For the past year, LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. Throughout the pandemic, citizens of Stokes who become infected with the virus have turned to the hospital for treatment or, when necessary, stabilization before transfer to Winston-Salem. The hospital’s staff has also been at the forefront of community education and prevention efforts, all while continuing to offer a full range of emergency, acute, chronic, therapeutic, and preventative care.
LifeBrite’s response to this public health crisis has all been under the leadership of Pam Tillman, administrator of the hospital.
A Team Committed to Protecting the People of Stokes
“I am nothing without the tremendous team here,” says Tillman. “I feel very blessed to have them, and they definitely deserve the credit for the good that’s been done here this year.”
She recalls a meeting she held with her managers, back in March 2020, when she could see that hard times were ahead. She told them, “There’s so much we don’t know, but we’re not going to come through this unscathed.” Tillman knew that COVID would likely impact her team directly and personally, and she gave them an opportunity to resign if the challenge ahead was too much to bear.
None of her managers left. Everyone committed themselves to doing whatever it took to protect the people of Stokes through whatever this public health emergency might bring.
A Calling to Help and to Heal
“If you do what you love,” says Tillman, “it doesn’t feel like work.”
From an early age, Tillman knew she liked to help people. When she was in the 6th grade, her grandfather became very ill, and Tillman helped her family care for him. “He said I would be a good nurse,” she says.
The idea stuck with her, and, after graduating from high school, Tillman went to college for nursing then started her career. More than two decades later, there’s still nothing she enjoys more.
“There’s just something about a patient who you’ve just helped looking you in the eye,” says Tillman, “and knowing you’re getting that sincere ‘thank you’… there’s just nothing else to compare to that.”
While her position today includes leading her staff, coordinating with the Stokes County Health Department, and managing compliance requirements, she still stays directly involved in patient care.
“I can be out in any of the units at any time,” she says, “helping troubleshoot patient care issues in the hospital or the nursing home, jumping in to help an ER patient, or getting an IV stick that nobody else can get started.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, with the hospital’s resources stretched to the limit, she has frequently stepped in to cover nursing shifts. She happened to be working a third shift in the ER when the hospital admitted its very first COVID case, and she was the nurse assigned to that patient. “God meant for me to be there that night,” she says, “whether I wanted to be or not.”
It has all made for some very long days, but Tillman and her team are driven by a mission to protect their patients and their community.
The Critical Role of Rural Hospitals
Tillman is passionate about the importance of rural hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes giving ready access to quality care.
“At the rural hospital level, I want to use my whole skillset to make sure the hospital is running as efficiently as it can. And, for each individual patient who’s presented to us for care, I want to make sure we’re doing the best we can by them.”
For the people of Stokes, Winston-Salem is an hour’s drive away. “But for some of our elderly folks who have more medical problems, for them to get into a car and navigate the curvy roads to Winston, then navigate the parking deck and a big hospital… it’s almost overwhelming,” Tillman says. “You find that they choose to not get care rather than to navigate that system. So to be able to drive up to a door, to come in and know the people taking care of them, especially for their basic care, is very important.”
For emergency care, where minutes can mean the difference between life and death, local access to care is essential. And even for patients who end up needing transfer to Winston-Salem, LifeBrite’s ER provides life-saving stabilization prior to transport.
“One of the folks who we vaccinated not long ago said, ‘I just want to thank you all for being here because my wife wouldn’t be here if y’all hadn’t been,’” says Tillman. The man’s wife had had a severe reaction to a bee sting, and LifeBrite’s ER had saved her life.
“Other folks say, ‘You all got us stabilized here. We had to go on to the big hospital, but they said we would probably have died if you hadn’t been here.’”
Stepping Up to Provide Vaccines and Hope
For Tillman, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has made LifeBrite even more crucial to the Stokes community.
Back in the fall of 2020, when officials from the North Carolina state government were planning for the distribution of vaccines, Tillman made sure LifeBrite was first on the list. It began with LifeBrite’s nursing home medical director and pharmacist securing it for the Stokes County Nursing Home. Soon after, the state was asking LifeBrite’s family medicine clinics in Danbury and Pine Hall to serve as vaccine sites for their communities.
Tillman responded by asking if, in addition to the clinics, LifeBrite Community Hospital could become a vaccine site as well.
“Everybody felt like we should,” she says, “so we stepped up for the fight, and it’s about trampled us down, but it really has been fulfilling.”
Across LifeBrite’s facilities in Stokes, several thousand of Stokes’ 47,000 citizens have already been vaccinated, sometimes more than one thousand in a day.
Tragically, as Tillman had predicted, the crisis recently became very personal for her team. One of her staff members lost her husband to COVID-19.
“We wished we could have saved her husband,” says Tillman. “We were dealt a blow by COVID, but it felt good at least to know we were doing something by getting the vaccine into arms.”
The Healing Power of Nature
Tillman hasn’t taken any time off since the pandemic began, though she still escapes to her back yard to garden on the old family farm she and her family still live on.
When the crisis is over, she looks forward to traveling again in her camper to visit National Parks. “We have a beautiful country,” she says.
She also wants to spend more time at the beach. “There’s something special to me about being able to walk on the beach and see the ocean out there,” she says, “and know there’s a whole lot bigger picture than just us.”
For Tillman and her dedicated team, the days are long and hard, but they know it’s all in the service of a bigger picture: their community’s health.
Learn more about LifeBrite Atlanta-based LifeBrite, led by CEO Christian Fletcher. LifeBrite Hospital Group operates LifeBrite Community Hospital of Early, LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes, and Lifebrite Laboratories. To learn more about what LifeBrite Hospital Group is doing to make healthcare better, visit our homepage.