In the middle of a pandemic, nurses like Ruth Verchek are making house calls.
They’re doing it for free.
They’re doing it because people are hurting, and they can help.
“They called me and told me, ‘We’re coming out to you,’ ” said Brenda Strandmark, 52, who has battled health problems for decades that left her with weakened lungs, fragile bones and debilitating pain. “It brought tears to my eyes, it really did.”
An implanted pump delivers small doses of painkiller directly into her spine, allowing her to move around her Rush City home after years of pain so severe it confined her to a hospital bed.
In the early days of the shutdown, the pain pump was running low — and her insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of an in-home visit and refill. She could either stay home, run out of medicine and slip into agonizing withdrawal, or she could head to the clinic and take her chances with COVID-19.
Then came the call. Her doctors at Nura pain clinic were covering the cost of home care for patients who couldn’t afford it.
“It is life-or-death for me,” Strandmark said. She’s on Medicare, and Medicare won’t cover the cost of the in-home visit Nura offered for free. “Thank God. I bless their hearts for it.”
Verchek and three other nurses volunteered for pandemic house-call duty, knowing the risks. Every health care worker knows the risks and understands the need.
The patients she works with are some of the most vulnerable to the virus: People who are frail, elderly, going through chemotherapy or worn down by decades of living in chronic, debilitating pain.
When we stay home to stop the spread of coronavirus, these are the people we protect.
These are the people Verchek and the other nurses protect by visiting them at home, instead of asking them to make their way to a clinic waiting room. They travel the state, from locked-down nursing homes to a patient Verchek drove four hours to help in Ely.
There still aren’t enough test kits and masks to go around. Rather than take medical supplies the hospitals need, the nurses hit the hardware store.
“We went to Lowe’s and Menards and bought painters’ suits and N95 masks before they were sold out,” she said. They ration what they have as they travel around the state.
“We put a mask on when we go into a house and wear it the whole visit. We compulsively wash our hands. We compulsively clean our equipment,” she said. “We never know when the next box of masks is coming, so we’re trying to be very conscious of that.”
If anyone has extra masks to donate, Verchek says to donate them to a hospital. She has friends working in Minnesota hospitals, on the front line of the virus outbreak, and she says “they’re terrified.”
Eventually, there will be enough test kits and masks to go around. Until then, Minnesota is cautiously reopening nonessential but sorely missed businesses that have figured out how to do their business without endangering others.
This week, it was the golf courses. Golf is a pretty socially distant sport to begin with, and the course managers have plans to keep things safe, sanitary and 6 feet apart.
Nura Precision Pain Management is one of the businesses that has submitted its proposal to the state, hoping to reopen clinics and resume elective surgeries.
“We would like to have pain procedures considered essential,” said Dr. David Schultz, who founded Nura clinics with his brother, Dr. Peter Schultz. Since the stay-home order, they’ve had to furlough half their clinic staff.
“That’s controversial,” David Schultz said. “It’s hard to say an epidural steroid is essential health care. But if you’re in miserable pain and you can’t sleep, maybe it is.”
Offering free home visits adds to the financial strain for a business that makes most of its money from surgical procedures it can no longer perform.
Getting back in business means figuring out how to deliver care without siphoning masks and essential medical supplies away from hospitals and front-line health care workers. It could mean reusing personal protective gear for the staff and repurposing promotional bandannas into masks for patients.
“We think we’ll get through this,” Schultz said. “We have to do what’s right by the patient, so we’re just doing it. And we feel really good about it.”