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Infection prevention in the time of COVID-19



How Heather Ridge is working to keep patients, team members and the community safe

The COVID-19 pandemic may have taken the world by storm in 2020, but Heather Ridge has been preparing for this moment her entire career.  

As the infection prevention nurse at Novant Health Thomasville Medical Center, it’s her job to keep her fellow nurses, support staff and executive team apprised of the latest developments and best practices so that patients can continue receiving the best possible care.

For Ridge, it’s her way of giving back to society. She began her career with a degree in biology from UNC Charlotte and started off working at LabCorp. There, she performed tests and cultures, and she learned the impact that information can have on a person. One particular weekend, she received a call about a laboring patient awaiting the results of a screening that could impact the patient’s delivery.

“Because her results were positive, she was going to end up having a C-section, which is a major surgery,” Ridge said. “I quickly realized I wanted to be on the other side to help prevent some of the things I was testing for, before serious complications could occur. My honest to goodness goal was to make a difference.”

With that goal in mind, she went to nursing school and began her nursing career in 2004 as a medical-surgical nurse. When she saw a posting for an infection preventionist, she knew right away it was her calling.

“When I saw the job description, I said, ‘Yep, that’s me. That’s all Heather.’”

An infection preventionist is involved in a little bit of everything within a hospital, from developing workflows and policies to being available to units to answer questions to preventing the risk of healthcare-associated infections — all with the overall goal of patient safety. Because infection risk permeates every facet of healthcare, control efforts have a part to play in decisions at the micro and macro levels, from cleaning products to plant engineering and construction.

The largest responsibility by far is education. Ridge often roams the floors of the hospital and calls out areas of concern. She takes time to celebrate successes, as well.

“I compliment people on their hand hygiene all the time,” Ridge said with a laugh. “They think I’m crazy, but I truly mean it.”

It’s an expression of her passion for a role that has presented her with amazing opportunities, such as a two-and-a-half-year grant position as a nurse consultant for the Statewide Program for Infection Control and Epidemiology (SPICE) for North Carolina. For more than a year, Ridge and her colleagues traveled around the state reviewing infection control infrastructure at skilled nursing facilities, hospitals, outpatient clinics and dialysis centers. Along the way, she worked to alleviate gaps in community infection control practices.

“It was very eye-opening and very rewarding,” Ridge said. “It felt so good to provide resources, help and education.”

Once the grant ended, Ridge wanted to support her community, so she joined Novant Health as the full-time preventionist at Thomasville Medical Center, where she’s found her team ready to learn, especially as it relates to COVID-19.

“I’ve been so proud of our team here,” Ridge said. “They’re adapting, asking questions, staying focused and remaining positive.”

Ridge has taken on a lot of extra work during the pandemic. She’s been on call all hours of the night, and she’s been a fearless advocate for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). She has also kept everyone up to date with the latest information and helped to separate fact from fiction.

“There’s still so much to learn about this novel coronavirus,” Ridge said. “We just don’t know, and that’s hard for anybody in healthcare to accept. We don’t have all the facts yet. It’s going to take a long time.” 

Now more than ever, her expertise and buoyant personality have been a welcome boost to Thomasville Medical Center, but Ridge knows the goal of safety is bigger than she is. She sees the team as a family, with mutual respect and appreciation for each other.

“The infection prevention system team, we’re united,” Ridge said. “This is a family — its own little community. We genuinely are. We care for each other, which is special. That’s why I love it here.”

As the country seeks to turn the corner on COVID-19 and with restrictions set to expire, Ridge hopes the widespread effort to contain infection persists. She’s seen such impressive hand hygiene lately; it’s been “a dream.” Above all, she doesn’t want this time to be forgotten.

“I want this to be our habit now,” Ridge said. “I want us to continue this successful journey.”

Whatever that “new normal” turns out to be, she has been grateful for the love and support of her husband, Joey, and three kids during the crisis.

“I have an outstanding husband who really made sure things were taken care of on the home front, so now, it’s transitioned into how I can support him and the children while they’re distance learning.”

The community has also stepped up to show its gratitude to Ridge and the rest of Thomasville Medical Center. Ridge noted that the hospital has received all sorts of donations, from PPE and masks to snacks and cards, and people have left warm messages with sidewalk chalk. 

“Every day, someone’s trying to give a little piece back to us for what we’re doing as a community,” Ridge said. “Any way to be purposeful and give back to the community is greatly appreciated.”

As for the future, Ridge plans to go back to school someday to further her career in public health. In the meantime, she’ll continue her work within the walls of Thomasville Medical Center.

“I get to help people in whatever little way it is, whether I keep them safe because their caregivers have clean hands or I don’t spread a multidrug-resistant organism to someone else because my team members are wearing PPE appropriately,” Ridge said. “I make a difference because I keep people safe. It’s just that basic.”

The World Health Organization has designated 2020 as “Year of the Nurse” in celebration of Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday. We are proud to celebrate and recognize our Novant Health nursing team members this year, and always, for the remarkable care they deliver to our patients and their loved ones every day.

You can make a difference, too.

With a gift to The Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund), which provides critical resources to team members like Heather as they continue the fight against COVID-19. Join us and donate today.

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