The ER Superheroes

April 17, 2020

DETROIT – Throughout her 25-year nursing career, Erin Cavanagh has seen the staff display endless acts of fearlessness, mettle and spirit in the Emergency Department at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Their dedication to caring for patients who came through the door and combating whatever illness or life-threatening injury that presented with highly specialized skills and training.

And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Cavanagh saw how the staff stepped up once again, this time to meet a cruel and grim challenge. Dressed from head to toe in their special body armor of personal protective equipment, they went into battle to save patients. Like, well, superheroes.

“I’ve been so proud of our team,” says Cavanagh, R.N., a clinical coordinator. “They’re like superheroes in how they’ve adapted to the situation. But I’ve known that for 20 years.”

Inspired to bring some levity to a stressful situation and boost the staff’s spirit, Cavanagh went online to buy 20 superhero T-shirts for staff to wear at work. Wonder Woman for a unit clerk, Captain America for two techs, Superman for nurses, Spider-man for a housekeeper. Hulk for a charge nurse.

It’s been such a hit among staff that if you’re not wearing your superhero T-shirt, “you’re not in uniform.” Even patients have taken notice. “Hey super girl,” is a frequent shout-out.

“This is who these people are,” says Cavanagh, who is married to a teacher and the mother of three boys.

John Deledda, M.D., chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, has high praise for the entire staff – from doctors and nurses to pharmacists, techs and housekeepers – for delivering superior levels of care and other essential services under trying circumstances.

“From the beginning of this pandemic, the care and comfort our staff has provided are both heroic and extraordinary and continues to this day,” Dr. Deledda says. “I couldn’t be prouder of our staff. This has been a tough grind for everyone but we’ve managed the influx of patients with tremendous heart and resiliency.”

As a Level 1 trauma center, Henry Ford is one of the busiest emergency departments in metro Detroit and statewide, with more than 100,000 patients seen annually. Staff are experienced at treating high volumes of critically ill patients at one time. But caring for patients infected with a novel, life-threatening virus amplified anxiety levels.

“It’s psychologically and emotionally draining,” says Cavanagh who had just returned from a one-week ski vacation when the first surge of COVID-19 patients presented in the emergency department. “We’ve never experienced something like this.”

Cavanagh likened the treatment of patients to training for a marathon or ironman competition. “Patients are coming every day so you have to be able to adapt. You have to be ready to grab things at any time – that mask, that gown, that face shield. A lot of us are working overtime. We realized we have to take a day off . . . and get out of the Twilight Zone.”

And during downtimes they take time to cope, enjoy each other’s company and “catch up on our emotions.” When Cavanagh was grieving the loss of a friend, two nurse colleagues gave comfort. “I told them thank you for knowing when to hug me, even though we’re not supposed to.”

There has been a groundswell of community support and gratitude for the ER staff and all Henry Ford health care workers. Donations of food and PPE supplies. Notes of inspiration. Two weeks ago, Detroit native and singer-songwriter Lizzo called the ER to share a video message of love and support and treat the staff to a meal. Cavanagh and the staff wish to thank everyone for their well-wishes, tokens of appreciation and blessings.

Just days before the pandemic hit Detroit, Cavanagh came across an old ratty Superman T-shirt at home. She wore it at work for a few days before replacing it with one of the new ones she bought online.

“The new one is an upgrade because it has abs in it,” she says, smiling. “You kinda feel like it gives you strength. You are what you believe, right?”

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MEDIA CONTACT: David Olejarz / David.Olejarz@hfhs.org / 313.874.4094.