AKRON, Ohio — 24 years into her nursing career at Akron Children's Hospital, Denise Lehoski has seen busy days.
But now, staffing shortages seen in health care and other industries are compounding — with more sick kids in need of care.
"House-wide, hospital-wide ... our volumes are just exploding," Lehoski said. "A lot of us have stepped up to the plate and said, 'What can we do? What can we do? What can we do?'"
To handle it all, nurses like her who work in administrative roles are now volunteering to be back at the bedside.
"People are changing around their weekends," she told 3News. "People are changing around their days. We do that because we care about each other and we care about the patients that we take care of."
Lehoski is one of hundreds of "Helping Hands," as it's called: a voluntary, paid program to deploy staff members with clinical skills and others to work extra hours addressing critical patient needs.
"So if the staff member has some available time outside of their regular duties — either in the evening or on the weekend — they can choose to pick up whatever shifts they're available for," Christine Young, Chief Nursing Officer and Chief of Hospital-based Services at ACH. "We were overwhelmed with the response to the helping hands. You know, we expected maybe a hundred people and [got] 700 out of about 6,600 employees, over 10% of our workforce to step up and say, 'We want to help. We want to do more.'"
With 500 open positions across nearly all services, the hospital needs the help. Management is actively recruiting retired workers to come back on a temporary basis, recruiting nursing students to come work under RNs, and hanging the "Help Wanted" sign everywhere.
All this happens as they balance the stress on the staff they have that's been asked to stretch for 20-some months.
"The impact is going to last longer into the future," Young noted. "It's not going to end that stress that they're feeling, and the need for us to provide services for resiliency and well-being for our staff is going to continue into the future."
They've launched a so-called resiliency cart — manned by volunteers — to boost energy in the short-term, along with a meditation program to help address long-term wellness.
"[It helps] against burnout, against the stress of the daily job against the things that they're trying to balance, not only in the workplace, but at home," Young explained. "I think the pandemic has kind of caused stress in both areas at the same time for our workforce."
ACH hopes to reach normal staffing levels within six months, but predicting the needs of a community in an ongoing pandemic is more difficult.
"We want to keep our laser focus on making sure that we have the workforce that we need in case the numbers go up again," Young said.
They're expecting a winter of respiratory illnesses, even if COVID cases remain controlled. Lehoski says they're all stepping up out of compassion — and they hope families will show some as well.
"People do know that we're in a pandemic right now," she noted. "People do know of the shortages, but if you actually have to step foot into it and seek care, you know, there just has to be a little bit of patience and understanding that we are doing absolutely the best that we can do to try to take care of you, your child."