Quiet heroes: Hospital housekeepers on the front lines of COVID

April 14, 2020


hospital housekeepers, like this one wearing a mask and gloves, are on the front lines during covid pandemic.
Margaret Waggett, a 15-year professional on the environmental services team at UCHealth Memorial Hospital, reassures patients during the COVIID-19 outbreak that she is there for them if they need anything. Photo: UCHealth

Willie Nash knows that words given to us by our fathers are full of wisdom, more precious than gold.

His father, the senior Willie Nash, served in the military and he often said: “Son, always man your post. Man your post. Make sure it is always covered.’’

When COVID-19 swept the world, the post that Nash mans every day as executive director of Environmental Services for HHS at UCHealth Memorial Hospital, took center stage. It would be his job, and that of 146 other environmental services staff, to keep things clean and battle an unseen enemy.

Nash, a married father of two, comes from three generations of nurses. He’s been around hospitals all of his life, though initially, he never wanted a career in one. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he worked in the entertainment industry in New York City then decided to go back for more schooling.

While earning his master’s degree in Organizational Dynamics at Oral Roberts University, his father fell ill from lung cancer in 2000. Doctors gave the elder Nash two years to live, but six months later, an infection acquired in a hospital – clostridium difficile  – took his life. From that day forward, Nash had a new post to man.

A photo of Willie Nash, one of the hospital housekeepers on the front line during covid.
Willie Nash is executive director of Environmental Services at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. Photo: UCHealth

COVID-19, Nash told his HHS staff, was no different than MRSA or the C. diff that killed his father. With proper training and donning and doffing of equipment, they would all be alright.

When it came time to clean the first room where a patient positive for COVID-19 was cared for, Nash and Margaret Waggett, a housekeeper for nearly 15 years at Memorial, didn’t hesitate to don protective equipment and thoroughly clean and sterilize the room.

Nash has not taken a day off in 28 days since COVID erupted in Colorado. He rises at 3 a.m. every morning, and heads to the hospital where he works 12- to 14-hour shifts.

“My drive is this,’’ he said. “My wife, my two kids, they know this is the fire that burns in me. My agenda in my life is not to put anyone else in a bed that I wouldn’t put my father in.’’

Cleaning hospital rooms during the COVID-19 outbreak is an act of bravery. Yet the process for doing so, is not complex. It’s basically a two-step process using Virex, a disinfectant used in hospitals. EVS professionals wipe down every inch of the room – everything in it – and then wait 10 minutes for everything to dry. Then, the process is repeated.

“We clean C. diff, we clean MRSA, we clean all the airborne things every single day and we do it diligently,’’ Nash said. “We just explained to our employees that this is no different than any other airborne and this is no different procedure than any other day. On an ordinary day, we wear gloves, we wear masks, we wear gowns to protect ourselves. The only difference is we don’t know what this is.’’

Waggett, who works on a hospital floor for patients who have had strokes or are coping with a neurological issue, jokes that the paint on the walls is a little lighter because of all the scrubbing.

“We might have to paint after this,’’ she says, smiling.

Waggett knows there is more risk cleaning a room where a positive COVID-19 patient is being cared for.

“There is a lot more risk, but I try to keep that behind me because we are doing everything we can to be safe. They’re giving me all the equipment that I need to be safe. And I feel right now that I am healthy enough and I have taken care of myself pretty good and there is no reason that I can’t be in here to do something.’’

hospital housekeepers, like this one wearing a mask and reaching for hand sanitizer, are on the front lines during covid pandemic.
Hospital housekeepers are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: UCHealth.

When she goes in to clean a room where a COVID patient is being treated, she offers the patient support.

“If they’re awake, I just let them know, from my heart, that I hope everything is going to be OK. I’ve seen some of them get better so that really makes me feel better,’’ she said.

She said she sees a patient as someone who is sick, but not someone who has a highly contagious disease.

“I try not to think of them with COVID because the minute that you let that get the best of you, you’re not going to be able to do anything. You have to have a good mind,’’ Waggett said. “Look at all these nurses and doctors out there today. Look at all these cities, New York City, look what they’re going through. I praise them, I pray for them every day, and I just want everything to get better for everybody.’’

Though she cleans the rooms of patients who are infected with COVID, Waggett doesn’t consider herself on the front lines, even though she has a front-row seat to the pandemic.

“We’re there for people, and we need to be there for these patients. It could be me, it could be you, it could be anybody. And we just have to be there,’’ she said.

Her presence is a gift to others on the neuro floor. In the morning, she gathers her mops, rags, supplies – whatever she needs to accomplish her work for the day. She greets the doctors, nurses and techs.

“Good morning, everyone!’’ she said. “How we doing today?’’

She’s also been known, when she sees co-workers, to engage them in a short chicken dance.

“That’s just me,’’ she says.

At 70 years old, Waggett says her three children and 10 grandchildren often encourage her to retire. She just doesn’t feel it’s the time. Especially, not now, when the need for professionals like her as never been greater.

As a leader, Nash knew that fear would set in for some of the workers. He wants to lead by example, and reassure his team to be diligent about protection and protocol.

“It’s given them that safety net, that comfort and that if we continue to take care of ourselves the way that we are supposed to take care of ourselves, this is nothing more than a tough virus. It’s no different than any other virus that we fight in the hospital, it’s just our unknown,’’ Nash said.

On the front lines during the COVID-19 outbreak, Nash is there every day, not in a suit and tie, but scrubs. With a strong team behind him and the likes of genuine angels like Waggett by his side, Nash’s EVS team is doing as the elder Willie Nash would want. They’re manning the post.


About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.