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Meet 19 hospital heroes fighting on the front line of the coronavirus crisis in SC

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Elsie Inglis, a Scottish doctor who died of cancer in 1917, is best remembered for establishing the first hospital run entirely by women for the French government during World War I. 

She was a physician but also a suffragette — one whom the War Office in England once reportedly told, according to a BBC report, to "go home and sit still." The English government rejected her offer to build a hospital on the home front.

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Homemade signs of encouragement and thanks hang from the fence that surrounds the Medical University of South Carolina's respiratory specimen collection site on Monday, March 30, 2020, in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Some years after her death, national sentiment toward Inglis changed. Winston Churchill wrote in a letter to a member of British Parliament that "the record of their work, lit up by the fame of Dr. Inglis, will shine in history."

The same could be said of the doctors and nurses and hospital employees across the United States — and the world — who now find themselves fighting an altogether different kind of war. 

Each day, as patients are diagnosed and treated and die from complications with this incredibly contagious disease, health care heroes all over South Carolina show up to work, often with inadequate supplies to protect themselves, and carry out what they've been trained to do.  

Several of them spoke with The Post and Courier this past week. Most expressed a common theme: South Carolina is on the brink of a deadly battle. 

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Tori Mims. Provided

Tori Mims is a registered nurse who works at Roper Hospital in the cardiac intermediate acute care unit, which has been designated as the primary unit for COVID-19 patients at Roper. She is 29, lives in Summerville and has worked as a nurse for six years.

"It was scary for me on my first day. Until you're about to go in that room, and are gowning up, you can't prepare for it until you experience it. You can tell (the patients) are scared, too. I wasn't really scared after that first day."

Mims said she would be more fearful of caring for patients in the hospital who have not been tested. 

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Kim Van Horn. Provided

Kim Van Horn, 42, is a registered nurse at Roper Hospital, who works in the same cardiac care unit. She lives in downtown Charleston, bikes to work and had so far cared for one COVID-19 positive patient when she spoke to The Post and Courier. She has worked as a nurse for eight years. 

"I'm doing tons of hand-washing."

The N-95 masks do not fit Van Horn's face, so she said she has to wear a respirator hood and a battery pack around her waist that pumps air to her through a tube.

"It makes it harder to talk to your patients because you come in in a spacesuit. ... If we're not healthy, we're not going to be able to keep anyone else healthy. We're all looking out for each other." 

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Dane Friedman. Provided

Dane Friedman, 32, is the chief engineer at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston. He has worked for the VA system for 10 years, lives in Hanahan and has spent most of this time preparing for the influx of coronavirus patients by creating two new "negative pressure" self-contained units at the VA hospital. The new makeshift units, which allow fresh air to circulate, will accommodate up to 30 COVID-19 positive patients. 

"We've gone from four (negative pressure rooms) to 30," Friedman said. 

"If we have 17 patients who show up to the (emergency department) and they all have symptoms, what do we do?" he said. "How do you prepare for this? What can you do? I love challenges, so when that came across my plate, I'm like, let's see what we can do. ... My mind is constantly churning." 

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Anne Vandersteenhoven. Provided

Anne Vandersteenhoven, 63, is a pathologist for Prisma Health. Based in Columbia, she is the system director of laboratories at Prisma Midlands, which has been authorized to conduct in-house COVID-19 testing. 

"It reminds me of the early days of when HIV came out," she said. "People didn't have an understanding of the disease. That was 30 years ago. 

"I think this will be a virus that stays with us. But like so many others, it will wax and wane." 

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Linda Locklear. Provided

Linda Locklear, 61, works as an environmental services supervisor at Prisma's Tuomey Hospital in Sumter. She is in charge of primarily cleaning and sanitizing the labor and delivery unit and the infant nursery. 

"My biggest concern is for people to take this seriously," she said. "It's not something to play with." 

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April MacIver. Provided

April MacIver, 47, is a registered nurse at Roper Hospital in the cardiac care unit. She has worked as a nurse for nine years. 

"One of the biggest things I've seen (with the pandemic) is just the uncertainty. We're pretty much all learning how to do it together. Things constantly change."

MacIver, and others who spoke to The Post and Courier, admitted she is worried about her own health and running out of personal protective equipment. MacIver and her colleagues must request PPE from a nursing supervisor, and nurses are being asked to use some equipment for at least five days. 

"I personally have no idea how much PPE the hospital has, but there is a sense that it could run out. And that's one of the scariest things. ... We all do our best to make it last as long as we can." 

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Monique Butler. Provided

Monique Butler, 44, is a food service worker at the Charleston VA hospital. She lives in Charleston and has worked at the VA for a little more than a year. She previously worked in food services at the Medical University of South Carolina. 

"This is a passion for me. Being here every day is not (scary) for me. I want to be here. ... This is a test that God has given us. I have all the faith in the world so I'm not worried. ... It's actually an honor to be here with (the patients)." 

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Trervor Pham. Provided

Trervor  Pham, 27, is a registered nurse who has worked at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center for one year. Pham works with medical-surgical patients, some of whom may eventually include COVID-19 positive patients. He lives in West Ashley.

"The way that the virus is transmitted, it just seems to spread a lot faster. That's one of the things we're keeping an eye on."

Pham said he has been watching the news and keeping tabs on what's happening at hospitals in other parts of the country, but is trying not to let that impact the job in front of him. 

"I'm just focusing on the now and the present," he said. 

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Austin Bren. Provided

Austin Bren, 33, is a registered nurse at Roper Hospital in the cardiac care unit. He has cared for COVID-19 positive patients and lives in North Charleston. June will mark his one-year anniversary as a nurse.

