A Community of Helpers

You might not recognize Bethany Chapman, CRCST; Cynthia Simmons or Andrew Wittmaak if you passed them on the street. However, if you ever need care at Southeast Georgia Health System, you will be glad they come to work each day. All three are part of the Sterile Processing Department (SPD) on the Brunswick Campus. Every day, they hold the lives of patients and staff in their hands.

“We are responsible for cleaning and sterilizing hospital instrumentation and some key equipment. When we receive a dirty instrument or tray, we hand wash each item, put it in an instrument washer, inspect and sterilize it. It’s an eight-hour process, from receipt to being available for use,” says Wittmaak, SPD Manager, who oversees a 22-member team.

Other equipment also flows through SPD. For example, “Code Carts” contain medications and equipment used in life saving situations. “We disinfect and restock the carts after each use. Since COVID, we have seen a significant increase in the number of carts we process,” explains Wittmaak.

The pandemic added another task to the team’s scope: disinfecting PPE (personal protective equipment). As part of her role as a coordinator for Education/Infection Prevention, Bethany Chapman worked with the Health System’s Facilities team to develop ways to disinfect N-95 masks. The masks were in short supply when the pandemic began. “The Facilities team constructed racks for the disinfection process, utilizing ultraviolet light. We also educated staff on the safest methods to handle their N-95 masks prior to and post disinfection,” Chapman says. As the department educator, she also teaches SPD staff on the decontamination, sterilization and assemble processes, validating their competencies in each area. The SPD team also works closely with infection prevention staff.

Like N-95 masks, respirators became a common type of PPE used by staff caring for coronavirus patients. Chapman trained staff to properly disinfect the respirators.

Unseen Heroes
As important as the Sterile Processing Department is, many people don’t realize it exists. Team member Cynthia Simmons, a lead SPD technician, does not mind working behind the scenes. “A fellow church member once told me, ‘Right before I went to sleep for my procedure, I saw your picture on the wall. I told the doctor that I knew you.’ That was an eye opener for me. The most meaningful part of my job is being part of a community that helps others.” Chapman agrees. “I remind our SPD staff during education and mentoring that their job impacts patient’s lives every day.”

Step by Step
When your job ensures the safety of your co-workers and touches every aspect of patient care, you never let your guard down. The coronavirus crisis demands an even higher level of accountability. How do team members handle the pressure? “One step at a time,” Simmons says. “You want to make sure you and your fellow team members provide top notch protection so patients get home safely.” As for her personal safety, Simmons says she is “grateful for God’s protection.”

Wittmaak admits, “What we do isn’t easy. By staying focused on the end result, we greatly impact peoples’ lives.” Teamwork helps these employees get through the busy days. Contemplating Health System culture, Chapman states, “I love that everyone seems like one big family. Everyone tends to pitch in and help where needed.”

Hitting Close to Home
The pandemic has affected all our lives and the SPD employees are no exception. The team is careful to protect themselves and their families and urges the public to follow safety precautions. “If you’re not thinking of yourself, think of others,” Simmons says.

Day in and day out, seven days a week, the Sterile Processing team works diligently to protect patients and hospital staff. With lives hanging in the balance, nothing short of precision and perfection will do. These heroes may be largely unseen, but they should never be unsung.

To help your hometown hospitals during this difficult time, please contact the Southeast Georgia Health System Foundation at 912-466-3360.