Robert Hutchinson, an alumnus of Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, has been working at one of the state’s six vaccine mega sites as a FEMA liaison and branch director, which means 12-hour shifts and little opportunity for a day off. Courtesy photo
Robert Hutchinson, an alumnus of Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, has been working at one of the state’s six vaccine mega sites as a FEMA liaison and branch director, which means 12-hour shifts and little opportunity for a day off. Courtesy photo

COVID-19 has revealed countless healthcare heroes worldwide – emergency response professionals and volunteers who have weathered long hours, made costly and personal sacrifices to assure safety, and found new ways to assist others.

As response operations liaison to the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, Robert Hutchinson has been deployed as a FEMA employee for COVID Operations since March 13, 2020 – day one of the federal shutdown.

The Princeton Junction native who attended St. Paul School and Parish, Princeton, was initially deployed as the planning section chief, coordinating between the state and FEMA to determine a daily operating plan. Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available, he has been deployed for Vaccine Operations as a liaison to New Jersey and branch director for FEMA’s support to the state’s six vaccine mega sites.

“FEMA is working at the six mega sites from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day,” said Hutchinson, an alumnus of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, who as one of the support team, works 12-hour days.

“Meeting FEMA’s mission to support our state partners goes with the job,” he said, explaining that he considers himself lucky to interact with the public and see firsthand their appreciation for receiving a vaccine. “I don’t often get to see the outcome of my efforts … this event is drastically different.

“By assisting in vaccine delivery, even in a small way, FEMA is allowing me to help individuals and the country get back to normal,” said Hutchinson, who now lives in Trappe, Pa., and belongs to nearby St. Eleanor Parish, Collegeville.

Taking Care of Business

Though vaccines became available inside of a year of the pandemic, getting appointments for those who need them most immediately proved difficult.

Enter Trisha Kennedy, a Lawrenceville resident and member of St. Paul Parish. When attempting to schedule vaccines for her mother-in-law and grandmother in January, she found the process stressful: not enough appointments available, or being booked within minutes, and online forms that were not intuitive for seniors to use.

“I started finding tips and tricks about when and where to look,” Kennedy said. Once she figured out a system for success, she began offering to help set up appointments for St. Paul teachers and staff, branching out into the wider parish community and even to complete strangers locally through a Lawrenceville social media site.

“Most of my appointment bookings have been all kinds of weird hours,” she continued. “For the longest time you’d get a lot of [vaccine availability] drops around midnight, and I would log in at 11:50 p.m. to watch the sites. Then I started setting alarms to check at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Another big thing that helped was setting up autofill for the online forms – because within five minutes the appointments are gone.”

To date, Kennedy estimates she has booked between 120 and 130 vaccine appointments for others. She is now joined by an instant message group of about 25 other women, helping each other to find appointment leads.

“With all the teachers do for our children, it’s the least I could do,” she said. “I felt it was my Christian duty to give back.”

The feedback for Kennedy has included “a few tears over the phone,” she said, adding that she asks people just one thing in return: “if they can pay it forward in some other act of kindness toward someone else.”

Medical Intervention

Catherine Valentino is one of countless nurses who joined her fellow healthcare professionals in combatting COVID-19. She is a certified registered nurse on the labor and delivery unit at Capital Health, Hopewell.

“The need to be a part of the protection and healing overtook my fear of the virus 1,000 percent,” said the parishioner of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. “I could not just stay home and watch the news reports – I felt like I was supposed to be at the hospital for my coworkers and my patients.”

To do so required extensive PPE (personal protective equipment) including eye protection, gowns, gloves and N95 surgical masks, the latter of which begin to cause skin breakdown and rashes with long hours of wear.

But Valentino said it was her Catholic faith that played “a strong part in my decision to risk my personal health, because I feel it is what has been behind my desire to be a nurse in the first place. … I can’t say there aren’t days that are really challenging, but it’s the ability to comfort and care for someone that’s far more rewarding.”

Catholic Call to Serve

Some private healthcare practices have made it a point to stay open and available to patients with medical needs that, while not COVID-19 related, require consistent care.

Dr. Robert Bischoff, owner and practitioner of Family First Chiropractic, and parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, both Toms River, gradually reopened to full capacity eight weeks into the shutdown.

“I felt it was important to be available to my patients because of my chiropractic oath, which includes the phrases ‘to stand ready at all times to serve my fellow man.’”

Safety measures including an air purifier, personal protective equipment, temperature checks and bringing patients into treatment rooms efficiently have helped Dr. Bischoff continue offering his usual standard of care.

“While it was a little scary to see patients in the beginning,” he acknowledged, “as we learned more about the disease, it became less frightening … everything in healthcare is benefit versus risk. My practice is filled with patients who have decided that the benefit of their chiropractic care outweighs the risk of COVID.”

Dr. Bishchoff credits his wife, “whose strong Catholic faith strengthens mine every day” and prayer for helping him keep his practice open. “We chose faith over fear, and felt it was important to show that faith to our patients, and let them know we are here for them. … I hope they feel that at least one thing in their life remained constant … that they could get the care they needed, when they needed it.”