Faces of Falmouth: Small Hospital, Big Hearts
Four healthcare heroes at Falmouth Hospital look back on the past two years and share their inspiring stories of working on the front lines during COVID—the stresses, the heartbreak, the rewards and hope for the future.
“It just made us stronger as a team.”
“Everybody just helped everyone and pushed through.”
“We know we can depend on one another.”
“We try to keep morale up and help each other out.”
If there’s one consistent thread throughout our conversations with nurses and nurse practitioners who cared for COVID patients during the past two years at Falmouth Hospital, it’s the word “teamwork.” From the leadership to nursing aides and housekeeping to administrative assistants, staff showed up day in and day out to take care of patients—and one another.
Four of the healthcare heroes at Falmouth Hospital look back on the past two years and share their inspiring stories of working on the front lines during COVID—the stresses, the heartbreak, the rewards and hope for the future.
Meet Sheila, Margaret, Nicole and Taylor.
Shelia Roche, BSN, RN, Clinical Leader on Floors MS1/MS3 since 2017
Roche has worked at Falmouth Hospital since 2005
Sheila Roche, clinical leader on MS1/MS3 since 2017, says working during the pandemic the past two years felt overwhelming at times—even when she wasn’t at work. It would be all over the radio, on TV, in the newspapers. Friends and family would call to check in, wanting to talk about it.
“It was just COVID, COVID, COVID all the time,” says Roche. “There was really no downtime. You had to find your own escape from it.”
Roche says it helped to stop watching the news and turning off regular radio. She signed up for Sirius XM Satellite Radio to listen to her favorite music and often watched movies on The Hallmark Channel. Roche says she dealt with work stresses by eating more. COVID-19 was the new Freshman 15, she jokes.
But in all seriousness, Roche says it was all very surreal and a little scary—especially in the beginning. “There was a feeling of panic because it was such a big unknown and it was making everybody anxious.” Reflecting on the past two years, Roche says she will never forget her first COVID patient who eventually passed away. “It still gets to me,” says Roche. “He was by himself. It was a difficult time for him because it was brand new to us, so we were trying to do anything we could to make him comfortable. The family couldn’t come in and you’re trying to reach them by phone.”
Since he was the first COVID patient who died at Falmouth Hospital, says Roche, the staff formed a line to the hospital morgue. “All of the employees stood in the hallway and saluted him just to let him know his family at Falmouth Hospital was here. It was the first time I had seen that and it brought me to tears.”
Nurses and aides are huggers, says Roche. “We like to hug our patients, give them comfort. We couldn’t do that. Even now, you still can’t take the chance to comfort them during a time of need. You just want to hug them and hold their hand.”
Through it all, she says, everybody at the hospital helped one another out and the dedication of the staff helped keep her going, including Patient Care Tech Sue Farrington and administrative assistants Liz DaSilva and Sandra Pike.
“I am extremely proud of the healthcare staff—nurses, aides, respiratory therapists, doctors, housekeeping—that I am privileged to work with. They are amazing people. We are a small hospital with a lot of big, caring hearts. The staff not only cares for the patients, but they care for each other. It was so noticeable these past two years.”
Roche recalls one memorable moment when staff was instructed to look out the window. As she peered out, she saw firetrucks and police cars driving by in parade-like fashion. The words “Thank you, Falmouth Hospital” came over the speakers. ‘I was thinking, “Wow, this is for us?” This is our job; this is what we do. People are so nice and call us heroes. I don’t think of myself as a hero.”
Margaret Connolly, NP, Falmouth Hospital
Connolly has worked at Cape Cod Healthcare since 1998 and worked at both Cape Cod Hospital and Falmouth Hospital as a Nurse Practioner since 2015
Nurse Practitioner Margaret Connolly vividly remembers working as a nurse during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, just as it was spreading across the United States.
“I was very young then. AIDS was a similar, frightening experience,” says Connolly, referring to COVID. “I was new to the nursing practice, facing a lethal and untreatable illness.” At the time, Connolly worked at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, now part of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “But since AIDS wasn’t an airborne illness, patients were still allowed visitors and we weren’t in lockdown.”
Connolly will never forget one of the doctors researching AIDS at the time. “He would walk into the unit, looking very cheerful, brave and confident, but also examined and engaged with these patients with HIV,” says Connolly. “He was fearless and did not shy away from the patients for fear of contracting AIDS. He made us all feel better. He inspired us to be brave. I tried to be like that for folks on the COVID floor, letting them know we are going to be OK.”
In the days before needleless IV systems, it was not uncommon for nurses to get needle stick injuries and be exposed to blood-borne illness. Also, universal precautions that we now take for granted (such as wearing gloves) were introduced because of the HIV epidemic, says Connolly.
As a nurse practitioner during COVID, Connolly worked six days on, three days off, along with two other nurse practitioners, Kim Florence and Valerie Garland. Their duties included writing orders and notes, making recommendations, interpreting tests, calling families with updates, facilitating FaceTime meetings and comforting patients.
“I would come in, go up the back stairs, go onto the COVID unit, change, work all day, change, go home, put all of my clothes right into the wash, shower and then say hello to my family. We did that day after day after day,” says Connolly, adding everyone got face rashes and a dry, sore throat from wearing N-95 masks.
But it never occurred to her to walk away from her job. She emphasizes that the nursing staff went “above and beyond” and everyone did their best to be as present as they could be for patients. “It was also difficult for a patient who is really sick and the person coming to see you is unrecognizable. We all looked like spacemen with our PPE gear and face shields.”
