while working. After that, I accepted an offer to become a Deputy Director for Non-medical Occupations at our hospital.

You have not been in your position of the Vice-Dean for long…

Since November 2019. Dean Martin has selected me at the same time as Jiří who was chosen for the area of foreign relations.

When did you first notice the coronavirus as something that will affect our lives?

It happened very fast. The first case was diagnosed in the Czech Republic on March 1 and we responded already on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the D-day when we went into Crisis Mode and the county health care system started functioning very differently.

What did the Crisis Mode look like?

In a nutshell, the helth care system became a body with individual organs getting involved to fight a disease. A Task Force of this region met every morning and directed efforts in every hospital in Olomouc. We do not have a Division of Infectious Diseases in our Olomouc Hospital and we were sending patients with Covid 19 to ICU in the Department of Infectious Diseases in Prostějov. Still, we had to reserve 12 beds in our highly specialised departments for patients who tested positiv for Covid. Our „Hospital Hill“ was expected to cover staff shortages caused by exposed personnel who needed to be quarantined immediately. On top of it all, our head nurse wrote to me on March 16: „Andry, we are in trouble. They won’t let anybody in or out of Litovel and Uničov! We were down 130 health care workers who were not allowed out of their hometowns due to worsening pandemic.

How did you manage?

Many clinics reduced their care not related to Covid and their staff was available to us in our Urgent Care instead of being sent home. We got nurses from Cardiology, Orthopedics, Otorhinolaryngology who did not know anything about emergency medicine but they did not have any problem to adjust to their new duties. It was the same case with our students. We got our first student volunteer on the first day to answer phone calls. I am a nurse and I know how dedicated our Czech Health Care professionals are but I was still amazed by the enormous solidarity: their willingness to help, taking extra shifts, and their shear despair when they got in contact with a positive patient and needed to be quarantined instead of going back to work. The students contacted us through their students’ organizations. We have a large hospital of 1,200 beds and 4,500 employees, and there were patients who needed continuous care. We received 400 student volunteers and out of them half were medical students and half from the Faculty of Health Sciences. They were stationed in various health care facilities, senior houses, and social care institutions quite often far from their fields of study. We still have an emergency worker who helps in a senior house. Some students who are not local went back to their hometowns and used their skills in various parts of our Republic and Slovakia. When our students started volunteering they did not know if they would be paid, whether they would have enough protective equipment or how much health risk they would be exposed to, but they did not care. It is not true that the young generation is lost. The young people showed us what they are made of and I am glad that they did.

Who makes the decision which positions will be filled with the volunteers?

I make the decision about positions in our hospital and testing tent and our Student Affairs Office coordinates placements with social care institutions.

How was the tent conceived?

Very quickly, we made the decision on Thursday, March 19, and on Saturday, March 21, we already had a patient referred to us by the County Hygiene Station standing in front of our tent in the parking lot, waiting impatiently for his swab test. We all worked on the tent logistics in our free time. The hardest part for me was to make the tent safe for the staff and the public. There are safety procedures in place but this was a special case. I knew there would have to be two teams in case someone got infected and a whole team would have to be quarantined. There would have to be another team to step in. These two teams have been taking turns since Saturday, March 21. They work non-stop from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Only now in May we shortened weekend hours and keep the facility open from 9 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. We have only 40 tests this weekend and those can be done in 4 hours. In the first few weeks we had teams of four people but the increase in the number of patients made me add a member to each team. Out of these 10 people, three are our University Hospital employees and students fill the rest.

But one of them is not a hospital employee. He is my fellow Vice-Dean, Jiří Stavovčík. He is the first point of contact in your tent and here is a question for him.


Vice-Dean Jiří (49): “Thanks to the tent my work finally makes sense.”

Jiří, when did you find your way into the tent?

