The tale of the COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the great tragedies that have taken the lives of more than 20,000 Hoosiers and have strained Indiana’s frontline health care workforce for two years and counting. In December 2021, The Indiana Society of Chicago (ISOC) held an event to honor Indiana health care workers in their tireless battling against COVID-19 while caring for other patients and handling various emergencies. Numerous Indiana lawmakers and other state leaders attended the event and praised Indiana nurses, doctors, environmental service workers, EMS providers, and countless others for their heroism throughout the pandemic.
The event organizers were challenged, as there were far too many to name. However, through recognition of those at the ISOC Gala, attendees were able to celebrate the courage and resilience of every single person who battled on the frontlines. While many of the nominees were caregivers, Hoosier leaders who helped steer our nation and state through this crisis were also recognized.
Below are those who were recognized at the ISOC event and some of what was shared with the audience regarding their nomination:
Dr. Jerome Adams, the nation’s 20th Surgeon General, was called by the President to serve on the Coronavirus Task Force under our own Vice President Mike Pence, bringing with him extensive experience combatting the HIV outbreak. As Indiana’s State Health Commissioner, Dr. Adams coordinated with the federal government in 2014 to control another coronavirus that appeared in Chicago and northwest Indiana, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Our nation was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Adams in this role.
While Surgeon General Adams spoke to the American people about the risks of COVID and the steps needed to take to protect ourselves, another physician leader stepped forward.
Dr. Ram Yeleti, EVP and Chief Physician Executive at Community Health Network, appeared during Governor Holcomb’s daily press briefing to share his firsthand account of contracting the virus. While his symptoms were mild, his wife was admitted to intensive care. Dr. Yeleti’s candid account helped people understand the gravity of what we were facing, but it also shone a bright light on the courage of our front-line heroes.
This danger was made greater by the worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment, like masks and surgical gowns. At Deaconess in Evansville, Dawn Rogers, a nurse leader specializing in infection protection, stepped up and rallied the community in southwestern Indiana and beyond. Her education campaign on how to sew the reusable cloth masks was desperately needed by health care workers and first responders. The news of her efforts exploded and received national attention. Not only did it result in thousands of masks, but it helped provide her tired colleagues with a needed morale boost.
Many stepped up in a major way, which is only natural in the Hoosier state. This support helped nurses like Annie Wilkinson of Decatur County Memorial Hospital. In April of 2020, Decatur County’s neighboring counties in southeast Indiana had among the highest per-capita infection rates in the country, well above some areas in the national spotlight like Seattle and Detroit.
As a Critical Access Hospital limited to 25 beds, there was no room for error and the hospital had to stretch its resources. Annie was not the only one giving it her all, but she exemplified the selfless spirit of the team, taking shifts in the emergency room, critical care, and anywhere where her exhausted colleagues needed a backup. The psychological toll in rural communities was significant—every patient was likely someone’s neighbor, relative, or friend. Heroes like Annie became the backbone not just of their hospital, but the entire community.
But Indiana’s response to the pandemic went well beyond the hospital walls. Emery Garwick, the EMS/Emergency Preparedness Coordinator at The Methodist Hospitals in Gary and Merrillville, was a key player. He symbolizes the unheralded work that so many first responders do every single day—prepare for the worst. Many can occasionally take that for granted, but when a disaster or pandemic strikes, professionals like Emery just go to work. As the linchpin between state and local governments, the emergency medical system, police and fire departments, and the whole healthcare system, Emery’s efforts ensured that wherever patients were, they got to the right place at the right time.
As the pandemic stretched into the late spring, the plans developed by the Surgeon General and others had come into full form. Far more COVID testing was needed, and it was needed quickly. While the Indiana Department of Health had some testing capacity, it was only designed for more isolated outbreaks. Thankfully, the Pathology Lab Team at Indiana University Health lent a hand and became an extension of the Department. As the State rushed to protect nursing home residents across the entire state, the lab team ran thousands of tests 24 hours a day. Soon, a statewide testing capacity building would be underway led by Dr. Lindsay Weaver along with Eli Lilly and additional hospitals.
These kinds of collaborations were developing all over Indiana. In Cass County, spring 2020 featured major outbreaks among some of the area’s largest employers. The hospital’s beds were full, but Dr. Benjamin Anderson was doing more than caring for these patients. He became the community’s key liaison with businesses large and small. With best practices for preventing infection still emerging with the science, Dr. Anderson helped employers safely restart their operations and keep the local economy going.
