“Beth Simmons has many qualities that make her an integral part of the team at EGRMC. The biggest one is that she has a huge heart that shows in her compassion for our patients, employees and community. She is always consistent and extremely calm regardless of the situation. Beth also has an ability to understand complex situations and uses sound judgement when guiding the hospital through challenging times such as we have experienced during COVID-19. She is also a good listener and when you add her love for her family and her pets, she is the perfect fit for her role and makes EGRMC a better place. From my perspective, Beth is the definition of a servant leader.” --Stephen Pennington, CEO at East Georgia Regional Medical Center
The word “hero” is defined as a “person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities.”
If you ask Beth Simmons to define the word, she’ll point to everyone but herself.
But ask anyone else at East Georgia Regional Medical Center, and they’ll point directly at Simmons.
Simmons, who moved to Statesboro when she was in the fourth grade, has been employed at EGRMC for 17 years. She originally began studying to be an elementary school teacher, but a stint as a student teacher in a third grade class changed her mind. Her husband, Chris, along with her dad, helped to guide her toward nursing, something she didn’t know she would love so much.
She went on to earn her LPN at Ogeechee Technical College, and then went to Indiana State for her bachelor’s in nursing. She started working as an LPN on the Medical/Surgical night shift, and did that for several years before become a day shift bedside nurse.
Simmons later moved to clinical education, where she performed nurse orientation, taught CPR and ACLS, and helped with all the classes and competencies for the nurses.
These days, Simmons is the Chief Quality Officer for the hospital.
“I’m kind of a data geek. I like statistics, and I like driving improvement, seeing change. So I thought this would be a great opportunity and change,” she said.
Pre-COVID, Simmons’ responsibilities focused mainly on regulatory, keeping the hospital and staff regulatory ready. She says that she and her staff are there for support, to make sure they know what the rules are so that they can give the staff the tools they need to follow the rules. They also work with data to drive performance improvement.
“We support the nurses at the bedside positions, make sure they have the tools they need, the information they need, the education that they need,” she said.
Simmons is quick to say that her team does most of the work.
“I’m just here to support and guide and keep everybody up to date,” she said.
There are 10 staff members in Simmons’ department.
“Between clinical education, we have two educators, and then I have employee health, and infection control which, as you can imagine, has been a huge part of what we’ve done the last two years. And employee health, because, it’s her job to make sure that our team is healthy, and they have what they need if they get sick. She’s done an amazing job. She’s taken food to people, medicine to people, I mean, she’s really gone above and beyond,” she said of her team.
COVID-19 has brought drastic changes to the everyday duties of her department.
“We had a pandemic plan in place before COVID, but thankfully, we never had to use it. So when COVID started, we really had to evaluate that plan and see if it was going to be effective before we put it into place,” she said.
There were a lot of changes to the plan in the beginning, and a lot of decisions that had to be made, and they all “had to be ready to pivot on a dime, change in a heartbeat.”
Simmons and her department spent a lot of time making sure that all staff had the needed information during every step of the way, especially in the early days of the pandemic. They spent time researching and reading CDC guidelines, and working with the Georgia Department of Health as well as the local county health department, keeping up to date on all changes. They also worked to make sure that patients had what they needed, and supported those at the bedside caring for them.
Simmons worked with local nursing homes to help them with their COVID units, and helped with guidance and education at Georgia Southern University, where she also helped with their vaccine setup. Simmons’ team gave almost 4,000 vaccines between employees and the community from just before New Year’s in 2020 up until the vaccine was more readily available throughout Bulloch County. She said they were giving around 120 shots a day at one point.
For the Quality department, the focus is a little different, Simmons said. They work to take care of the hospital’s employees.
“We try to take care of the employees and make sure that they have what they need. Worrying about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and were we going to have to reuse PPE, making sure they knew how to put it on safely and take it off safely, because we had never had to reuse PPE before,” she said, adding that she and her staff practice ways to PPE on and take it off safely so that they could teach employees.
