National Guard Brings Relief to 5 North Shore Centers

Former Cornell Health Services Executive Director Jennifer Burklund will never forget the moment she got the news that the Wisconsin National Guard was coming to assist her staff.

“I received a call on a Friday evening in January and it was the best phone call on a Friday evening I’ve ever received in my career, telling me they would have six Guard members coming on Monday morning, ready to go,” she said. “Just coming to work that Monday was a completely different feel, different atmosphere – just relaxed and so thankful and grateful for the extra support.”

The Wisconsin National Guard was dispatched to nursing homes across the state to ease the strain on the health care system caused by COVID-19. LTC Chris Mueller said there are about 320 Guard members working as temporary nursing assistants or certified nursing assistants (CNAs) throughout the state.

National Guard members with Ellsworth Health Services Director of Nursing Allison Townsend.

Guard members have worked more than 320 days (combined, between all the centers), completing almost 2,600 hours of service, at Mineral Point Health Services, Cornell Health Services, Wisconsin Dells Health Services, Ellsworth Health Services, and Sturgeon Bay Health Services. The Guard’s assistance has allowed these centers to admit new residents from acute care hospitals or other facilities to free up space.

The Guards members received 75 hours of CNA training at Madison College to learn how to properly care for residents. North Shore center leaders included additional training as soon as the Guard members walked through their doors. Rhonda Blodgett, Executive Director at Ellsworth Health Services, has six Guard members at her center. They received an orientation, just like any new employee, and worked side-by-side with current staff.

“We don’t want anybody to feel like they don’t know what they are doing,” Blodgett said. “I couldn’t say enough that no question is a dumb question. If you have a question, just ask.”

Mineral Point Health Services Guard members received classroom training skills the first week of their arrival. The second week consisted of an on the floor orientation and partnering with staff as well. The six Guard members were approved to be a nurse aide-in-training by the center’s Director of Nursing.

National Guard members undergoing training at Wisconsin Dells Health Services.

“The first thing I started out saying on day one was ‘thank you for being here’ and then the second thing was how important the residents are to us and that they deserve the utmost respect, which obviously I didn’t have to go over with them because I saw it every single day they were here,” said Jamie Lenz-Stoney, Executive Director at Mineral Point Health.

Of course, there was some apprehension with the arrival of the Guard. Although thankful, the centers could not help but wonder, how would the residents respond to strangers coming into their home? Would the Guard treat the residents well, even if they had no desire to work in healthcare? More importantly, would they understand that the residents are considered family?

Heather Stuebinger, Director of Nursing at Wisconsin Dells Health Services, said some of her staff had worries, but they quickly went away as the Guard members developed meaningful relationships with the residents.  

A National Guard member caring for a resident at Mineral Point Health Services.

“To see them do that one-on-one with some of our veterans and to see them give that attention to the residents that they deserve was great,” she said.

Jackie Fay, Director of Nursing at Sturgeon Bay Health Services, wished she could have kept her five Guard members forever. Even though she knows that is not possible, she said that their names – Natalie, Bennett, Matthew, Justin, and Will – will forever be etched in her memory because of the incredible impact they made at her center. Residents and staff both loved the Guard members, particularly because they brought a new energy that was much needed.

“They came into buildings that were tired and broken,” Fay said. “There were a lot of people that were really exhausted. You hear about burnout right? It’s everywhere in healthcare. The Guard members came in and they brought something we hadn’t seen in a long time. They weren’t as tired as we were. They had new fresh vibes and were great and it shined on everybody.”

Of the 320 members, a recent survey showed that more than 80 members are interested in pursuing a healthcare career, Mueller said.

To see additional coverage on the National Guard assisting North Shore Healthcare, check out media coverage from WQOW News 18 and Reuters.