Retired Northland medical workers follow the call a second time to help vaccine clinics
“It’s a historical event. To have some small part in helping out, that’s something that I couldn’t not do."
Jan and Jerry Siedlecki tested positive for COVID-19 this winter. Over three weeks, they experienced fever, chills, nausea, coughing, diarrhea, loss of taste and smell.
“If it was a symptom, we had it,” said Jan, 67.
On a recent Friday, the Esko couple visited the Essentia Health vaccine clinic, where they sat at Annette Ouellette’s station.
Ouellette greeted them with a chipper voice, and after listing the required notifications and information verification, she administered their second dose of Pfizer.
“In a couple weeks, I could probably be a lot safer out there in the public,” Jan said.
Ouellette is one of many volunteers who have come out of retirement to help at Northland vaccine clinics. The need for help increased as vaccine eligibility expanded in Minnesota on March 25 and in Wisconsin on Monday.
Here are a few of their stories.
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Ouellette retired from a nurse leadership role after 39½ years at Essentia.
“I tried to make it 40, but the pandemic,” she said.
Ouellette was still working in the hospital when COVID-19 prompted shutdowns across Minnesota. “It was hard for me as a nurse to be told to go home, and that’s where I’d be working from.
“I wanted to be in the hospital; I wanted to be there,” she said.
Telecommuting was challenging, to lose a connection with colleagues and the hospital environment. But, in a leadership role, Ouellette was included in daily safety huddles and committees, so she was very aware of the developments.
“It made me feel a little helpless,” she said.
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Ouellette decided to retire in October. Had they known a vaccine would be available by the end of the year, she would have made a different decision, she said.
She read nursing and medical journals. She got a puppy.
“It’s hard to retire during a pandemic,” she said.
Ouellette couldn't do the things she'd planned to do, such as travel, see people or volunteer. Yet, when she was able to, she found a way for the latter. Ouellette administers vaccines in the clinic two days a week, picking up shifts that are hard to fill. She likes it. She’s able to tap into her nursing training, and she gets to talk to people again in a positive atmosphere.
Much of her career was spent in the acute care center, which isn’t always a happy place, she said.
“Not in the vaccine clinic," she said. "Everybody wants to be there.”
And being born and raised in Duluth, Ouellette sees many people she hasn’t in a while.
What seems most gratifying is knowing she is helping in some small way.
“We’re one step closer to getting out of this pandemic," she said. “Knowing myself, I would not have felt good sitting at home and waiting without feeling like I was contributing.”
When it’s safe, Ouellette plans to spend time with grandkids and go on a mountain biking excursion.
Asked how long she’ll show up in the clinic, she said: “As long as they need me.”
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Mike Swanoski retired in January as the senior associate dean in Duluth for the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy.
One day, we were teaching in the classroom, and two days later, everybody was online, he recalled of last spring’s shutdown. Fast forward to last week, and Swanoski, 64, received his second vaccine dose.
“I was overjoyed. I felt like I had the golden ticket. I’ll tell you, that vaccine envy, it’s a real thing,” he said.
Swanoski recently started volunteering in the St. Luke’s vaccine clinic three days a week. It’s very well-organized, and they’re administering 600-700 vaccines a day, he said.
“Really, it’s a historical event. To have some small part in helping out, that’s something that I couldn’t not do,” Swanoski said.
Asked about the vibe in the clinic, he added, “It’s common to hear laughing in the halls.”
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Melodee Call read a nursing book when she was 7. “I thought, ‘I want to be a nurse,’ and I never changed my mind,” said the Pequaywan Lake woman.
In 1980, Call started at St. Luke’s, where she worked with cardiac intensive care patients. And while she retired from St. Luke’s in July 2012 after 32 years, she started thinking about how she could help health care efforts.
Call, 72, received her second shot of Pfizer on Feb. 4, and began administering doses in the St. Luke’s vaccine clinic March 11. She recalled feeling “giddy.”
“The more we get vaccinated, the sooner we’re going to get out of this,” she said.
The vetting process for her to help was simple: a background check, tuberculosis test, basic life support classes. She volunteers once a week, and she has noticed an evolution in mood and efficiency. She plans to show up as long as they’re running.
Helping in this capacity is much different than when she was working as a nurse.
“We’re not taking care of people that are critically ill. I’ve had many people that obviously have many health conditions, but it’s different,” she said.
Her training is kicking in, and it’s a much more relaxing atmosphere.
One development is she now has a limit: only 4½-hour shifts.
“I’m 72, almost 73," she said. "That’s all I can take.”