"I've worked in fire and EMS for 10 years, so I'm pretty used to being in the line of fire. ... It's still a learning curve and everything is new."

Bren recently decided to limit his news intake to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates and memos from his employer. His patients have been anxious about all the news, too, so he tries to distract them, get to know them and get to know their families. 

"I can definitely see them getting depressed from extreme isolation," Bren said. "There are a lot of aspects to it that people don't appreciate or aren't aware of. ... My co-workers are the ones I'm worried about the most. We're taking the appropriate measures inside the hospitals. But outside the hospital, it's a whole different story." 

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He called it "frustrating" when he sees people who aren't taking social isolation seriously.

"They're more worried about the economy and the impact on their finances than people." 

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Lauren Barnett. Provided

Lauren Barnett, 30, also works in the cardiac care unit at Roper Hospital, where COVID-19 patients are admitted. She became a registered nurse last July and lives on James Island. 

"Anxiety increases every day as you start to read more and more," she said. 

Like other hospitals and nurses around the country, Barnett has been asked to reuse personal protective equipment, such as N-95 masks. Nurses on her team are supposed to wear the same mask for five shifts — a total of 60 hours. 

"It's completely against CDC guidelines," said Barnett, who described her own mask as soggy with sweat and covered in makeup. 

"It started off fitting correctly, but it's loosened over five shifts," she said. 

Bob Oliverio

Bob Oliverio. Provided

Bob Oliverio, 55, who lives in Cainhoy, is an internal medicine physician and chief medical officer for ambulatory care and population health at Roper St. Francis. Lately, he has spent most of his time taking nose swabs at the Rivers Avenue testing site in North Charleston, where an average 80 patients are tested for COVID-19 each day. 

"I'm knee-deep in nostrils," he said. "Frankly, I wouldn't ask anyone to do something that I wouldn't be willing to do myself." 

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Ashley Hink. Provided

Ashley Hink, 36, is a trauma surgeon with a graduate degree in public health and works at MUSC. She is also a critical care surgical intensivist who cares for patients in the ICU. Hink lives in West Ashley. 

"This is a high-stress time. We have to be calm, collected leaders. That's our job. That's what makes us different."

"Right now, I feel like it's the calm before the storm," she said. "There's no question we're going to see more patients and sicker patients in the next two to three weeks. ... We haven't had our surge yet. This is our time to make sure we get it right."

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Lancer Scott. Provided

Lancer Scott is the section chief of emergency medicine at the VA hospital in Charleston. He is 50, lives in Mount Pleasant and also works at MUSC. 

"(The pandemic) has been unprecedented. ... I know a lot of ER doctors in this state. We're all just anticipating something that we've never seen before," he said. "The surge (of patients) itself is the most threatening thing. ... I think in the next four weeks, it's likely."

He applauded his colleagues who are showing up at the hospital every day under such stressful circumstances. 

"If you think about the nurse who kisses her child and goes to work," he said. "That's a pretty heroic moment."

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Whitney Patterson. Provided

Whitney Patterson, 31, is a family nurse practitioner for Roper St. Francis Physician Partners. She recently worked a two-week shift at the Rivers Avenue drive-through location where patients are tested from their cars for COVID-19. 

"That was a different, but scary, experience," she said. "It was scary because you didn't want to take anything back to your family or (for) you to get sick, as well.

"Even under the circumstances, I enjoyed working at Rivers Avenue because we worked as a team. ... It's kind of the new norm."

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Ann Gentles. Provided

Ann Gentles, 53, is also a family nurse practitioner with Roper St. Francis Physician Partners and likewise worked for two weeks testing patients at the Rivers Avenue site. 

"It was my first experience working a drive-thru clinic like that," she said. "Thank goodness the weather was very nice for us.

"I think it's pretty obvious that the social distancing does work," she said. "I think it's really hitting home for a lot of people."

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Heather Hughes. Provided

Heather Hughes is an infectious disease physician at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston and is assisting VA hospitals across the Southeast during the coronavirus crisis. She is 41 and lives on Johns Island. 

"It definitely feels like what I've been training for my whole career," she said. "I definitely think social distancing measures are one of our most powerful tools right now."

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Monica McCrackin. Provided

Monica McCrackin, 40, an infection control registered nurse, has been at the VA hospital in Charleston since 2001, when she started working as a nursing tech. 

"We've certainly been preparing for this," she said. "I worry about the community not heeding the warnings, not doing the social distancing."

Kristy Griffin

Kristy Griffin. Provided

Kristy Griffin, 36, is a nurse in the emergency room at Trident Medical Center in North Charleston. She lives on Johns Island. 

"Anytime we go into work, whether there's a pandemic or not, we're always worried about patient care," she said. 

Griffin said the hospital has been conserving personal protective equipment for a little over a month.

"I feel like we're actually pretty well prepared, in perspective of things." 

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Antine Stenbit. Provided

Antine Stenbit, 50, is a pulmonology and critical care physician for Prisma Upstate. She is based in Greenville. 

One of her longtime patients who was being monitored for COVID-19 symptoms recently died in the hospital. The patient was being isolated, and could not be comforted by her family when she passed away. 

"She was literally dying in front of us," Stenbit said. "My patient died without her family. I was there with her. ... I couldn't hug my patient. I couldn't comfort her in the last moments of her life. ... I drive home and see people having parties and I want to stand in the road and scream at them. We have an invisible enemy. And it's real." 

"My family asks me not to be a hero, but my feeling is this is my job. This is my calling. This is what I'm meant to do. I am not afraid." 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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