Smriti Pant never imagined showing up to work under protective layers of a hazmat suit and high-grade respirator mask. Years ago, she was inspired to care for others and use her personable nature to help people most in need of both, and now the Saginaw Valley State University educator and alumna is on the front lines of fighting a global pandemic.
“It’s not something you expect you’ll be doing one day,” said Pant, a family nurse practitioner who was among the first health care professionals in the region to test patients suspected of carrying the COVID-19 virus.
A member of the staff at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers, Pant and her colleagues since March 24 have collected nasal swab samples from more than 230 people at a drive-through sampling site built in the parking lot of the Great Lakes Bay Health Centers downtown Saginaw headquarters at 501 Lapeer. There, for six hours each day, Mondays through Fridays, they interact directly with people fearful they carry a virus that already has killed more than 82,000 people – and counting – across the globe.
It is both an emotionally- and physically-taxing job for Pant. Her commitment to providing a comforting, human touch to each interaction is made more challenging because of strict safety measures and layers of equipment meant to prevent her from becoming infected during her job.
For the danger she faces while helping others, some might call her a “hero.” She doesn’t share that sentiment.
“I’m just fulfilling my role as a primary care provider, helping people the best way possible,” the 33-year-old said.
“I’m a little part in this bigger puzzle of people who are working to fight COVID-19. Not just the health care workers; I’m talking about the first responders, the grocery store workers, the gas station attendants, and all personnel willing to sacrifice their time, talent and resources to keep communities safe.”
Helping those in need is an instinct Pant followed since she pursued an education in nursing at SVSU.
It’s an instinct reinforced later when she was returned to health by the same organization she works for today.
Raised in her native Kathmandu, Nepal, Pant and her family relocated to the United States 14 years ago. In 2006, at the age of 19, Pant moved to Saginaw to pursue a career in medicine by enrolling in SVSU’s nursing program. Her desire to practice nursing, though, became more focused more than two years later when she fell severely ill.
“I did not have health insurance and I did not want to go to the ER because I knew it could be costly,” Pant said, “and I could not afford to drop out of school.”
Desperate for help, Pant during a Google search discovered the organization known today as Great Lakes Bay Health Centers. Originally called Health Delivery Inc., the organization began as a Saginaw-based mobile migrant health clinic in 1968. Since then, the federally-qualified health center has expanded to 30 clinics across 16 Michigan counties. Serving more than 54,000 patients, Great Lakes Health Centers provides medical, dental, behavioral, maternal and infant care services to patients including those considered underserved, underinsured or uninsured.
“They really took care of me,” she said of how the organized helped her recover from illness in 2009.
“I was thoroughly amazed at how I could access the majority of the healthcare services offered in private practices and ERs, but at a much more affordable cost. They had X-rays, labs, a pharmacy, WIC services and more, all in the same building.”
The health center offers service costs on a sliding scale based on a patient’s income or household size.
“I was fascinated by that system,” she said, “and I thought to myself, ‘When I graduate, I want to work here.’”
Before she fulfilled that desire, Pant continued her extensive education at SVSU, which provided her both with practical skills in medicine and a strong sense of commitment to bettering the community.
“This moment of service and serving the community at large would not have been possible without SVSU,” said Pant, who works as an adjunct faculty member in nursing at the university when she isn’t working at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers.
“All the opportunities and support the university, staff, faculty members provided me over the years have truly enabled me to be in a position to do the work I do every day.”
From SVSU, Pant earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing in May 2011, her master’s degree in nursing in August 2015, and her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree with a post-master’s certificate in nursing education in December 2016.
After earning her first degree, Pant served as a registered nurse at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw from 2011-16. Only months before receiving her most recent credentials at SVSU, she was hired as a board-certified family nurse practitioner at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers in August 2016.
Prior to the emergence of COVID-19 in Michigan, her work involved serving as a primary care provider at many of Great Lakes Bay Health Centers’ clinics across the state. She cared for patients ranging from infants to the elderly. Often, a college student would walk into her office and remind Pant of her origins at the organization.
“When I see them, and I listen to the stories and challenges they face, it reminds me often of the struggles I faced when I was in their position,” she said.
COVID-19, though, was unlike anything Pant or her patients ever faced before.
