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Dr. Scott Rathgaber: Character provides the way at Gundersen

Dr. Scott Rathgaber: Character provides the way at Gundersen

From the COLLECTION: Progress 2021: Primed for a rebound series
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Adversity has a remarkable way of revealing character. COVID-19 confirmed the compassion, strength, genuine care, and resiliency of so many people in our region.

There was no playbook to guide us during the pandemic. We learned and responded with flexibility and a focus on what those in our care needed in the moment. There are hundreds of pandemic stories from Gundersen and our community partners that reveal this character.

Here is Mark Windjue’s story.

Mark was the fire chief in Whitehall for many years and known by most in the community. He was admitted to the Gundersen Tri-County Care Center and then COVID hit. His friends and family couldn’t visit him due to visitor restrictions, so they contacted the Gundersen Tri-County Care Center to set up a surprise window visit, fire engine and all.

A crowd of Mark’s loved ones and fellow firefighters gathered outside the Care Center on March 25, 2020, and waited for Mark to be brought to the hallway window. Tears of laughter and joy were shed by family, staff, and friends.

Mark’s brother and son were even lifted by a fire truck ladder to the third-floor window where Mark sat. They toasted Mark with a beer, a simple gesture during a difficult time.

Our staff were honored and touched to be a part of this special day. Their character was revealed.

As Mark and his family received the care and compassion they needed, incredible teams throughout our system quickly set up units dedicated for patients impacted by COVID, and planned contingencies if a surge overwhelmed capacity. We constructed COVID testing locations in days. We had difficult discussions about potential ventilator shortages for our sickest patients and, worse, how decisions would be made if we could not care for everyone.

We ensured personal protective equipment (PPE) supply was available to keep staff safe. We established and expanded strong partnerships with local public health officials, other health systems, and community organizations. Despite enormous losses, we stabilized our finances with shared sacrifice among our clinicians, leaders and support staff, and with government support.

Everyone stepped up. We were all in this together.

Even as we managed a concerning surge of cases in the fall, we had our eyes toward the light, toward pushing back our foe. Thousands of Gundersen staff and community members stepped up to receive the COVID vaccine when it was available and when they were eligible.

We maintained safe facilities for our patients and staff and continued to mask, distance and practice hand hygiene to keep COVID spread low. We will continue our vaccination efforts until all are protected.

As the burden of the pandemic eases and we reflect on our response, I am proud of the way Gundersen and our community bravely confronted the trials and tribulations, united in our purpose to the communities we serve.

2021 will be brighter. Together, our character has provided the light.

Dr. Scott Rathgaber is chief executive officer of Gundersen Health System.

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