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Emerson CEO tries to set example amid COVID-19 and holidays

Vaccines will arrive soon; but challenges remain for hospital and society

Emerson Hospital CEO Christine Schuster, second from left, spent some time in October on a patient floor talking with employees, from left, Katie Pescatello, Sharon Reed and Marion Worley. Schuster, who has led Emerson for 16 years, is also a registered nurse. Photo courtesy Emerson Hospital
Emerson Hospital CEO Christine Schuster, second from left, spent some time in October on a patient floor talking with employees, from left, Katie Pescatello, Sharon Reed and Marion Worley. Schuster, who has led Emerson for 16 years, is also a registered nurse. Photo courtesy Emerson Hospital

CONCORD — Emerson Hospital CEO Christine Schuster said some of her closest friends had a hard time over Thanksgiving, and that she faces Christmas without longtime traditions and her 90-year-old mother as she seeks to set an example in the surging COVID-19 pandemic.

“Can you imagine if I ever went out for dinner, and one of my staff was there,” Schuster said in a conversation with Sun editors. “What does that say about me? Not so much, and so I feel like I have to set an example.”

Schuster said she believes data shows that the Thanksgiving holiday has contributed to the recent surge in cases — which left Emerson with an average of 17 COVID-19 patients last week, and three in the intensive care unit.

“I think too many people either traveled or ended up being with people who are not in their normal bubble, because the community transmission of this disease is really at its peak right now,” she said. “And that’s what’s driving a lot of the hospitalizations, and people getting sick.”

Schuster, in frank comments similar to those made recently by Lowell General Hospital Director of Infectious Disease David Sidebottom, said she would not go out to restaurants, malls, or other indoor public gathering spaces at this time, and that she has changed her family’s holidays plans.

“The community is really where we have the biggest challenge right now,” Schuster said. “I wouldn’t go out for dinner… I definitely think there are places in the community where we just shouldn’t be right now. And for me, that includes health clubs and restaurants and any kind of social gatherings where you’re taking your mask off.”

She said some of her closet friends — “they’re like my extended family” — were troubled about canceling longtime Thanksgiving traditions.

“They were like, ‘well, you know, we don’t go anywhere.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t go anywhere, either, but you’re not in my bubble. I don’t see you every day. And they had a hard time with it,” she said.

Schuster said her family has also struggled with not being able to see her 90-year-old mother for Christmas this year, especially as the large Italian family traditionally makes the Feast of the Seven Fishes meal.

“I haven’t seen my mother in I can’t remember how long, and I do a lot of Facetime, but she doesn’t quite get the whole technology thing,” Schuster said. “I just want to give her a hug. I’m Italian, so I’m a hugger. I’m hugging people all the time and it’s just really hard not to be able to be in touch with people.”

Schuster said the hospital has also seen a big increase in mental health issues and crisis, and even patients that were doing well with conditions, but who reverted due to social distancing, precisely because so many people miss family and friends and social connection.

“We’re meant to be social beings,” she said. “We’re meant to be outside, and to hug people, and see people, and this is just not the environment you can do that in.”

She said the hospital has had to hire additional people to help oversee mental health patients, and that efforts are underway to create more treatment beds for those in need, many of whom have faced longer than ideal waits in emergency rooms.

But Schuster said despite the difficulty, her own family will sacrifice this year. She and her daughters are still planning to make food for her mother and the girls’ grandmother, but they will deliver it in a way that is safe, instead of sharing it across a table.

“If something bad happened, you know, I don’t know if I could live with myself,” Schuster said. “I don’t think this is forever. It’s a small sacrifice to make to keep people safe.”

Schuster said the hospital’s first shipment of vaccines is expected to arrive early this week, and that the hospital’s “COVID-facing” employees — everyone from nurses who care for patients to the nutritionists who feed them and those who clean their rooms — will get the first doses.

Schuster said she plans to get a vaccine as soon as management does, but that she will not cut in line and accept a dose before all of the hospital’s workers who face the virus daily.

“I’ll stay in my cocoon a while longer, and protect myself,” Schuster said of not being vaccinated immediately. “I really admire our staff that comes to work every day. We have a COVID floor, and the attitude and the spirit on that floor is just amazing. We keep them well fed and well hydrated, and, you know, well loved, they have scrubs, so they don’t have to go home in their clothes. But they really are putting their families and their life on the line every day for us.”

She said that while employees were required to get flu shots, the COVID-19 vaccine will remain optional since it is a newer and less tested vaccine. She said she is eager to get it herself, though, as all evidence so far points to the vaccine being safe.

She said the emergence of vaccines after months of work has created some light on the horizon.

“We just feel like this gives a lot of hope, you know, to starting to get back to normal,” Schuster said. “I think, and Dr. (Anthony) Fauci says, by the fall we should have enough people who have been vaccinated for this to be enough for us to start to get some semblance of normalcy in our lives.”

She said patients who have COVID-19 have also been doing better now that treatments have become more established and the medical community has learned more about the virus.

“The patients we’re seeing are not as sick as they were in the spring,” she said.

She also said the hospital is well-supplied with personal protective equipment and other necessities, and working to ensure there is capacity for coronavirus patients as well as those in need of other procedures.

Asked directly if the hospital is ready for another surge, Schuster answered quickly.

“Given the trends that we had both in the spring during the first surge, and what we’re seeing now, yes,” she said.

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