Faces of COVID-19 in Sumter County

Published 7:43 am Saturday, June 20, 2020

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Our Hands, Our Homecoming

BY:  Tracy K. Hall

Mark Carter Pastor at Salem United Methodist Church

I love the little ditty we learn as children about church. You’ve done it before. By simply holding your hands together, the story of the true meaning of church is explained. “Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Look inside and see all the people.” It is a child’s lesson. However, at some point we realize the church itself is in fact, our hands. We are the church. It is our hands that minister. It is our hands that bring the church to life. Children know things we sometimes forget. Sometimes when the church building is empty, when the steeple has no people under it, we are left with the awesome realization the church, this whole time, is our hands. What do we do with such an awesome revelation?

You must be going there to get there, but the drive is oh so worth it. Salem United Methodist Church sits on a hill on Upper River Road here in Americus. It is that precious little white spired church with beautiful stained glass and welcoming doorways that even Hollywood wished they could dream up.  Salem is a small country church who gathers some of the biggest hearts in our community. The only thing greater than their covered dish meals is their love for Jesus and their love for their neighbors. They are family, yet they always save you a seat at their family table. When Salem has a homecoming, it brings generations to their grounds. However, there is always, always, always space for a new face.

But like most churches in our community, the family table had to take on a new look for Salem as the pandemic sweeps through. Mark Carter, the pastor of Salem, took the reins in keeping the congregation connected. While most churches found Facebook Live options to convey their services, Salem was at a loss in doing so. Mark had to find a different route. So, with the help of Rodney Poe, Mark began videoing his weekly message. It was sent out by email to the congregants via Vimeo. Mark reports with Rodney’s knowledge and volunteering spirit, “We figured it out. It was a big help—tremendous.” Evon Spurlin, a member of the Salem family reports, “We never missed watching Mark. It wasn’t the same as being there, but we received a blessing each time.”

Salem is being called upon to make some creative decisions in opening their Sunday services again. With guidance from the bishop, Salem will be having their first “conventional” service this Father’s Day. Mark estimates about 80% of his congregation falls into the “vulnerable” population, primarily due to age. In addition to having a vulnerable population Salem’s sanctuary is rather small. To practice the guild lines set forth by the White House Taskforce, the space will have to be used in a creative manner to hold who all want to join in the service. And there will be many who will join. The plan is to have those who have been quarantined together to sit together, while allowing others the six-foot distance. Every other pew will be occupied to allow the distance surrounding its members. Masks are highly recommended and hand sanitizers will be available. The service will be at 11am for now, the evening services will continue to be suspended. Mark reports, “It is a learning thing for everybody, but we must start and see how it works. Things may change, there is no way to plan but to jump in and start.”

As with most church families, Salem has found itself craving the company of each other. Mark readily admits he misses the amazing community that is Salem. “The things I have missed the most are having people to preach to. I am looking forward to having people back.” Mark’s voice tells you he has missed seeing the faces of his church family. While he is still ministering to others, you can tell he receives from the congregation as much as he gives. Service has a way of bringing joy not only for others but for ourselves as well. Salem longs to practice the art of service and they have been enjoying learning new ways to minister to those around them. Evon Spurlin makes a concentrated effort to stay in contact with her church family. She reports, “The church is like family to me. I miss their smiling faces, the strength and love I feel from each one.” To stay connected, Evon and her husband Harold would send emails, texts and make calls. In hopes of seeing one of those faces they love so much, Evon reports “They didn’t always know it, but we rode by their homes hoping to see someone and connect in that way.” Evon and her sister, Trisha Ragsdale, also a member at Salem would make it a point to honor a Sunday. While it didn’t look exactly like a typical Sunday, Evon and Harold would jump on their golf cart and go visit Trisha and her husband Johnny, with the six-foot rule enforced, of course. “We always knew it was Sunday.” But worship isn’t limited to Sundays. Harold is a singer and a particularly good gospel singer. He would fill their home with his voice during everyday activities. Harold and Evon have spent dedicated time in prayer. Sundays indeed are precious, but church has never been limited to a building. Salem’s members know this. They put their hands to work.