What is one word to describe the beginning of the pandemic? “It was just quiet,” says Connolly. “It was quiet coming to work, there was nobody on the road, the businesses were closed. It was quiet here because our heads were covered, we were in PPE all the time, we had shields on and we had no awareness of anything going on in the rest of the hospital other than our own unit, so it was very strange and very quiet. Once we went in, we stayed for the day and weren’t allowed to leave.”
Connolly says the staff was fortunate to have the “unbelievable physician leadership” of Dr. Vladimir Koren and Dr. Joseph Gergyes, who led the Falmouth Hospital COVID team. “They were amazing. Dr. Gergyes subscribed to video blogs and he was always trying to get information, what’s working, what’s not working. Dr. Koren, who has experience in pandemic management, speaks about a half dozen languages. He was reading journals from all over the world.”
In the end, nurses rose to the occasion and they all became experts together in COVID management. “We worked really hard on how to treat this,” says Connolly, “and how to get people better.”
Nicole Antonellis, RN
Antonellis has worked at Falmouth Hospital for more than 17 years
During the height of the pandemic, Nicole Antonellis, RN, remembers driving to work one morning when a gentleman standing on the side of the road caught her eye. He was holding a sign that simply said, “Thank you.”
“It made you feel like, ‘Wow. People get it,” says Antonellis. “They appreciate what we are doing. It was that extra little something that helped keep us going.”
Even inside the hospital, when staff expressed gratitude and acknowledged their hard work, Antonellis was so appreciative. “If I went to another floor to get a piece of equipment, and someone would say, “Hey, I floated to your floor the other day. I don’t know how you guys do it. Good for you.’ In my head, I was thinking, “Thank you for realizing that it hasn’t been easy. We are still here and showing up every day.”
The 12-hour shifts were typically long, grueling and never ending. Staff worked extra hard because of the constant discharging and admissions process. “We had to be quick about our discharges because we didn’t want positive patients lingering elsewhere,” says Antonellis. “The flow just got more intense. Days were very busy and we were short staffed.”
The COVID floor was consistently filled to capacity. As soon as one patient was discharged, another patient was admitted.
Even a simple request from a patient, such as a glass of water, required nurses to dress in full PPE gear. “Every time we left the room, we’d have to de-gown, wash our hands, follow the protocol and do it all over again,” says Antonellis. “These patients were on multiple medications that needed to be changed. It was very demanding. You just didn’t have a whole lot of time to stop.”
Working on the COVID floor for the past two years has reminded Antonellis to be flexible, to quickly adapt and roll with the unexpected. “It also reinforces why you go into nursing,” says Antonellis, who has worked as a nurse for 25 years. “Your job is to help someone physically, emotionally, mentally. It comes with the whole package deal. It’s just a reminder that you’re making a difference. It’s a rewarding job. I’ve always loved it.”
Antonellis credits the Falmouth Hospital team, from nursing aides to housekeeping and administrative assistants, for persevering and getting through tough times. “If it were any different, it would have made a hard situation almost unbearable.”
Today, Antonellis says it’s a different landscape and the hospital has very few, if any, COVID patients now. “We are sprinkled here and there. I’d like to think we are in a slowdown. I’m forever hopeful and I like to stay super positive.”
Taylor McKeown, RN
McKeown has worked at Cape Cod Healthcare for 6 years: First as a traveling nurse and then as an RN at Falmouth Hospital since 2019
About a year before the pandemic began, Taylor McKeown, RN, was just “getting into the swing of things” as a young ER nurse at Falmouth Hospital. She was finding her stride, learning the routine and getting to know her coworkers.
Then the news from China and other parts of the world started trickling in about cancellations, chaos and lockdowns. “It was kind of the calm before the storm,” says McKeown. “It was nerve-wracking. I remember thinking, ‘Now what?’”
The managers and directors navigated the uncertainty together as a team. They huddled every day and made a game plan. They made sure both patients and staff were safe with negative pressure rooms and PPE gear. Doors were rebuilt with windows so staff could more easily monitor intubations.
Coming from the ER, McKeown says she was accustomed to stress, but more on a physical level. “It was definitely changing to mental stress,” she says. “It was more of the fear of the unknown. We thought, ‘OK, we are going to prep, we really don’t know for what, but we are going to do the best we can with the information that we have.”
McKeown will always remember her first COVID patient—a woman in her 70s who had a history of respiratory and heart issues. “We knew the research of certain comorbidities can make it worse if they have COVID. She was the first person I tested, but she tested negative, so I said, “Ok, great, you can go.” She later tested negative again and we gave her medication for a respiratory infection. She returned a week later with worsening symptoms and tested positive for COVID. She was here a couple months and she survived. She has always just stuck with me.”
McKeown, who also teaches clinical classes to Quincy College students at Falmouth Hospital, says the pandemic has taught her to be more patient. She’s also stronger mentally and has developed a tougher skin. Despite the long, grueling days over the past two years, McKeown says her coworkers inspired her to show up every day. “If I wasn’t working in such a supportive environment, I would have said, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this shift.’ We all stuck around for each other.”
Although things have settled down a bit at the hospital, McKeown says staff tries to avoid saying the word “quiet” because it’s bad luck. “We are not familiar with this other variant, but we are ready. We are prepared. We have the tools to protect ourselves and our patients.
“This pandemic comes in waves. It has its ways of terrifying us and has small little victories. I don’t think it’s going to go away completely. We are going to learn to live with it.”