As Pandemic Wears Down Hospital Staff, One Town Offers Groceries to Say Thanks

PARK CITY, Utah — This mountain community — which comes alive during the winter ski season and annual Sundance Film Festival — is home to the Park City Hospital, which has 460 employees. As in countless hospitals across the country, the demands of covid-19 at times overwhelmed the facility and dramatically changed the way caregivers interact with patients.

“The last year and a half has taken a toll on us,” said Jodie Connelly, nurse manager of the intensive care unit at the hospital, which is part of the Intermountain Healthcare System based in Salt Lake City. “Nurses have pretty thick skins, but the pandemic has tested us in ways we’ve never really been tested before.”

The community the hospital serves noticed that strain and came up with a novel idea to help the hospital’s workers. Park City’s residents raised enough money — through contributions from more than a dozen residents and two large seed donors — to fund a pop-up grocery store out of a room in the hospital that had been a private dining area.

The Park City, Utah, community raised money to fund a pop-up grocery store at the local hospital. All goods are free for hospital employees. (Intermountain Healthcare)

The hospital uses about $10,000 of the donations each month to stock the store, and all goods are free to any hospital employee.

At first, the store offered ready-made pasta, chicken and mashed potatoes, and other meals, including vegetarian options, that caregivers could take home or eat during their shift. Later, grocery basics such as milk and eggs were added for employees to stock their fridge. Today, the Park City Hospital store has expanded to include nonperishable items such as cereal, sugar, oatmeal and pasta, plus a variety of fresh produce options.

Connelly said she especially appreciates convenient access to fresh fruits and vegetables. “While I keep my pantry at home full of nonperishables, I would have to stop at the grocery store more often if I wasn’t able to take fresh produce home with me,” she said.

Selene Macotela-Garcia, a food service supervisor at the hospital who stocks the store, said she tries to find a variety of items to offer. “Everyone gets excited when we bring in new items,” she said. She recently added lemons, eggplant, beets and cabbage to the mix. “Having sweet potatoes before Thanksgiving was especially popular,” she said.

Macotela-Garcia explained that some employees pick up enough ready-made food to bring home a precooked meal for each family member instead of having to prepare something once they arrive.

The store allows the hospital’s staff to avoid public places where the risk of covid transmission is high, such as grocery stores, and helps them save money. “Finances have been tight; some of us need help more than people may realize,” said Gregoria Taboada, a food service worker at the hospital who frequents the store.

But the store has been useful in helping the hospital’s caregivers save on a commodity in especially short supply these days: time.

“It means so much to me that after a 13-hour shift I don’t have to stop at a grocery store to pick up the basics,” Connelly said.

Work-life balance is hard to maintain as the toll from pandemic care has driven some employees to quit and those remaining are often asked to pick up the slack.

“I started taking on extra shifts each week to help out,” said Katie Peabody, a nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit. “I frequently work 50-plus hours a week doing work that has become so physically, emotionally and mentally taxing,” she said.

“Finances have been tight; some of us need help more than people may realize,” says Gregoria Taboada, a food service worker at Park City Hospital who frequents the store. (Intermountain Healthcare)

Grueling labor conditions are among many factors noted in a recent Mayo Clinic study showing why nurses have suicidal thoughts more frequently than people in other professions.

“Sometimes there are only two nurses in the ICU with no techs or secretaries to field phone calls or help out,” Peabody said.

While Utah is among the bottom half of fully vaccinated states, Park City’s Summit County is the most vaccinated in the state with 80% of its residents fully vaccinated. Because of the city’s high number of tourists, however, the county’s current transmission level is still rated in the highest category.

The store is also a boost to morale, workers said, especially as they cope with another change of late: patients who no longer trust or appreciate them. “None of us are looking to be a hero,” Connelly said, “but we used to have a great relationship with our patients and their families. That has changed in many cases during the pandemic.”

She noted that almost all the covid patients she’s treated this year are unvaccinated and most have very strong feelings about preventive measures such as the use of masks and vaccines. She said many patients believe what they see on social media over the treatment options the hospital staff recommends.

“Some don’t believe they have covid while we’re treating them for the disease,” she lamented. “Some refuse to even wear their oxygen [mask]; they argue with us about everything. … Some people are downright mean.”

Although such patients may be the exception, negative interactions take a toll that staff members said the store helps make up for.

“The hospital store is evidence that we are valued,” Peabody added. “Even when some patients tell us otherwise, every time I visit the store I’m reminded that there are people out there who appreciate me and are trying to take care of me just like I’m trying to take care of others.”

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