Dr. Lisa Roazen woke up at 7 a.m. Sunday, looked outside, and told her husband to go back to sleep.
If he’d gotten up and cleared their driveway of snow, it wouldn’t have mattered. Their street hadn’t been plowed. She wasn’t driving anywhere.
But Roazen needed to get to her 8 a.m. work shift. She’s a doctor in the emergency department at St. Luke’s, and medical emergencies don’t stop for a blizzard.
The only question was how she would get there from her family’s home near the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary: on her skis or on her fat-tire bike?
The city of Duluth was in a no-travel advisory from 7 a.m. Saturday until 9 a.m. Monday, as a storm riding strong east winds dumped more than 20 inches of snow on the region. While most residents were able to shelter in place, at least during the height of the storm, some places still had to have workers on the job, particularly the hospitals. And the workers had to get there somehow.
As Roazen mulled her decision, Chris Rubesch was already on the job in the post-coronary care unit at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center.
Getting there hadn’t been easy.
“It was that constant headwind,” Rubesch, 33, recalled on Tuesday. “The entire way, the wind was coming off the lake. So it’s probably 30 miles an hour headwinds and it just felt like you were going nowhere.”
Rubesch, a registered nurse, left his home in the Smithville neighborhood at 5 a.m., riding his fat-tire bicycle to allow plenty of time to get to St. Mary’s and take a shower before his 7 a.m. shift.
He wore a downhill ski helmet — warmer than a bike helmet — and reflective stripes on his jacket and pants. His bike was equipped with a bright front headlight and flashing lights in the rear.
“The good thing is that really there wasn’t much for traffic, obviously,” Rubesch said. “It was pretty much me and the snowplows.”
Following Grand Avenue and Superior Street, Rubesch covered the 10 miles, give or take, in 90 minutes.
Not getting to work wasn’t an option, Rubesch said. He knew other medical personnel wouldn’t be able to make it in.
He knew nurses in his unit had been working for close to 12 hours.
“That’s where I felt like it was even more important for me that if there’s any physical way to get there, I gotta let some of these people take a break and go home or sleep,” Rubesch said.
In fact, that’s the situation his wife was in, although in a different place.
The Rubesches are a two-hospital family. Andrea Rubesch, 32, is an oncology hospice nurse. Not only do she and Chris work in separate hospitals, they were working separate shifts over the weekend. Chris Rubesch was working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday; Andrea was working from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. the same days.
When Andrea drove in for her Saturday night shift, she packed her sleeping bag and pillow, some extra scrubs and some food, she said.
As Chris was beginning his ride to work, Andrea was starting to wonder when her shift would end. By 5:30, she and colleagues were calling nurses at home to see if they could come in, but they weren’t getting encouraging responses.
Andrea was in a dilemma, she said. She would hit the 16-hour mark at 11 a.m., and she’s not permitted to work longer than that. But she also can’t leave patients she’s responsible for without a replacement.
Relief came at 9 a.m., and she looked for a place to sleep. Although she heard that there were “snow beds” available for some of the nurses, she didn’t get any clear communication, Andrea said. So she walked over to the main St. Luke’s parking ramp, where she'd left her Honda Element, and bedded down in that.
“They’re nice for sleeping in,” Andrea said.
But the ambiance wasn’t the best.
“I could hear everything that was going on outside,” she said. “Lots of dinging of back-and-forth plows throughout the day. I didn’t necessarily sleep well.”
As Andrea Rubesch tried to sleep, Roazen was working a relatively quiet shift in the St. Luke’s ER. The Duluth native had decided the snow was too deep for her cross country skis, so she took her fat-tire bike instead. After deep snow for the first couple of blocks, Roazen found it a “fairly easy commute” after that, making the mostly downhill trip in 25 minutes.
Chris Rubesch said he had a much faster ride home than to work, although traffic was more of a problem. For Roazen, the uphill ride home came to 40 minutes, and conditions were worse, if anything.
“When the grader had gone by it left behind a very slick, icy block behind it in a lot of places,” she said.
Roazen said many of her colleagues also found ways to get to work. One came in on skis, and another put on his trail running shoes and came in on foot. Another drove in from Gary-New Duluth in the wake of an ambulance.
People helped each other out, too, Chris Rubesch said.
“I heard a lot of people at work doing a lot of creative things, helping each other get to work,” he said. “I think that’s indicative of not just the community we have here in Duluth but also of the protection. We are all thinking of how we can make this as safe as possible.”