‘The Phones Just Don’t Stop Ringing’: How Ford’s Nurses Have Been Keeping Up with the Pandemic

Phil Grabarkiewicz, senior occupational health nurse at Rawsonville Components Plant and another nurse, along with a part-time physician, tend to the nearly 700 employees at the plant.

As thousands of Ford employees have continued to work on site in manufacturing facilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the company’s nursing staffs have been there to support people’s medical needs despite the upheaval the virus has caused to the nature of their work.

Ford’s team of nurses – approximately 80 across the U.S. – are primarily located at manufacturing facilities, though medical staffs are on hand to treat employees at Ford offices as well. Nurses provide critical care and medical exams related to job requirements.

Phil Grabarkiewicz, senior occupational health nurse at Rawsonville Components Plant near Ypsilanti, said the impact the pandemic has had on medical operations is “surreal” and “unimaginable.” Grabarkiewicz and another nurse, along with a part-time physician, tend to the nearly 700 employees at Rawsonville, typically providing first-aid and initial treatment for sprains, strains and foot injuries.

When the pandemic began, the plant – which normally churns out transmission oil pumps, electric vehicle battery packs, air induction systems and other parts – was shut down before being selected for ventilator production as part of Ford’s Project Apollo. Grabarkiewicz and his co-workers were suddenly working 12-hour days as they performed exams for hundreds of new hires. This pace continued for several weeks, causing a backlog of regular exams that was only resolved when ventilator production concluded in the fall. 

Grabarkiewicz checks the blood pressure of Rawsonville employee Jim Shagena.

Early on, there was apprehension among Ford’s nurses about how to deal with possible exposure to COVID-19 from employees. “It was tenuous at times trying to balance effectiveness with safety,” said Grabarkiewicz. “It was very hectic there.”

In addition to employees now wearing personal protective equipment, Ford’s medical areas have been retrofitted with filters and dividers to separate patients and staff, and the areas are thoroughly cleaned between patients. Despite those measures, exams at some locations, such as pulmonary breathing tests, could not be performed due to risks to medical staff, and have had be outsourced in some instances.

Ford’s nursing staffs have managed the additional workload without additional personnel. And while the caseload has now returned to pre-pandemic levels, Grabarkiewicz and his team are still inundated with calls related to COVID-19. Nursing staffs everywhere are handling similar call volumes, as employees frequently ask questions about quarantining requirements and procedures, as well as contact tracing.

“The phones just don’t stop ringing,” said Kathy DeJack, corporate nurse. “They are inundated.” Another corporate nurse, Michele Ehasz, said the stress of phone calls has greatly added to the workload of nurses. Not only that, medical staff at Ford facilities have had to apply updated guidance regarding COVID-19 from federal, state and local authorities at a moment’s notice.

Staff at each site is notified by the corporate medical team as new regulations come down, which has led to more frequent communications between the teams. Grabarkiewicz admitted frustration in keeping up with the ever-changing guidelines, but stays attentive on treating employees. “We never break away from our main focus – taking care of Ford’s No. 1 asset, the people,” he said.

“That much change makes it difficult,” said Dr. Bill Heckman, executive physician. “It’s one of the more complex situations they’ve run into, but they’ve adapted very well.”

DeJack said every day presents a new situation that could not have been anticipated. “They’re trying to figure out at that minute what to do or how to adapt,” she said. “You have to switch gears and think of an answer in that particular situation.”

What is Nurses Week?

National Nurses Week runs May 6-12 each year, with today being National Nurses Day. The recognition, which honors the contributions of nurses to the community, evolved from a single day in the 1950s to a weeklong observance in 1994.

Heckman said the week is a big thank you to nurses for the work they do on a daily basis. The additional effort they’ve put in because of the pandemic and their ability to adapt to changes while providing excellent medical care is noteworthy.

Grabarkiewicz, who has been at Rawsonville Components Plant for nearly 30 years, said the family atmosphere helps him and his colleagues get through challenging times, and he appreciates the recognition that comes with National Nurses Day. “It’s wonderful to take a day out to recognize people,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed working for Ford all these years. Everyone has a sense of humor and it helps deal with the stress. It’s not all serious business all the time. Everyone is always willing to help. I really feel blessed to be where I’m at.”

@FordOnline would like to thank and honor nurses everywhere. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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