By November 2020, the pandemic fatigue could be felt everywhere. But some of the brightest lights at the end of the tunnel were shining back home in Indiana. The brilliant minds at Eli Lilly had developed a monoclonal antibody treatment that received the FDA’s emergency use approval to treat COVID patients. As Lilly raced to distribute this life-saving therapy, two prime candidates were identified at Clark Memorial Hospital in Jeffersonville. Lance Ballard, Director of Pharmacy, coordinated the groundbreaking infusion.
The team at Eli Lilly did far more than developing the therapy. Recognizing the unprecedented strain on hospital staff, they deployed a team of clinicians and experts to assist. Led by David Riggs and Caroline Rosewell, they provided not just boots on the ground but also strategic and logistical guidance. David and Caroline coordinated with hospitals throughout Indiana, but their efforts in northern Indiana were particularly noteworthy. They leveraged the resources across three separate hospitals and health systems in St. Joseph and Elkhart Counties, creating a regional clinic that dramatically expanded access to the antibody.
As the end of a long 2020 drew near, the development we had all awaited was finally here–the first COVID vaccines began to be shipped to Indiana hospitals. With a single statewide online platform and a disciplined rollout schedule, our state vaccinated the most vulnerable quickly and was hailed as a model for others.
But to vaccinate millions, it took the work of folks like Michelle Charles, Vice President of Nursing Informatics at Parkview Health. Michelle led Parkview’s interdisciplinary team to quickly open a vaccine clinic at the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation, the largest mass vaccination clinic in the region and third-largest in the state. Under her leadership, the team used simulations and modeling to create a seamless process that surpassed its goal of delivering more than 1,000 vaccinations per day. And as a woman of color, Michelle demonstrated a commitment to making vaccines accessible to minority communities through pop-up clinics in underserved areas and at places of worship.
As we moved into the summer of 2021, leaders like Dr. Virginia Caine had some of the toughest calls to make. As the Public Health Director for Marion County, Dr. Caine had to constantly monitor the data and strike the right balance between protecting public health and the desire to return to normalcy. Whether it was the reopening of some of the state’s largest school districts or developing protocols for major entertainment events, Dr. Caine and her team kept Indianapolis moving forward. These were incredibly difficult and often seemingly “no-win” decisions to make, and local officials across all 92 counties were challenged, as well. But we recognize Dr. Caine as one of the most adept at navigating a contentious environment while keeping Hoosiers and their health at the center.
The rise of the delta variant in the fall of 2021 brought to light the need to continue vaccination efforts. Vaccine clinics remained “all hands on deck” efforts within hospitals and health systems. Nearby in northwest Indiana, Community Healthcare System is a perfect example. There was no playbook when this began, but volunteers from various departments across the system had raised their hand to help with registration, education, and getting “shots in arms”. By mid-October, they administered the 100,000th COVID-19 vaccination at Community Hospital in Munster, only about ten months after giving the Region’s first shot. Teams like Community’s, working across Indiana hospitals of all sizes, had delivered 2.7 million doses by the end of July 2021, and this work goes on.
Despite these incredible efforts and innovations, the virus has not disappeared. As we move forward and learn to live with COVID, we should reflect on those who work every day to keep us healthy. Deborah Showalter, Director of Environmental Services at Rush Memorial Hospital in Rushville, exemplifies this professionalism. Environmental service technicians play an essential role in the quality of care and patient safety through maintaining clean health care facilities. Deborah and her team had to adopt new and evolving protocols while working for months without a pause. Even today, our hospitals remain extremely full of patients suffering from this new surge and other various conditions and illnesses. But Hoosiers like Deborah don’t complain—they just do what’s needed with the highest level of effort.
The final award of the evening was given to Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box and the Indiana Department of Health Team make the health of Hoosiers their top priority each and every day. Dr. Box and her talented team have juggled the many challenges of the pandemic, including securing essential PPE, disseminating vital information and clinical guidance, developing a statewide lab testing network, and more. They partnered closely with hospitals to ensure a bed was available for every Hoosier and quickly stood up an incredibly well-organized statewide campaign to vaccinate Hoosiers once vaccines became available. While other states struggled with deployment, Dr. Box and the Indiana Department of Health mapped out a strategy for success – all while appearing on weekly, sometimes daily, statewide briefings.
IHA President Brian Tabor closed out the event to accept awards on behalf of attendees who could not be present and thank Indiana’s frontline workers.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve stood together, united almost as one health care system, as the state’s front line of defense,” said Tabor. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your heroism and for continuing to fight for your patients every day. I not only thank you, but I assure you that your sacrifices will not be forgotten. You have truly changed the perception of what it means to serve in your professions.”
More information about the Gala and ISOC can be found here.