One of the members in the 20% who was able to make trips for groceries without the risk those over 65 take on would keep in contact with her church family by offering to make Wal-Mart runs and door-side deliveries. When speaking to this church member, she reports, “My worship took place behind a buggy at Wal-Mart. With every loaf of bread, every gallon of milk, I got to praise God for the opportunity to be of service. I got to praise God that he can use ordinary people to do his work. So yeah, Wal-Mart became my church in many ways. Buggies and multiple grocery lists became the stuff of worship. I am so grateful for it. There is no doubt I got back double what I invested.” Jeanie Hall, another church member made it a point to stay connected by sending out homemade cards at both Easter and Pentecost. She and her husband Paul would write a personal message in each one and send it forth as a gift and as a tie to bind the church together. The church email list was used to offer encouragement and keep the members connected. The prayer list continued to grow and continued to be responded to on bent knees. One member began making masks so each person was able to practice being a good neighbor to those they might encounter. These are but a few of the ways the hands of Salem’s members became the church.

This Sunday, the church, its steeple and its people will gather again. It will feel like homecoming. Mark will get to lay eyes on the people who cherish his words. There will be a place for you. There will be a place for me. What a joy it will be to “look inside and see all the people.” As we bring our hands to church, we will be reminded of the wisdom of children. We will be reminded that each pair of hands is in fact the true church. There will be praise for this fact, and even in a pandemic, we will be grateful to learn when unable to gather, we are still the church.


Systematic Approaches and Teamwork Galore

BY:  Tracy K. Hall

Brandi Lunneborg, CEO of Phoebe Sumter Medical Center

For most of us, by the time the pandemic hit, it had hit with little forethought on our behalf. We certainly had not planned to be on lock down for months and had we known we would not being seeing our friends and family for an extended period of time, we would have lingered a little longer, hugged a little tighter. Had we known much of our spring would be spent in our homes, perhaps we would have picked up a reasonable amount of the good toilet paper rather than being left with cheap stuff, if any at all. Maybe Lysol and hand sanitizer would have hit our grocery lists back in January rather than having to Pinterest ways to make it in our kitchens. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

You want to know where they prepare for perhaps? Phoebe Sumter Medical Center (PSMC). Under the leadership of Brandi Lunneborg, who has served as CEO for 6 years, the perhaps were taken under advisement when COVID-19 was but a distant thought. They were preparing when we were catching the occasional blurb on our televisions about a little virus in China that sounded like a beer. Brandi and her team are constantly emergency prepared; however, COVID-19 was a new type of emergency. None the less, the folks at PSMC were ready to put their skills and knowledge to the test. Brandi reports, “It was bigger than we ever expected. The scope of it was world-wide. But healthcare systems adapted very well. There was stress, long hours and getting out of our comfort zone, we did more than our normal jobs.”

Currently it is not surprising to hear of the stress put on our healthcare systems. We already know the shifts were long, the fear had to be contained, both new and long established emergency policies would have to be implemented, the personal protective equipment (PPE) was stretched to great lengths and healthcare workers would have to dig deep into a well of excellence that perhaps they didn’t even know they had. We know this. At this point in the pandemic story, we feel we have a fairly good understanding of what hospitals went and are currently going through. So, I wanted a different story. I wanted to know what it was like to be in the trenches in real life. I was listening for Brandi to tell me things that would surprise me, because frankly, she had already done an excellent job of keeping the community informed already.  I simply asked what it was like to be her in these days.

Chat with the employees of PSMC, you will hear the term “teamwork” a lot. I hear it so often I started to wonder if there was a contest in who could use the word the most. In speaking with Brandi, I learned there is no contest. It is truly a part of the milieu of PSMC. In speaking further with Brandi, it became evident that her idea of teamwork is not at all limited to just the employees of PSMC.  Brandi understands and sets the example of what it means to be a healthcare system. The system is what makes the teamwork a much greater task than simply leading the way at PSMC. Brandi’s priorities are many. While she certainly is responsible for setting the standard of teamwork for PSMC; just as important to her is setting the standard for teamwork in our community.

