In a year where a worldwide pandemic threatened everyone, it’s difficult to single out any one person among the many who rose to meet the stiff challenge posed by the deadly crisis.

That is particularly true for those who work in the healthcare field, including the 2,900 employees of Riverside Healthcare. The Riverside system was confronted immediately and directly by the onslaught of COVID-19 in March 2020, and the way its team members responded is ongoing and nothing short of remarkable.

Riverside’s leadership team recognized the valiant group effort when it came time to bestow its prestigious Samaritan of the Year award. Rather than give the honor to an individual, Riverside chose to recognize all its employees by declaring them all winners.

The Daily Journal has also taken notice of the massive effort, and has named Riverside as its Innovator in Healthcare as part of the newspaper’s annual Progress Awards.

Riverside President and CEO Phil Kambic describes what has been a complex task in simple terms: “I am just amazed by our people, the kindness, hard work and thoughtfulness of our people.’’

The beginning

Kambic has been at Riverside since 1985, and rose to become the president and CEO in 2006. About 10 years ago, he heard predictions that a new pandemic was somewhere on the horizon. While he did not doubt it, making intricate plans to face it was not completely possible. It had been a century since the last one occurred, as it was hard to discern what a new outbreak might involve.

“Almost every crisis we prepare for is episodic,’’ he said. “This has been a long-term episode.’’

By the beginning of 2020, word of the novel coronavirus spreading from its place of origin in Wuhan, China, was growing, and Riverside was among the first places in Kankakee County to begin bracing for it.

The first step was to establish an Incident Command Center at the hospital, and it was formed a week before the pandemic was officially declared in March. A group of bright minds were brought together to map a strategy to address the pandemic, and within days of its formation, those plans were put into action.

It was at that time the first patients with COVID-19 appeared at the hospital. Not only did Riverside have to figure out a way to treat these people, it also had to identify how it could keep its employees, as well as the public at large, safe.

Gathering PPE items which were alarmingly scarce at the time was one challenge to overcome.

Through various measures, the challenge was met. In order to keep areas within the hospital and the adjacent assisted living community safe, negative pressure rooms were established. This method allows air to be pushed out of rooms and areas quickly, as well as the virus which could linger within it.

Another way to avoid exposure was to limit the amount of time people spent in the hospital setting.

This was accomplished by establishing online video visits patients could have with their doctors, and Kambic said Riverside’s information technology team had the system up and running within a matter of days.

Finding a way to limit traffic at the hospital became another priority when Shapiro Developmental Center sustained a COVID outbreak and its residents were arriving in the emergency room in significant numbers.

Riverside worked with other community stakeholders, including AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital, to create a place on the Shapiro grounds to treat the victimized residents.

Testing for the virus presented another mighty challenge. Initially, test samples had to be shipped to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to determine the result, and it would take several days for the information to be shared. This presented an obvious flaw, and Riverside set its sights on correcting it.

That meant creating a way to measure test results on site to get quicker results, and it wasn’t easy as a community hospital such as Riverside was not the first choice to perform such work.

But Kambic had an advantage as he was serving as chair of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association at the time the pandemic broke. This gave him and Riverside a direct line to the office of Gov. JB Pritzker, and Kambic spoke personally with the governor about the situation.

Before long, test kits were made available, and once they were, Riverside obtained as many as allowed, and used every one of the devices.

“If we had 1,000 tests and only gave 999, we lose,’’ Kambic said. “We wouldn’t get anymore. We had to use everything we had to get more.’’

Turning the corner

The pandemic struck hard in the spring, eased in the summer months, and picked up again during the fall. By the time the calendar turned to 2021, various vaccines to combat the virus were emerging, and Riverside immediately moved to the forefront to administer these life-saving shots.

That effort has since kicked into high gear. Kambic said Riverside administered an impressive 1,550 vaccination shots in a single day recently and has likely administered more than half of the shots received in the county to date. The goal is to only build on those numbers, as Kambic believes wide distribution will allow many of the restrictions brought on by COVID to be lifted later this year.

While all of this has transpired, Riverside has not turned a blind eye toward its other priorities. Advancements continue to be made in the areas of cardiac care and neurosurgery. It has opened a state-of-the-art immediate care facility in Watseka, and continues to build a new facility in Bourbonnais which will treat patients seeking relief for orthopedic and spine ailments.

A primary reason Riverside didn’t suspend these initiatives was motivated by service to community. During the pandemic, many local people and businesses stepped forward to thank Riverside workers for their sacrifice by providing items such as PPE, meals, flowers, musical performances and even oil changes for the employees.

“It’s business helping business,’’ Kambic said. “We have the reserves. Let’s keep the community working.’’

The work will continue at Riverside, even after the pandemic finally ends. As it goes about meeting the challenges of the present and future, Kambic said the team has learned lessons from the pandemic which will carry over.

“I believe it has made us try new things. I believe it has made us work quicker and faster to get things done,’’ he said. “We put bureaucracy aside when the pandemic came. We divvied up the duties and got the job done.’’