‘We’re beating this’
How Cindy Little and her team have been a force for calm amid COVID-19
It sounded like a burglar alarm.
Cindy Little was at her former church in Charleston, South Carolina, when she heard it. She wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but she knew something was up.
Then, she saw the defibrillator cabinet. The door was open. Someone needed medical help, and they needed it fast.
Little is a nurse — one who has spent the bulk of her career in critical care — and immediately sprang into action. She started looking around and found a man lying on the church steps. Not only was he having a heart attack, but he’d fallen backward and suffered a head injury, as well. Little rushed to his side and started administering emergency care until an ambulance arrived. Sure enough, the man survived.
“When those things happen, you just go into nurse mode,” Little said.
That’s just one of many stories Little has collected in her 36 years as a nurse, which has since brought her to Charlotte. She is now nurse manager for Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit and Rapid Response Team. In recent weeks, she’s led her team through their toughest challenge yet: COVID-19.
It’s been a hectic time with plenty of highs and lows. The influx was swift and daunting. Information was changing by the day, but Little’s team stayed focused.
“It almost got to be overwhelming,” Little said. “It got to the edge there. We had to do a lot of work to support each other, and that’s what we did.”
Together, the team took it day by day. They reviewed the latest verified information and kept track of accomplishments, like when patients stabilized and transferred. Soon, they had empty beds.
“We started looking for any kind of celebration that said we were conquering this. It probably took us the first four weeks before we could get to that place where we were making headway and we were adjusting to this new norm.”
By the second month, the unit started going days without a new coronavirus admission.
“We didn’t want to say it out loud,” Little said. “We wanted to whisper it at first.”
Through it all, Little has remained a stabilizing presence. Whether she’s talking with nurses about their fears or answering families’ questions in a slow, thoughtful manner, experience has given her poise.
“It does provide this calming environment for staff, patients and families,” Little said. “I had to learn it over the years. I came in as a new nurse getting all excited about everything going on with my patients, but it’s a maturing experience.”
Healthcare is what Little was born to do. She grew up in a family with many medical professionals. Early on, she was drawn to the biological sciences and earned a degree in biology before becoming a nurse. For most of her career, she focused on leadership and critical care until the birth of her grandchildren lured her to Charlotte and to the ICU at Presbyterian Medical Center.
An important part of Little’s role is keeping her team rested and free from approaching burnout. ICU nurses are known for being so focused on caring for patients, they sometimes struggle to look after themselves. Little makes sure her team takes time for “self-care.” She’s created a “lavender room,” where nurses can relax and catch their breath. It has a diffuser with lavender oil, healthy snacks, soft music and low light.
“I have a line that I use: ‘Panic serves no useful purpose,’” Little said. “It’s something I share and demonstrate with my team all the time.”
Little has also encouraged her team to cherish the little victories, like when one patient who had been on a ventilator and with a machine oxygenating her blood finally pulled through.
“The day that the patient got to leave the ICU, the staff did a celebration walk and cheered and clapped her on as they took her to the stepdown unit,” Little said. “That was such a big win for the staff because we did not expect it to turn out like that.”
The community has also done its part to celebrate the hospital’s effort.
“We’ve had a wonderful outpouring of support from the community,” Little said. “One of our jokes is COVID-19 is really the 19 pounds we’re going to gain from all the food we’ve received. The fact that we can laugh about it is a lot of progress right there.”
There have, of course, been difficult moments, and Little and her team have adapted quickly, finding new ways to shine a light and show compassion. For instance, when one patient was at the end of his life, family members couldn’t visit due to restrictions in the ICU. Instead, Little’s team used videoconferencing so family members could be there in spirit.
“These 20 family members were singing to this patient as he passed, singing that patient to heaven,” Little said.
As the nation tries to turn the corner on COVID-19, Little has felt honored by the resiliency of her staff and to be a part of the team.
“The attitude is changing from fear to being resolute to now, ‘We’re beating this,’” Little said. “And it’s not that we’re beating COVID. We’re beating our own fear.”
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