By Matt Martinez
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.

A program to help people recover from COVID-19 has helped over 600
Milwaukeeans since the pandemic began. (File photo by Allison Steines.)

Alexander Hardy was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 4.

Hardy, a 64-year-old with Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, got tested because he had been exposed to someone with coronavirus. He felt fine but figured he should get tested anyway.

Hardy said the results threw him for a loop.

“You don’t know what your journey with it is going to be about,” Hardy said.

After he got the news, the first call Hardy made was to Common Ground, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit. A member of his church had gone through a program for people diagnosed with COVID-19, and he thought the program could help.

From there, Hardy was in the hands of a squadron of retired health professionals, licensed clinicians and health care workers.

Common Ground Community Health Volunteers, a program started shortly after the pandemic began, has helped over 600 people recovering from COVID-19.

Pat Ruttum, a volunteer with Common Ground and a retired nurse, said the program provides support and guidance for people who are diagnosed with COVID-19. The program pairs patients with volunteers who help them navigate what to do once they have COVID-19.

“I’m your cheerleader,” Ruttum said, providing an example of how she begins her calls. “I’m a retired nurse. We’ll get you through this.”

The program is straightforward: Volunteers get a name, address and phone number from the Milwaukee Health Department. The volunteers then call their patients every day and help monitor their progress as they recover from the disease.

A pulse oximeter to measure oxygen and circulation also is dropped off at the patient’s address, and volunteers help patients learn how to use it and what the readings mean.

Hardy said someone called him every day. He talked about how he was feeling, and his volunteer also helped him figure out his oximeter. He checked often to make sure his oxygen level was above 93. Any lower would mean medical attention was needed.

“It made me feel good that they had designated the time,” Hardy said of the check-ins.

Ruttum said most check-ins last for over a week. But she said some have gone as long as 20 days and as short as four. The check-ins are made on a case-by-case basis. Hardy had check-ins with Common Ground for about 10 days.

24-hour clinicians

A clinician is on call 24 hours a day. They can help patients determine what to do next if their oxygen readings start coming in low.

This could include staying at home, going to an emergency room under their own power or calling an ambulance. If a patient needs to go to an emergency room, the clinician calls ahead to let the ER staff know a client is coming.

Francisco Enriquez, a pediatrician with Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, volunteers as a clinician. Enriquez is available for calls from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during his shifts. Sometimes he gets no calls, but he can get three to four on a shift.

Enriquez said he monitors patients’ conditions, including symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath. He also asks them questions that don’t require the oximeter, like how far they can walk and whether breathing is more labored than usual.

Enriquez said the idea behind the program is to be a resource for people with COVID-19, especially those who feel they have to deal with it on their own.

“Patients felt alone,” Enriquez said. “Making the decision to seek more help can be difficult.”

Ruttum said the check-ins help, especially for people who are isolated in a room and trying not to get their family sick.

“Some of them are afraid they’re going to die,” Ruttum said. “Most of them know someone who has died or been hospitalized.”

Hardy isolated from his wife and son while he had the disease. He said it helped to talk to someone.

“You hear what they say on the news about folks over 60,” Hardy said.

When it came to recovery, Hardy got help there, too. He said his volunteer took the time to help him figure out how to go back into regular life and deal with other people’s anxieties. The key was to still be careful and keep wearing a mask, Hardy said.

Ruttum said patients can tell Common Ground volunteers things they won’t share with loved ones.

She said some patients try to protect their loved ones from fear by minimizing their symptoms and not telling them how they’re really feeling, but they feel comfortable discussing their case with the volunteers.

“That was one of the most important things,” Hardy said. “It was a safe place to talk about your feelings.”

For more information

Contact Patricia Obluck to learn more or get involved at patricia.obluck@commongroundwi.org or call 414-217-6135.

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