Barbara Goraczkowski displays the two challenge coins she received from Black Hills VA Director Sandra Horsman and the VISN (veterans integrated service networks) 23 Network Director Robert McDivitt for her heartfelt nursing approach during the pandemic. (Photo by Charity Maness/FRCH-S)
By Charity Maness
HOT SPRINGS – As the world changed drastically with the onset of the COVID pandemic last year, healthcare professionals and frontline responders in America, and around the world, were charged with seemingly ever-changing response and care of those within their facilities; challenges frontline workers in Hot Springs embraced.
Barbara Goraczkowski began her nursing career as an assistant, but growing up in Hot Springs, a Veteran Town, she aspired for a higher education so that she could better help veterans.
With influence from her military family, including a WWII veteran Grandfather and military step-father, Goraczkowski pushed herself to achieve that goal receiving her nursing degree with honors in 2014.
“I had this overwhelming sense to take care of veterans,” said Goraczkowski, as she pursued placement working with veterans. “I found my niche at the State Veteran’s Home working as a care coordinator.” There, she received her first two challenge coins awarding her for her lifesaving efforts.
Soon she was happily working for the Black Hills VAMC. Then COVID hit and new challenges presented themselves.
“Some protocols changed hourly as updates were received, I was scared too, we didn’t know what to expect,” she said, “but communication was key and our VA’s cornerstone is good communication with staff.”
In 2020, at the height of the riots spawned by the George Floyd incident, Goraczkowski deployed as a nurse to an understaffed, tiered assisted living facility within Minneapolis to help where needed. Within two days she was assigned to the designated COVID wing.
“We were notified of the riots within a few days of arriving,” she recalled, “there was heightened security which included limited travel to and from our hotel. This restriction didn’t only affect us, as none of the patients could have visitors either. It was heartbreaking.”
On her third day, a woman who only spoke French was transferred to the COVID unit.
“She had limited communication ability and poor vision,” said Goraczkowski, “so I tried to recall my limited French from high school.” Her attempt at French, while admittedly rusty, struck a cord with the woman and a small smile spread across her face. “I knew then that I had to work harder to reach her. When I returned to my hotel room I listened to French music and YouTubed French phrases and songs.”
“I sang to her in French and held her hand, I could feel her squeeze my hand at times. The toughest part was there was no one there, no family was allowed.”
Days later, while gently singing French songs to the woman and holding her hand, Goraczkowski said she drifted off to heaven.
“It was heartbreaking not being able to have her family there by her side,” said Goraczkowski.
Goraczkowski received two more challenge coins in recognition of going above and beyond showing love and empathy to a patient in their dying hours.
“It’s what we do as nurses,” explained Goraczkowski, “we come together as a team and do what works, I could not have done that without my team.”
Fellow healthcare, Kimberley Kasper, says helping people is what she loves most about her job as CNA (certified nurse’s assistant) within the VA system.
Yet when COVID hit, her whole world changed too.
“At first everything stopped because information was constantly changing,” explained Kasper. “We were still at work, but our patients weren’t. It was a helpless feeling.”
Many facilities switched to virtual appointments and phone calls, both lacking that personal interaction that was, for years, the cornerstone of health care. As COVID began to affect some staff, others learned to function outside their job description, helping where they could.
“Personally, I carried my stress home a lot,” said Kasper. “My family had to deal with a lot of my stress. I’m so grateful for them, especially my husband who dealt with every emotion that I threw at him. I had to, and still have to, remind myself that things could always be worse. I still worry because nobody knows when this will be over.”
Kasper credits the close knit working connections and communication the medical teams have when dealing with COVID, referring to the staff’s empathy and optimal health care for patients as they are guided through situations that arise. “We, as a team, had to learn how to approach our job in a different way. We’re still learning.”
As for being referred to as a hero, like many healthcare workers, Kasper is humble.
“I’m definitely not a hero,” she said. “Talk to the ones who run into fires to save lives or go days without seeing their family. They’re our heroes. Our military servicemen and women, they’re the ones I see as heroes and that’s a job that I wasn’t cut out for, so no, I’m not a hero.”
Local law enforcement has also been affected.
“Early during the pandemic, two of our officers had to be quarantined due to contact (yet did not contract COVID),” explained Hot Springs Police Chief Michael Close, “and when our department is functioning with two officers down, it has a huge impact.”
The Hot Springs Police Department operates 24/7 with seven full-time police officers responding to calls within the city limits – from theft to drunk and disorderly, drug sales to lost children and everything in between. Many of the officers have young families at home.
“Those who have families, do have some level of fear that a contact made during a call could potentially bring an illness back home to their kids,” explained Close, but with the state’s issuance of personal protective equipment, local law enforcement response was not hindered.
“We do restrict contact at the department to the community asking them to talk with us at our window or through phone contact,” said Close, and when the officers respond to calls or are patrolling they limit their close contact to the best of their ability.
“The one thing that has been taken away by this pandemic is the face to face time we spent with the children of the community and the community as a whole,” said Close, pointing out that the department has built their reputation on accessibility to children and the community, a hands on community policing approach. “We use to go to the schools during recess, or PE, or coach teams, just to interact with the local youth, but we don’t want to inadvertently take anything we may have come in contact with up there.”
Close, as well as Kasper and Goraczkowski, hold out hope for things to change soon and advocate continued kindness.
“While it can be overwhelming, I have learned how important it is to be with your loved ones throughout this time,” said Goraczkowski.
“We enjoy being involved in the community,” said Close, hoping for the day they can all return to 100 percent availability and community involvement without restrictions or fear.
“Politics and theories aside, I just hope this has inspired people to have more compassion for one another,” said Kasper. “If you see someone who needs help and you can help, don’t wait for someone else to do it. We’ll get through this together.”