The tent opened on Saturday but I started working there the following Wednesday. First I had to take care of my mother who is 85 years old. Once that was taken care of, I was ready to start. My mother used to be a nurse so she understood my motivation. There are three types of activities taking place at our testing facility. I am not allowed to work directly with samples and I am grateful for that. The samples are taken in our collection bus. Then, someone else is collecting initials and paperwork from people who came for testing and another team member is sitting in the tent and enters data in a computer. After an hour and half the team members rotate because the testing personnel is in a full protective gear and it is hard to have it on for much longer. I am the only one who is doing logistical work the entire shift. This allows me to observe the whole situation and think of improvements. Some people who came for testing were very nervous, did not keep their distance and pushed one another, some people were in such a bad state that they could barely stand and some had small children with them. Those with extenuating circumstances needed more attention. Sometime ago, I returned home from the United States after having lived there for 23 years and was surprised that some people do not respect nurses but I noticed that all respected high-ranking personnel. Therefore, when necessary I pulled rank and all of a sudden everything was possible. We had a problem with incoming people pooling in a driveway to the parking lot and we were afraid that there could be an accident. We had to make people line up elsewhere and I asked the police to come in a patrol car with a sign that would spell POLICE in bold letters to encourage people to stay I one designated line. In addition, the presence of the police helped us during the first week before the hospital had a triage in place. The police officers helped sorting people according symptoms. Medical students were measuring temperature and all with elevated temperature had to check with us before they were sent to the hospital. The police also helped with those having tried to go around the system we had in place. I must admit that the crisis and my experience in the tent made me realize that my work at the Faculty of Health Sciences matters.

Is it fair to say you are an undercover logistician with the cover of an administrative paramedic?

I would not put it that way because the tent operations would not be possible without Andrea Drobiličová. She made sure the tent was staffed and anytime we needed something, she was on the phone day and night securing all we needed from medical supplies to hot meals, coffee and water. I actually gained weight working in the tent. In the beginning, we would open the tent at 7:45 a.m. and waiting lines would be long but as soon as they started ebbing away, I disposed of my protective suit and started munching on a baguette. When I consider that Andrea was also in charge of mass testing where about thousand random people were tested next to the Globus Supermarket in 8 days, I do not know when she got the time to sleep. On the other hand she did have a sense of self-preservation. In the begging I would send her a lot of texts that she would patiently answer but when I asked too many questions, her replies stopped. In hindsight I realized she had prioritized and did not pay attention to those questions that were not important.

Miss Drobiličová is known for her undying energy. It occurred to me as an amateur ethnologist that here in Olomouc there is an enclave of ethnic Croats who, in the Baroque period, had borne the brunt of the fight against the Ottoman occupation of the Balkan Peninsula and were forced to stay in this area. Miss Drobiličová, just hearing about your battle with the pandemic makes me think that you may be a descendent of the determined Moravian Croats?

Andrea Drobiličová: Of course I am. But: Do not take Jiří too seriously; I would not manage without the Head of our Clinical Biology Lab, Hanka Jindrová, who took our tent under her wing, without Iva Benešová, who runs the hospital catering, without the two team leaders in our tent and many others.

Very little would happen especially without the two energetic Vice-Deans of the Faculty of Health Sciences, one with Teschen Polish roots, Jiří, and one with Moravian Croatian heritage, Andrea, who participated on the creation of the tent and gave me permission to visit it…

 

Testing Tent Team (21-49): “We enjoy every day…”

I was ushered to the tent, introduced and then left alone, as the two Vice-Deans had to attend to other duties. It was about 10 a.m. and though it was not the busiest time, people were still coming, so the work has never stopped. I decided I would still try to ask team members at least their names, age, field of study, and how they happened to work in the tent.

Eva (22)

I am an otorhinolaryngology nurse and I study at Opava, but I have not been to school in a long time. I take care of my schoolwork by email. I was originally supposed to do swabs for the University Hospital but it so happened that Vice-Dean Drobiličová, the other Team Leader Danka and I set up this tent.

What does it entail to be a Team Leader?

I have seniority that’s why I got the position. Basically, I am the first point of contact when something needs to be done. Miss Drobiličová turns to Danka and me. There is more important position, however. It is a person who lines up the people, takes theirs phone numbers, insurance information, referrals, then he takes it all to the tent, comes back with information flyers and finally sends all the people to the tent to be tested.

Is this what Vice-Dean Jiří does here?

Yes. He has this position because he cannot get infected and sometimes it pays of to have a man working with the public. There is this natural respect towards a man. So, we have it divided: Jiří takes care of the patients and I tend to my colleagues. (Laughter)

Tereza (22)

I am from Prostějov but I stay in Olomouc and I am a second year student of nursing here at the Faculty of Health Sciences. I replied to the Dean’s appeal and sent him an email that I would like to volunteer in my spare time. Within a week, I got a call from a lady in the Personnel Department that I was to get a medical checkup. After that, I went straight here to work out my shift assignments. Right now I am entering data into our system and in a minute I’ll report in the collection bus.

Lenka (21)

I am also entering date now. I am from Třinec and I am in my third year of nursing. That means that I was called to work duty. I originally applied to work at a different hospital but they reduced their staff there, so here I am.

