Carolyn Grant, 63, a retired registered nurse, was sitting comfortably in her favorite chair beside the fireplace when her phone buzzed at 2 p.m. on March 11 with a fresh text message: Could she come back to work?

UW Medical Center was searching for recently retired employees to bolster its ranks as the outbreak of coronavirus stretched hospital staff thin, and Grant’s former boss was asking her to step back into the saddle and help run the medical system’s COVID-19 testing program.

“Wow, I have to think about that,” Grant said of her reaction to the message. “This is serious times, and I’m past 60.”

Public Health – Seattle & King County considers people over the age of 60 to be an especially vulnerable group to severe disease if infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

What would this mean for her family? Was she putting herself at risk? How could she help?

Also, she wondered: “How are you going to feel if you say no?”

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These are desperate times. Hospital administrators are scrambling to supply employees with protective gear, find ventilators and clear hospital space for a possible surge of COVID-19 patients. Waves of patients in other parts of the world, like Italy and Wuhan, China, overwhelmed health care systems.

Despite the risks, some people are desperate to help.

“Nurses — we just step up,” Grant said. “I knew what they were going to be up against.”

A heavy decision

Grant spent about six hours weighing the risk before accepting the temporary position helping manage UW Medical Center’s testing program for employees and, now, members of the broader public who are UW Medicine patients. 

She had plenty to consider.

Grant suffers from symptoms of asthma. Her husband, Beau Grant, a retired machinist who is 70 years old, has twice battled prostate cancer.

This is not without risk, she told Beau. Health officials’ advice earlier this month, before Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a shelter-in-place, was for older people to hunker down and avoid public interactions.

If you’re comfortable returning, I’m comfortable with it, he told her.

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Her former boss had one question: How soon could she start?

Grant, whose license is still active, is one of three retired employees who returned to help at the UW Medicine system’s request, according to spokeswoman Susan Gregg.

Meantime, some 4,500 health care workers, including some with out-of-state licenses, answered state officials’ call for help and submitted emergency volunteer practitioner applications as of March 24, according to Cory Portner, a spokesman for the state agencies responding to COVID-19. The Department of Health has validated credentials for about 300 people, Portner said. It was not clear how many applicants are retirees.

In the first week after a COVID-19 outbreak was identified in Western Washington in late February, Kristi Hart, normally a critical-care assistant nurse manager, raced with colleagues to set up a testing program.

At first, the goal was to test UW Medicine employees, to help isolate cases of COVID-19 among health care workers and help the ones who did not have the disease get back into their jobs.

“I was assigned on the 4th. On the 5th, I had reported for duty and on the 6th, we were testing,” Hart said, referring to dates in March. “It was overwhelming.”

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The testing program grew in a flurry. Displaced health care workers from different hospitals and programs within the UW system were assigned shifts to assist. Jeff Gates, a registered nurse, managed the in-person testing program.

Hart managed the background processes: worker training, organizing testing data, putting test swab kits together and communicating with employees who needed scheduling or results.

By the time Grant came out of retirement and started work on Friday, March 13, Hart was exhausted.

“I hadn’t taken a day off. I was working from 6 a.m. to midnight,” she said.

Retirement plans on hold

To Beau, Carolyn has always been the person who could solve anything.

“She got me on the right track” after he returned to Oklahoma from serving in Vietnam and was adrift after the war.

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When Beau, who is Black, suffered racial abuse at work in oil fields or in the community, Carolyn was there to listen and help keep calm.

“It upset her, but she would always talk to me about it and straighten me out,” Beau said. “I just kind of turned my back on those people.”

The two married in 1989 and left Oklahoma for Seattle, in part, because of the prejudice they faced as a mixed-race couple.

Beau settled into a job as a machinist making fishing reels and later airplane parts.

Carolyn built a career at hospitals in the area, eventually working at Northwest Hospital for 22 years and rising to become the director of nursing operations.

“We made a spot for ourselves here. Got a piece of the rock and got it paid,” Beau said.

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Carolyn retired at the end of 2019 as the hospital transitioned to become a second UW Medical Center – Northwest.

“She was really excited … we can go to Hawaii a couple times a year,” Beau said, recalling the couple’s plans before the outbreak had been identified, in addition to doing volunteer work at the local Masonic lodge.

“We had a travel trailer. We were just going to take off. We were waiting for the weather to get right,” he said.

Those plans are on hold, as Grant helps steer the testing program.

“Nurses take care of everyone”

Since Grant’s arrival in mid-March, UW Medical Center has expanded its drive-through testing to the public. The team has streamlined its processes to preserve personal protective equipment, get testing results out quicker and to further reduce exposure risks to staff. The team has performed hundreds of tests.

It has expanded also: About two dozen people work each day on testing, screening, managing data and fielding calls.

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“Every day, I’m looking at staffing and resources,” Grant said. “This is a marathon.”

Lab testing kits now contain bar codes so that UW employees who have been tested can scan a QR code and look up results within a day’s time. The team helped build an online scheduling tool.

Hart said Grant’s connections to hospital leadership and deep knowledge of its staffers have made the program more orderly as staffing scaled up.

“I think she truly came back because she was needed and she knew she was needed,” Hart said. “She knows just about everybody on this campus. For her it’s family. She’s going to take care of family.”

Last weekend, Hart took time away from work for the first time since testing began.

“I was still able to spend an hour with my grandson floating a boat in the Sound. It was the best day of my life, or at least my life right now,” Hart said, before Gov. Jay Inslee implemented a stay-at-home order Monday.

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Grant said she’s proud of her colleagues.

“What in anyone’s career prepares them for something of this magnitude?” Grant wondered.

Grant recalled the Aurora Bridge crash in 2015, when a Ride the Ducks tour boat struck a bus filled with international students attending North Seattle College.

“We practice and drill for disasters,” she said, recalling the stream of patients to the hospital, the stress and the initial confusion because many of the students did not speak English.

“Sometimes a disaster might be something that goes on for multiple days. But it has a beginning and an end, whereas this, I think the scary part is that we can’t see out to the end. It’s different.”

In the early days of the HIV crisis, Grant was a nurse in the unit that was the first to care for HIV patients in Oklahoma, she said.

“In the middle of the Bible belt, that was a challenging time, there were many people at that time — church leaders, religious leaders — that really felt like those patients didn’t necessarily deserve that care,” Grant said.

“Nurses take care of everyone, that’s who we are.”

For now, retirement can wait.

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