Jacki Ulishney holds a COVID-19 vaccine | photo courtesy of Billings Clinic

A Year Later: Celebrating Local Healthcare Providers, Science, and Community

March 1, 2021

by ashlynn reynolds-dyk | photos courtesy of Billings Clinic & SCL Health

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others ~Aristotle. 

Last March, our celebration-themed issue of Simply Local Magazine-Billings was distributed with no idea what our future had in store. As fear and grief overcame our community halfway through the month, celebrations for the remainder of the year were canceled. This March, however, there is much to celebrate. We have an incredible network of healthcare workers and innovative science that’s brought hope through the unpredictable but ongoing distribution of the vaccine for COVID-19, and a community that has come together through efforts to abate the spread. 

Celebrating our Healthcare Workers: Talking with Dr. Jones and Dr. Allen 

All we want in medicine is for people to live. ~Dr. Jones 

Dr. Kathryn Jones (St. Vincent’s Hospital ED physician) and Dr. Nathan Allen (Billings Clinic ED physician) have fought COVID-19 head-on. It was an honor to speak with both of them to learn more about their experiences over the past year. 

Dr. Jones is quite possibly the most compassionate person I have ever met. Her heart for her patients and their families, along with her immense gratitude for her colleagues, is undeniable. Similarly, Dr. Allen's commitment and desire to unite our community and work with others to serve the greater good is nothing short of inspiring. He is a go-getter who does not just talk about these things; he acts upon them. 

Throughout the many questions I asked them about working as emergency room physicians during COVID-19, both providers repeatedly expressed how proud they are to be affiliated with people sacrificing so much. They noted how members of their teams and hospital employees (immunocompromised themselves) came to work day in and day out to keep the hospitals running.  

These two are no strangers to sacrifice, however. When asked about the most challenging part of being a healthcare provider amid a pandemic, both mentioned the isolation from their family and friends and the inability to do the everyday things they would normally do to reduce stress. They’ve been living COVID-19 24/7 with no balance in their lives. On being called healthcare heroes, Dr. Jones explains, “I don’t think of us as heroes, but I am so proud to be a healthcare provider in all of this… the nurses, cleaning staff, front desk people, techs, security, and everyone who works in the hospital—every individual—put the good and health of others ahead of themselves.” Similarly, Dr. Allen expressed discomfort at the “hero” label recognizing his team. Dr. Allen says, “There are so many people whose actions have shown an enormous sense of selflessness and caring for the community. As an emergency room physician, I have a very recognizable position, but it is not possible for me to do what I do without the huge team of people behind me, from techs and environmental services to those in the broader medical and Billings communities." 

“A Gift,” “A Light at the End of the Tunnel” - Celebrating the Arrival of the Vaccine 

In emergency medicine, we like to take care of people, but the best days are when people aren’t sick. ~Dr. Allen 

The announcement that the vaccine would soon be distributed to healthcare workers in Billings came “at a time when cases were surging, and there was not a lot of positive news,” recalls Dr. Allen. “Its arrival has restored a sense of optimism about the future.” Dr. Jones was one of the first in the Billings community to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and remembers great excitement and appreciation. She describes the vaccine as "a gift from science." She elucidates that anyone who gets the vaccine is giving “a gift to their community” that will help keep the hospitals running.  

Dr. Allen again reinforces the significance of people coming together, explaining that the vaccine is evidence of "the incredible accomplishment of what huge numbers of smart, dedicated people working around the world can accomplish." Typically, the development of a vaccine takes years, but the vaccine for COVID-19 was being distributed within 11 months of the disease first being identified. Dr. Allen states, “We have multiple highly effective vaccines for a new disease, and this is something that has never been done before.” For both physicians, the vaccine seems to have offered hope and a sense of relief. However, they both move forward with cautious optimism. 

When I think about the vaccine, I also want people to recognize that it is a key step, but there are a lot of other things that we have done as a community that have saved lives and been very effective. ~Dr. Allen 

Celebrating Communities Working Together 

Dr. Allen explains that he hopes people will celebrate the vaccine for its benefits in keeping people safe and reducing risk and hopes people will remember the simple, cheap, and community-based solutions or steps we can take to prevent spreading a whole variety of illnesses. This will likely be one of the mildest flu seasons in history, he explains because of these other simple and cheap practices, including things like staying home from school or work when sick. 

So, what can we, as members of the larger community, do to support our hospitals and healthcare workers? We can commit to them and show them the same kind of support and unity they have shown us. This includes, as Dr. Jones emphasizes, wearing your mask. Additionally, when asked what one of the kindest or most memorable things that have come out of his experience of living through COVID-19, Dr. Allen notes the meaningfulness of the howling. He explains that it was meaningful to him, making him feel less isolated and it was exciting for his children. 

This month, as we celebrate family, friends, and health, let us also celebrate: (1) those who have courageously walked into the fire, (2) the remarkable accomplishments of science, and (3) the collaboration of people in a community to serve the greater good. We want to thank all the people—in every department and every position—who have worked hard to keep our hospitals running while making many sacrifices. We are grateful, and we celebrate all of you. 

Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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