You know Tereza from school?

No, we all met here.

How do you make a living as students these days?

We thought we would not be paid but we were told that they would pay us. I mean I did not thing they would pay us.

How do you handle fear?

I am worried about my family, so I do not visit them. My parents are older, and my brother has a little daughter. I only see my friends who know that I work here, but I have not seen anyone else since the end of March. Actually, I socially meet only my fellow students I share an apartment with. They are not in my field and they realize that I may be a risk to them, but they do not mind. When it comes to my family, it is hard to only call and not see them in person. I am missing on many events but it’s better than putting them in danger.

Lenka (45)

I am from Olomouc, and I have already graduated. I am from the Department of Anesthesiology where I have been working for 27 years, and I got here thanks to our head nurse. I am like a mother hen to these younglings. Besides, I have two little kids and I have not seen my mom since Christmas. (Laughter)

Do you ever stop by at your Department?

No, I am only here, like the rest of us. I do not see my former colleagues; I do not want to expose them to the virus. When Evie and I are called back to our respective departments, we will return, though we do not know when this may happen.

Do you think that you developed stronger bonds to your coworkers here than at your original Departments?

We are definitely closer and I am looking forward to my shifts here. The most important thing is that there is no “killjoy” among us who would spoil the whole atmosphere. There are only good kids here and the leader of the other team; a woman like me (at the best age) says the same about her colleagues.

(The Police of the Czech Republic comes in, a young man and a woman with a long ponytail. I ask them if I could interview them. They brush me off, so I continue talking to Lenka.)

They seem so official…

They are only human too, you know. They try to help. When we are inundated with people, they help us to keep them in line.

Is this better or worse work than at the Anesthesiology Department?

It depends on the number of patients. We used to be so busy that we did not even have the time to go to the bathroom and we literally had 2 minutes to eat our meals. There were two of us running around without any break: Jiří and I. At the Department of Anesthesiology, you walk when there are enough nurses. You told me you had worked as a nurse too, so you know, but we do not have these “rush hours” anymore.

How many times a day do you take turns entering data and doing testing?

Twice a day, max.

Did you have any tense situation?

Nobody got into a fight. Sometimes people try to ignore the emergency tape but that’s it. It’s true that we used to get a lot of people and there were no quarrels, now there are fewer of them and they argue more. The quarantine grates on people’s nerves. It has been going on for too long. On the other hand, there are others who come for their second tests after having being quarantined or are returning from abroad. These people already know us and are bringing us goodies…

Lenka’s telephone rings. One of Lenka’s kids is learning natural history and needs advice. The fifth’s member of the team is coming back from the bus.

Jana (22)

I am from here and I am in my third year at the Faculty of Health Sciences. Our school sent us an email if we want to volunteer so I applied. I got a call to work at the tent.

How is your situation at home?

I live only with my mom and my sister is a nurse here at the University Hospital. So, it’s good.

What about you? Do you want to work there too?

I’d like to work for the Neurology Department.

I have seen how hard it is to take off the protective suit. Is it tiring to have it on?

Only when it’s warm, otherwise I personally do not have any problem with the gear. Unfortunately, it’s not like in the beginning when our supplies arrived from China. We got tons of supplies and protective equipment. Now we have less of everything and the protective equipment is not suitable for taller people, so sometimes they have to do what they used to do at the beginning of the tent existence, wrap their forearms and calves in plastic.

Lenka (45)

 Meanwhile, Lenka has finished her phone call and asks me if I am hungry. Even though I politely refuse, she heaps food on my plate and makes me taste today’s lunch: very good rice with chicken. While I am eating, I do not forget to ask questions:

Do you find anything positive in this situation?

There may be something good in it. The nature took a break from all the “technical progress”. The surgery roster is not so hectic and my colleagues were finally able to take a breather. When you asked me where it is better at my regular work or here, I realized that both places have their pros and cons. I work for the Department of Anesthesiology because I like it and we have a wonderful team there– but we have a great team here too. If I did not enjoy my work, I would not be working in either place.

Can you share a funny moment if you had any?

Eva was disposing of our trash. She stepped on a box. Her food slid and she wound up with both feet up in the air. Luckily, nothing happed to her. We have fun, laugh and rejoice every day.

 

Is this tent a permanent place? Nobody knows… Let's end as positively as Lenka: what matters however is that the pandemic left behind 200 students of the Faculty of Health Sciences and two well-oiled teams who were tested during a difficult emergency situation which they manage with flying colors.

Translated from Czech by Veronika Šanderová.