Brandi sat in meetings, in the same chair for 6 hours a day. She sat with her PSMC team noting the ever-changing status of COVID-19, noting the changes that PSMC would need to implement on a day to day, sometimes hour to hour basis to provide excellent care for our community. Brandi reports, “We have to work with all disciplines. We wear lots of hats. Everybody pitches in to overcome limitations. We set a support structure in place. Patients were extremely sick, we had to pull employees from other places to do what was necessary.” The model for running the hospital has shifted over the years. “The old hierarchical way is gone. ‘Do what the doctor tells you’ is gone. We know we have a lot of experts and we encourage those experts to speak up and share their expertise.” Brandi made me understand why PSMC’s employees use the word “teamwork” frequently. There is a respect for each employee’s voice. There is an expectation the employee will not withhold that voice. As good teams go, those voices matter, and together the goal of excellence can be reached.

Brandi plants her feet in our community. She fully knows PSMC isn’t the only form of healthcare in our area. She also fully knows on certain days our neighbors will also be patients. She is also aware that patients leave the hospital to return to bigger titles like mom, son, grandma and uncle. Wellness and wholeness go hand in hand and Brandi realizes her role extends far beyond hospital doors. Before COVID-19 even reached our states, Brandi was teaming together with the other systems in our community. One of those is our faith-based communities. She knew the workload was about to get excessively big and she needed her employees to be at their best. Early on PSMC sought out Central Baptist Church. Central dedicated space to the children of employees who would need day care while their parents worked extra shifts. Brandi identified employees who would best serve in the daycare. Workers who would be displaced if things didn’t run as normal where shifted to places where they were essential. These employees were tasked with providing care for their co-worker’s children. They stepped up to take on tasks usually reserved for teachers and family members. Cafeteria workers insured those children were well fed, activity coaches usually reserved for supporting our neighbors with innovative workout routines where sent to Central where they would line up activities and exercise programs for the kids. For 5 days a week this day care was offered from mid-March to the end of May. And the costs? Nothing. Because good teamwork is the heart of a good system.

Other places being sought out for collaboration included nursing homes. They needed assistance from PSMC and PSMC needed them to help make a patient whole again. Civic organizations wanted to assist where they could, and Brandi was able to bring the logistics together. Simple things, like activity book drop offs were coordinated. PSMC needed their PPE to live as long as possible so they called upon sewers to put together masks to be worn over medical grade masks, making them last longer. Going forward, PSMC will be working with One Sumter on their “Mask Up” initiative so masks are readily available for anyone who goes about their essential duties. Brandi felt it important she be transparent with our community and so she would update us on the state of affairs in the hospital daily. She felt those times helped the community not be overwhelmed with fear. According to Brandi the number one co-morbidity with COVID-19 is obesity. She plans to partner with other folks who can make a difference in helping bring healthier foods and easy movement plans together. A “Healthy Sumter Initiative” is already putting down roots to make well living our everyday normal. Teamwork. It is not just a word. It is a way of life within and without the doors of PSMC. They understand their place not only in our healthcare system but in our community system. As our region becomes whole, PSMC sees everyday real-life results. Conversely, as PSMC grows in their wholeness, our little corner of the world starts to see results.

Seems like a large task. Because it is. I wanted to know how Brandi took care of herself during the most trying times. There were heavy and long days, sometimes without breaks for weeks at a time. Brandi’s husband Todd was a resting spot for her. He offered her a chance to catch her breath. Todd is flexible in his ability to care for their teenage twins and so he was able to assure Brandi all was well at home. The twins and Todd, in turn, cheered for Brandi as she went about making decision after decision. Brandi reports “Decision fatigue was my biggest issue.” New information is excellent to get your hands on, but someone, somewhere must decide what to do with this ever-changing information. There was a command center set up in which Brandi and several others would spend their time, simply making decisions. She says at times she would think, “Can I get off this wild ride?” The answer she decided would be yes, and she would step away, to get some fresh air, to put thoughts towards things that calmed her, to call her husband and check in on her children. There were moments when she would make the “wild ride” slow down for a moment. Once centered and whole again she would return to make sure her teams were all finding a way to handle the wild ride also.

Brandi reminds us of our place in the system. She reminds us that we are part of the team. PSMC is fueled by our support during these days. The outreach from day one has been astounding to the staff at the hospital. That astonishment has not eased up in months. You might remember seeing Brandi reach out on Facebook Live to show folks gathering in their cars, flashers calling out, prayers being lifted as they circled the hospital. When having to decide what is essential has become a way of life, supporting each other is always, always, always on that list. May we always know we are part of the system. May we always know there is an exit door to the wild ride. May we always show up for our team.