“We make sure that they’re OK, that they’re safe and that they’re not taking anything home to their families. We live in this community too, and so our employees are going to get sick. But if they did get sick, that they were taken care of,” she said of the job her department has been doing. “We have an attachment to this facility and to these employees. So it hurts our hearts when they’re sick.”
Simmons also sat down with other department heads at the beginning of the pandemic to work out a plan as to where COVID patients would be placed, and how the whole process of admission and care would be carried out.
“We tried to prepare for the worst and hoped for the best,” she said.
Hospital leaders had to be prepared for how they could care for patients who didn’t have COVID as well.
“Our plan had to include where we were going to put the COVID patients, how we were going to take care of them, but also, how are we going to continue to take care of the heart attacks and the strokes and the pneumonias that came in that were not COVID related. We had to make sure we could take care of them safely, and not expose them to anything, and not expose our staff to anything,” she said.
In the first several months of the pandemic last year, Simmons was working seven days a week. But she is quick to point out that she wasn’t alone. Many EGRMC employees were working long hours, particularly bedside nurses, and she says her team worked just as hard as she did. She adds that she couldn’t do anything she does without her team.
“They are amazing and they have worked just as hard, and they have put in just as many hours,” she said.
Some of her staff even worked to make masks from sheets before they could get masks, bringing in sewing machines to get it done.
“Nobody ever said, ‘No, that’s not my job.’ Everybody did things that were completely out of their realm,” Simmons said.
The staff at EGRMC had treated 1,267 COVID patients as of early October 2021. The second wave of COVID saw even more patients admitted at one time than before. EGRMC is a 149-bed facility, and during the height of COVID, there were 73 patients being treated.
When asked if her experience during the pandemic has changed her and how she does things, Simmons pauses and smiles.
“I don’t think anybody could work through this and not say that it has changed them. For me, it’s changed my priorities a little bit. I have always loved this hospital, and I love my family and spend as much time with them as I can, but it’s changed the time I spend with them. I try not to just go home and go to bed,” she said.
Seeing people lose loved ones because of COVID impacted her as well. She’s seen patients die before but calls the suffering brought on by the pandemic a “different kind of suffering.”
“You expect your grandmother or you expect somebody that’s lived a long life (to pass away). But some of this has not been that. So it puts things in perspective a little bit. And it made me more appreciative of the people around me, because I have seen so many people step up and do things that we just never thought we’d be doing. I have respect for those people and admiration,” she said.
Simmons says that in the beginning, it was terrible to not be able to go home and hug her children. She and her husband have five children: Breanne, CJ, Ragen and Brendan Simmons, and Devon Smith, who is married to Russ and has two children, Kohen and Rylie.
Although things are not as hectic these days and there are fewer COVID patients, Simmons doesn’t see an end to it.
“I think this is our new normal. I think we’ll always have a couple of patients (with COVID). Just like you have flu patients every year, we’ll probably always have COVID patients,” she said.
But that said, she believes the hospital is in a good place right now. But she thinks there could be another surge, so she and her staff are watching and trying to be prepared.
When asked if she’s grown professionally and personally during her tenure at East Georgia, Simmons smiles and says, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know when I started. So I probably had more confidence than I had a right to have. I quickly learned how much I didn’t know.”
She is quick to point to other nurses that made an impact and helped guide her down the right path, including Sheila Kegebein, Shirley Lipsey, Marci Waters and Kim Smith. Each of them, in their own way, helped her to want to learn and grow.
“I think what this hospital and done for me is it has turned me into a leader. I can say pretty confidently that 17 years ago, I was not a leader. But when you grow up somewhere and you learn the people and you learn how to make a difference because you’ve seen other people do it and you want to emulate that, I think that’s what the hospital has done for me,” she said. “They’ve kind of made me who I am, the people I’ve watched and learned from.”