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COVID-19 rocked the world last spring, but it didn’t daunt Betsy Van Dyck.

The Speech Language Pathologist for Riverside Therapy Group supports Riverside’s convalescent centers in Saluda and Mathews County as Rehabilitation Director. She’s used to dividing her day between both places where she tackles a host of administrative responsibilities.

Unless there’s a pandemic going on.

When the Saluda facility recorded its first case of COVID-19 in April 2020, Van Dyck transitioned from sitting behind a keyboard to serving patients and residents food. She took vital signs; she made rounds. Van Dyck made it her business to ensure that Riverside was following the latest protocols for PPE safety, staying abreast of every update about how to put it on, how to take it off and best sanitation practices.

“To say those were tense days wouldn’t even be close to what everybody was feeling,” she says. “We had one case, but we were just adamant that we didn’t want it to spread.

 “Nobody knew where this was going to go.”

Staff morale suffered as every day COVID deaths surged in almost every part of the nation.

“I’m proud of so many of our staff members because it wasn’t their normal job to have direct contact with patients,” Van Dyck says. “One of the housekeepers learned how to put on full PPE. She was responsible for cleaning the room of the resident who had COVID. She was petrified at first.” 

Knowledge is power. Van Dyck used it to calm her coworkers. She wasn’t immune to the fear, though it was never a deterrent. Driving home after 12-hour days on a largely empty Interstate 64 felt surreal.

But during the day, she kept moving forward.

With family visitation cut off, she got creative. One patient undergoing speech therapy missed his wife. Van Dyck connected them on her personal cell phone with the wife standing outside the window to her husband’s room. Separated by a pane of glass, the couple conversed while struggling to make sense of the new normal.

That “what if” part of her job called for a whole other set of skills. What if more people got sick? What would they do in the event of a storm or fire? She worked with Riverside leadership to develop an evacuation plan.

Meanwhile, as time continued, many patients became claustrophobic. Some unraveled with anxiety. 

“If somebody was feeling anxious, I would tell them to come into the therapy room and sit for a few minutes and breathe or go outside and take off their mask,” Van Dyck says. “Arming them with knowledge,  is the best way I could help people and to let them know even though we can’t hug and we can’t be close, spiritually we’re together. Emotionally, we’re in this together.  What you’re going through I’m going through.”

By fall, Van Dyck was hopeful the worst had passed. Then on a weekend day in December, she got a call from an administrator at the Mathews facility.

“Are you sitting down?” he asked.

“No,” she responded. She couldn’t imagine why he was asking.

“I want you to sit down,” he told her before relaying news that 37 patients had tested positive for the virus.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says.

For the next nine weeks, Van Dyck devoted her time to Mathews. Weekdays blurred into weekends.

“I just went in every day; it didn’t seem fair not to,” she says. “I would go in at 7 or 7:30 and leave at 9 o’clock at night.”

Van Dyck was constantly changing in and out of clothes, conscious of not wearing the same mask and the same face shield between COVID and non-COVID rooms. Her strict PPE standards didn’t start with the pandemic.

“I am completely OCD about correct PPE wear, and the staff in all the buildings know this,” she says. “I have made it my personal goal to educate as many people about why it is important to follow these guidelines precisely. My grandfather on my father’s side was a family physician. He was exposed to tuberculosis from a patient and passed away when my father was 3 years old. My father grew up without his father because of the lack of PPE at that time. I tell people they should feel fortunate to have protection against our current infectious diseases and not look on it as a burden.”

Christmas Day came and went. Van Dyck worked that day and missed out on what was supposed to be a family gathering at her sister’s house in Richmond.

“I just came to work; it was like any other day,” she says. “We just tried to make the residents happy.”

Around the holidays, she rewarded the staff, working with Pizza Hut to give everyone a Personal Pan pizza.

“The staff was down and scared. I wanted to do something to let them know they were appreciated,” she says.

The demands increased as many residents and patients, idle for too long, needed speech therapy. On top of everything else, Van Dyck added that to her daily regimen.

She never thought of complaining.

“it’s almost like having a child,” she says. “When you have a child, you don’t pick and choose which tasks you’re going to do or which family member you will care for. To me the residents and the staff are my family. You do what you can do for your family. We all support each other. If you can find something positive in every hour of the day, you can make somebody else’s day. If I’m happy and I’m smiling and I’m healthy, it makes them understand I’m here for them.”

Van Dyck sometimes paired up with one of the CNAs and assisted with rounds.

“If I could make that person’s job easier, then it would make them feel better and less a burden for them. Maybe they can come to love being at work and doing for others as I do.”

Van Dyck will mark her 20th year with Riverside in September.

“Riverside is my work home. It’s my career. It’s pretty much my life. I want to be there. If you’re not there, you can’t help.”