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Sacred Heart program ready for next pathogen challenge

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Cardiac ICU nurse Marnae Ferrin (in white) confirms with her colleague Heather Morasch that she has finished all the steps of putting on her personal protective equipment during a recent training session.

The Providence Special Pathogens Program has its own isolated space within Sacred Heart’s Children’s Hospital. It’s a federally-funded unit, one of 13 in the nation, formed in 2015 and staffed by 90 Providence employees. It serves patients in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska who contract dangerous, easily-transmitted diseases, such as the Ebola virus.

“We refer to Ebola a lot because it is what we consider our highest level pathogen to be prepared for," said Brooke Henriksen, a critical care nurse and the program’s coordinator of training and education. “Our goal is if we’re prepared for Ebola, we’re prepared for everything.”

The program hasn’t yet cared for an Ebola patient. But in February 2020, it was called on by the government to take four people from a cruise ship who were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. The patients were isolated at Sacred Heart until they recovered.

In eight years, that has been the program’s one official mission. For the last three years, manager Christa Arguinchona says the staff and space have played a mostly supporting role.

“It’s been utilized for patient overflow during surges, so during the RSV surge this last winter for pediatric patients," she said.

With COVID and other respiratory illnesses mostly tamed for now, the unit awaits its next mission. Until then, its staff members regularly practice. That always starts with putting on personal protective gear.

During a recent training session, Marnae Ferrin, Sarah Emerson and Heather Morasch worked together to slip into their white robes and headgear with clear face cover and latex gloves.

“They follow a very specific checklist that is a very slow and methodical process," Henricksen said.

"Its goal is to make sure that we put on each piece of the PPE ensemble appropriately and also in the proper order. That’s really important for the doffing process, because when we take things off it has to be in a specific order to keep our caregivers safe.”

Henricksen says the process of putting on the gear takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Once they’re gowned up, the nurses enter the patient’s room. In this case, the patient is Darrell Ruby. Ruby is the program’s regional coordinator, but today he’s an actor, wearing a robe and laying in a hospital bed. Ferrin and Emerson are checking his vital signs, when he tells them he’s not feeling well. And then he pretends to vomit and tosses what looks to be the contents of a can of chicken noodle soup onto the floor.

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Marnae Ferrin spreads absorptive materials on the floor as she works to clean up faux vomit emitted by patient Darrell Ruby during a training session.

Ferrin grabs towels and other absorbent materials and arranges them on the floor to contain any spreading liquid. Then she methodically works to mop it all up and put the wet materials into a plastic bag. When she’s done, she duct tapes the bag closed and puts it into a receptacle for disposal.

Once the exercise is over, it’s time to take off the gear, another 20 minutes.

Ferrin says the regular training has been one of the biggest benefits of the Special Pathogens Program.

“We have processes in place to make us feel comfortable, that other people have done it, we studied it, it’s tried and true. When you wear these particular things, you’re covered from blood-borne pathogens, you’re covered from respiratory pathogens," she said.

"It really helped my comfort level and being able to just step in and take care of those patients because I had all this training and I trusted what we were doing.”

Another benefit is that it has allowed Sacred Heart to develop its own pathology lab, coordinated by Katie Brouillard, to examine samples taken from hospital patients.

“One of the tests that we have here is the same that they would do at the state lab over in Shoreline, so the west side of the state. That would take us a couple of days to get it over there and get results where we can do our testing in hours," she said.

Christa Arguinchona says the federal government renewed the program’s funding last fall, cementing its status as a regional health resource.

“It really called out more of an expansive role within our region for training and education and providing that resource to other facilities. So it’s kind of been a building block as our program has grown and we’ve developed this expertise. We certainly want to come alongside all of our other partners throughout the region to expand their level of preparedness," she said.

She says Sacred Heart will be ready when the program gets another call to take a patient with Ebola or some other highly-infectious disease.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.