While Pant read about the global wrath of the coronavirus earlier in the year, she was first confronted with her potential role in fighting the pandemic during a March 12 meeting at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers. An infectious disease expert provided the staff with an educational session on the COVID-19 virus, which at that point already devastated thousands of lives across Asia and Europe. With a strong foothold on both American coasts, it became apparent the virus soon would grip the Midwest. The first two cases were confirmed in Michigan only two days earlier.
By March 19, the Saginaw County Health Department informed regional health care providers of the urgent need for sample testing, a measure seen as critical for stopping the spread of infection. Five days later, Great Lakes Bay Health Centers became the first organization to answer the call when it opened the drive-through sampling site in Saginaw. The organization stepped up in other ways too. For instance, it remains the only health care provider in the region offering emergency dental procedures.
The drive-through concept was the design of the organization’s COVID-19 task force led by Paula Peters, who now serves as the sampling site’s manager; and it was supported by Dr. Brenda Coughlin, the president and CEO of Great Lakes Bay Health Centers.
The plan required volunteers to perform the tests. Pant stepped up, joining a team featuring a the site manager, a registered nurse, two optometrists, two medical assistants, and maintenance staff.
“Many people were hesitant to join because it is scary,” she said. “After all, you don’t want to catch this virus that is so contagious and you don’t want to take it home with you to your family, which is understandable.”
On the first day of sampling, the team tested 10 patients. Since then, as many as 33 people seek testing there daily. So far, more than 230 individuals have been tested in Saginaw by Great Lakes Bay Health Centers, which opened a sampling site at its Huron County location earlier this month. The organization will open a third drive-through sampling site on Thursday, April 9, this time at its Great Lakes Bay Health Centers-Bayside location at 3884 Monitor in Bay City. The site will operate Mondays through Fridays, from noon to 4 p.m.
To be tested at any of the sites, a patient must bring a referral from a medical provider. Those who lack such documentation are scheduled for “telehealth” sessions with staff from Great Lakes Bay Health Centers.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” Pant said.
She also engages with patients in the telehealth sessions, a practice that allows her to utilize communications technology – such as smart phones or tablets – to assess patients without being in the same room with them. The practice eliminates the danger of transmitting the virus.
The more challenging of the two responsibilities, Pant said, remains the testing. The process involves suiting up in a full-body yellow hazmat suit and an N-95 mask for up to three hours daily, Mondays through Fridays.
“It was intimidating at first,” Pant said of slipping into the suit.
“Folks who suffer from claustrophobia or certain chronic health issues would find it difficult to wear for a long period of time. The mask seals tight on your face to prevent any air leaks. Sometimes you can feel very foggy, but it’s what’s necessary to stay safe.”
The discomfort of wearing the equipment likely pales in comparison to the emotional and physical distress experienced by the people seeking tests, Pant said.
“People are scared,” she said. “There’s this big fear of the unknown, because we know so little about COVID-19.”
When the patients see Pant, they often ask “really tough questions,” she said. When can I see my grandkids again? When can I go back to work to provide for my family? Will my chronic health condition be addressed like it was before?
“We do the best we can to provide reassurance and information on how they can follow safety protocols,” she said.
When Pant finishes each shift, she follows her own safety protocols and guidelines – provided by local health departments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control – to ensure she remains healthy. Each worn hazmat suit is destroyed. When she arrives home, she changes out of her work clothing in her garage before entering the house.
While such precautions ensure the virus doesn’t follow her home, COVID-19 remains a part of her life even after work.
She communicates regularly with others working in the health care industry across the nation. Some of her closest friends work in metro Detroit and New York City hospitals, two virus hotspots where thousands have died from COVID-19 – including health care workers exposed to the virus on the job.
“I have friends who work in intensive care units and ERs who have faced much harder scenes than I have faced,” Pant said. “It’s incredibly heartbreaking to hear what they are experiencing. They’re risking their lives to save lives.”
In her Saginaw Township home, Pant plays the role of daughter, caring for her 71-year-old mother. With the virus proving especially deadly for older populations, Pant said she is helping to ensure her mother requires little – if any – contact with people outside of their home.
“Thankfully, she’s a very healthy woman,” Pant said. “We are going to minimize risk as much as possible.”
Despite her day-and-night schedule revolving around COVID-19, Pant said she is maintaining her own mental health.
“I can’t let myself live in worry,” she said.
“I’m human, just like everybody else, so this seems scary at times. Being well informed and doing our part to ensure safety is important. We just have to tackle this challenge and take care of each other like we would any other time.” •