Voices From the Front Lines: Sarah Rinker, RN, BSN, Infection Control and Prevention
BY TED WILLIAMS
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives, none more so than those working on the front lines of this crisis – our health care heroes. Voices From the Front Lines is a series of interviews with Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) health care providers who are working to care for patients who are ill with COVID-19, as well as those who are dedicated to helping prevent the spread of this virus.
Sarah Rinker, RN, BSN, is an infection control nurse at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest. Rinker spent four years at Walter Reed Hospital as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She also spent four years in the Pennsylvania National Guard, where she reached the rank of captain. She has had an interest in health care since she was 5-years-old when Rinker proudly told her family she was going to be a “baby nurse” when she grew up.
What is every day like during the COVID-19 crisis?
The interesting part about working in LVHN’s Infection Control and Prevention during this pandemic is that every day is different. In the beginning, it was running around putting out fires, answering questions and training staff on the correct use of personal protective equipment. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we had to figure it out as we went along. It was stressful and exhausting. We worked tirelessly to ensure our clinical staff had the supplies, education and resources to do their job safely. It was hard to rest knowing there might still be staff that could use more education and not being able to get to everyone as quickly. As time has gone on, all staff members throughout our network have developed their own “best practices” and have made caring for some of these very sick patients something that they excel at and do safely in a difficult environment of layers of protective equipment.
How has this experience changed you, professionally or personally?
I think it is only the tip of the iceberg to understand how this has changed me. So far professionally, I had to learn that during a pandemic there is so much unknown. We had to roll with the ever-present changes and do the best we could at understanding an unknown enemy. We had to learn to accept that we would feel helpless at times. It was hard because we wanted to continuously provide and instill confidence in our frontline caregivers in terms of their health and safety.
Personally, I have learned to forgive myself. I learned to forgive myself for not always having the right answer. I learned to forgive myself for not seeing my kids every day while working long hours/days/weeks. I learned to forgive myself at times for feeling defeated by the changes. I had to remember that there is not a rulebook for responding to a pandemic and that we are all going through the same things. I noticed and now appreciate the slower pace at home and really recognize how valuable family time is. I noticed the slowing down of sports, activities and errands. We have taken more walks, played more games and spent more time talking. It has reminded me a little bit of what we are missing in our fast-paced lives.
What’s inspired you?
I think I will forever be inspired by the community and how people have demonstrated their love and ability to rally around health care workers and all essential employees. I had tears rolling down my cheeks many times during my drive into work and seeing the signs of “Thanks” to the hospital staff. There have been many donations of food and medical supplies. And what really melts my heart is the time spent and love shared by those making homemade masks to provide protection for someone they don’t even know. By people supporting us, it gives us the energy to keep going and to constantly feel good about the work we are all doing in this strange new world when we feel exhausted and overwhelmed.
What have you learned about yourself or your team?
I think like most people, I have learned so much about resiliency. This is the first time in many of our careers that when we leave our job in health care at the end of our shift, we can’t get away from the world. We can’t just lock it in the little lock box we all have in our heads. That is where we keep all the things that are too hard to think about, and we go home and have a “normal.” The problem with COVID-19 is that it follows us everywhere we go. It’s all around us and we can’t hide from it with stay-at-home orders, masks, home school, child care and closed businesses. There is so much internal positive and mindful thinking that must happen to stay on the better side of this and to remain hopeful to ensure that we can continue to separate the stress from work and the stress of this new world.
What are your rituals to keep you and your family safe?
We keep our family safe by truly enforcing social distancing. In Infection Control, we know these tactics that will help stop the spread of this virus. We ensure our kids understand that and know they are helping to keep other people healthy too.
What words of advice or encouragement do you have for health care employees or the community?
I am forever awe-inspired by acts of kindness that are going on every day during this time of uncertainty. Social media and the news often highlight the amazing things that humans are doing for other humans. The teamwork and sacrifices that so many people have been united in making have made this so much easier on many of us. My advice is to ask for help. If you need something, ask. There are so many people with big hearts and who are looking to find a way to make a difference. You aren’t alone.