Dari Caldwell: Rowan originals helped county get through COVID-19 pandemic

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 27, 2021

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from a blog post first published on yourrowan.com. To read about more local health care heroes, read the full post at yourrowan.com/health-care-heroes.

By Dari Caldwell

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of a hero is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” These attributes certainly can be applied to the health care team, but especially to those on the front line during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, a lot of attention has been given to health care workers, including parades, recognitions and naming them “heroes.” This attention is well-deserved and long overdue! For this blog, I wanted to focus on the front line, and I looked for a variety of health care heroes from different facets of health care. To a person, when I interviewed them, I heard, “But I’m not a hero, I’m just doing my job.” My response was, “but to us, you are a hero. I’m not sure what we would have done without you.”

So the following are a few people I identified through various means and was able to talk with about what their experiences have been:

Leah Overcash, RN

Overcash is a Rowan original, born and raised in Salisbury. She attended North Rowan High School and then went to Mercy School of Nursing in Charlotte to get an associate’s degree in nursing. Graduating in 1995, Overcash initially couldn’t find a hospital opportunity. So, she spent a year as a nurse in a nursing home before joining Presbyterian Medical Center as a medical surgical nurse. Three years later, she found her love as an emergency department nurse at Rowan Regional Medical Center, where she has been for more 20 years. She enjoys her work family and also being close to her own family, most of whom live in Rowan County.

As the charge nurse in the emergency department, Overcash was in the trenches when COVID hit. She says it was the hardest time she could remember in her 25-year career. First, there was the shortage of personal protective equipment (gowns, gloves, masks) and trying to work through solutions. Then came the fluctuating emergency department volumes and trying to segregate those with COVID symptoms from the other routine emergency department patients. Then, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Overcash says, “the ED and the entire hospital became totally saturated with COVID patients, and it was very overwhelming.”

Overcash said she often went home in tears, feeling as if she had worked as hard as possible and still people were getting sick and dying. Coupled with that was another heartbreaking blow. Her son, Charlie, was a high school senior and missed having a graduation, prom, his senior year of baseball and his first year of in-person college at Appalachian State University as a result of the COVID shutdowns.

As a mother, “that was the worst part of all — and he will never get those times back,” she said. Overcash also has a 29-year-old stepson, Colton.

Prior to the vaccine becoming available, Overcash and her husband, who is a paramedic, contracted COVID. Fortunately, they weathered it well. Other than feeling lousy, they recovered.

I asked her if it was scary being on the front lines.

“Not scary, just concerning and worried if it was ever going away,” she replied.

One of the things that got Overcash and her team through the darkest days was the support from the community with meals for the healthcare team and demonstrations of support. “I love being a nurse, and when asked if I could go back and start over, ‘would I do it again?’, the answer is yes!” As a charge nurse in the emergency, Overcash has supervisory responsibilities, but she also continues to perform direct patient care, often taking a patient care assignment. She says the best part of her career is getting to be a nurse in her hometown hospital.

Ashley Lombard, RT

Born and raised in Salisbury, Ashley Lombard is another true Rowan original. After graduating from West Rowan High School, she attended Stanly Tech and became a respiratory therapist. She joined Rowan Medical Center and has worked there for 19 years.

Respiratory therapists have been front-and-center during the COVID pandemic because they are the ones who manage the ventilators and other airway needs of the sickest patients. In talking with Lombard, she recounted that it has been “a long 15 months — not knowing what to expect or if it was going to get worse or better. It was absolutely exhausting.” She is honest about what we have heard across the nation — no one knew how to treat COVID, and we had to learn as we went.

“What would work for one patient might not work for another, and it was very frustrating,” Lombard said.

She says the hardest part was the emotional toll the illness took on families who were not able to be with their loved ones when they were sick and dying. It was painful to be the one to hold the patient’s hand as they died or to the iPad while they said their final goodbyes to their family, Lombard said. Sometimes, this would happen several times during a shift. She remembers her worst day ever as being late September 2020 when six people died on her shift. That put her at a breaking point.

When asked if she was ever frightened, Lombard said she was not personally afraid, but she was afraid of taking COVID home to her family. Both Lombard and her husband, who is a deputy sheriff, were essential workers, but they also have a 6-year-old and 17-year-old at home. They’re trying to home school, help with cooking and cleaning, laundry and keep things going.

Lombard says, “my 17-year-old had to grow up too fast during all of that.” Lombard did all the grocery shopping, too fearful to allow her parents or her pregnant sister to go out into the community.

“Sometimes I would work 60 to 80 hours in a week and then try to be a mother. It was hard,” Lombard said.

She said Rowan Medical Center was fortunate to have enough personal protective equipment and to be able to weather the pandemic as well as they did. She and her husband are vaccinated, and she believes the vaccine has helped to slow down the pandemic and to help those who contract it have less severe illness. She encourages everyone to get the vaccine and says even her 6-year-old will try to educate others on its importance.

Cathy Teat, PHARM D

At the Community Care Clinic of Rowan, Cathy Teat has been instrumental in helping the CCC patients through the COVID pandemic.

From being a part of the team that had to answer questions and coordinate testing to handling the vaccine strategy from procurement to storage, refrigeration and administration, Teat has truly been a champion.

Originally from Selma, North Carolina, Teat received her doctorate in pharmacy from Campbell University in 1999 and moved to Concord in 2000 with her husband, who is also a pharmacist.

She initially worked part time in Albemarle at an independent pharmacy, but she was recruited to the Community Care Clinic by a fellow Campbell alumni and then pharmacist at CCC. Teat began filling in at CCC in 2014 and came on board full-time in 2015. She has a college-age child, Braden, who just finished her first year at Western Carolina.

When discussing the COVID pandemic, Teat says the thing that stood out the most to her was the loss of contact with the patients.

“My role normally includes a lot of patient contact with providing education about medications and drug interactions, and when the shutdown occurred, the interaction with patients was very limited,” Teat said.

Now, she is extremely happy to once again be able to interact with patients, a role she cherishes. Observing her in the clinical setting, it is amazing to watch her connect with patients, their love for her and her care for them. The CCC has a small and efficient staff that sings the praises of Teat, their hero.

Dari Caldwell is a Salisbury resident who formerly worked as president of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center and currently serves as chair for the Rowan County Board of Health.

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