Editor’s note: Several residents have risked their own safety and/or overcome personal obstacles in order to help keep the community going during the coronavirus pandemic. This series provides a glimpse into their lives and work. They are ... The Essentials.

Molly Hillukka says she’s never seen anything like the COVID-19 crisis.

Hillukka has been a registered nurse at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s in Detroit Lakes for the past five and a half years. She said some of the differences at the hospital now are obvious and tangible, such as the face masks worn at all times by staff and patients.

Less obvious, but just as real, are the many things happening behind the scenes.

At the bedside, nurses are holding patients’ hands a little longer, providing extra support in the absence of friends and family who are not allowed to visit during the pandemic.

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They’re addressing ample amounts of fear and anxiety these days, too, from patients who have a lot of questions about the virus — such as whether it’s “really as severe” as they’ve heard. (“Yes, yes it is,” is Hillukka’s immediate answer.)

“Social distancing has definitely affected us,” Hillukka said in a phone interview last month. “Patients who normally would have family at the bedside aren’t able to do that right now, so nursing is really playing that reassuring role with both the patient and family members, and making sure there’s communication.”

There’s also “absolutely” a lot of fear in the public about the virus, she added, and she believes one of her roles as a nurse is to educate patients on the facts, to be a source of information and assistance for them.

“The big thing is, I hope people aren’t overcome by fear,” Hillukka said. “I truly hope that people will take this as a learning experience and really support each other. I feel like we, as a health care industry, we’re in a good place; we’re there for the people.”

Preparing for 'worst-case scenario'

Hillukka works in the medical-surgical department, and also spends some time in the emergency department, which she will soon be transferring to full-time. Recently, she’s also taken on a new leadership role, helping to plan and prepare a special COVID-19 unit at the Detroit Lakes hospital.

That experience, she said, has been “eye-opening.”

“It’s been really remarkable to watch everything coming into place, and the amount of time that is spent planning for what could happen,” she said. “Unfortunately no one knows what that’s going to look like, so we have to prepare for anything … a worst-case scenario.”

Hospitals weren’t equipped to deal with large numbers of COVID-19 patients when the virus arrived in the U.S., which is one reason why the government put social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place: to buy the health care system some time to prepare.

Related:

In Minnesota, hospitals have been working with the state to formulate emergency plans, wanting to ensure there’ll be enough intensive care beds, ventilators, personal protective gear and other essentials available to save lives in the case of an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Hillukka has been working with her floor manager and others to organize and set up the COVID-19 unit in Detroit Lakes, tracking down all the things the unit needs to be equipped with: bedside tables, garbage cans, basic medical supplies, etc. She’s also helping to figure out how meals would be handled, as well as environmental services and other day-to-day necessities.

The insider lingo for what she’s been doing is “surge planning.” There are a lot of details to consider, and expectations and protocols seem to change on nearly a daily basis, Hillukka said, “but I do feel like we’re at a good place. I feel very confident in where we are.”

Molly Hillukka, an RN at Essentia Health in Detroit Lakes, has been helping to prepare a special COVID-19 unit to handle a possible influx of COVID-19 patients. She calls the experience "eye-opening." (Submitted Photo)
Molly Hillukka, an RN at Essentia Health in Detroit Lakes, has been helping to prepare a special COVID-19 unit to handle a possible influx of COVID-19 patients. She calls the experience "eye-opening." (Submitted Photo)

A new outlook

Her COVID-19 leadership role has changed Hillukka's perception of her job and abilities as a nurse.

“Before, I was actually just going to work; I would show up for my shift and work on the floor,” she said. “I think it’s kind of changed the whole way I’ve been thinking about everything. It’s more about, what can I do? I’m ready to embrace this situation, and I will do whatever you need me to do to get this floor set up and ready.”

Hillukka grew up in northern Michigan, and moved to Detroit Lakes in 1996 with her husband, Dale Hillukka, a dairy farmer from Wolf Lake. She worked as a waitress for years, but was inspired to go to nursing school after Dale experienced some health issues.

Today, Dale still farms in Wolf Lake and the couple lives in Perham with their four children, who are in high school or are recent graduates. Their 21-year-old daughter, Kyah, is a nurse on the same floor at Essentia as her mother.

“That’s pretty cool,” Hillukka said of working alongside her daughter.

Molly and her husband, Dale Hillukka. (Submitted Photo)
Molly and her husband, Dale Hillukka. (Submitted Photo)

The essentials of Molly Hillukka

Title: Registered Nurse at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s

Job duties: Primarily works in the medical-surgical department and emergency department, caring for patients who have had surgery or are experiencing general medical issues. Since the pandemic, she’s also been helping to prepare a special COVID-19 unit at the hospital.

The impact of social distancing: At work, she’s doing less direct patient care and more COVID-19 “surge planning” (preparing for a possible surge of COVID-19 patients). “At this point, I’m more involved with contacting more areas of the hospitals and being involved in the standard work flow and how that would look, participating in more meetings, losing a little sleep at night wondering what things I’m forgetting, and trying to think outside the box,” she said.

On the homefront, it’s meant Hillukka’s two youngest children, who are in high school, are distance learning at home, and her son’s sports seasons were cut short or canceled.

“Our lives have been pretty affected by that,” Hillukka said. But on the positive side, “It’s been great family time.”

What she's done to cope: She took the advice of a colleague and started keeping a journal by her bedside at night, so that when she wakes up feeling anxious, thinking of things related to her COVID-19 unit preparations, she can write them down right away and then get back to sleep. She also unwinds by cooking, reading and running.

What she'll remember most about this time: “I think I’ll look back and see the positives that were made — the education to the public about viruses, and about how this can happen and does happen,” she said. “And I’ll look back at the family time, about how I got that extra time with my high school kids.”

Favorite quote: “I can’t remember it exactly, but there’s one I’ve sent back and forth with my daughter. It talks about embracing change and learning to roll with the punches; embrace what’s coming your way, and grow with it.”