In the months before anyone had heard of the novel coronavirus, the neurodiagnostic department at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, expanded its epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU), hiring 11 new people.

With a lot more people to manage and onboard, COVID-19 couldn’t have hit at a crazier time, according to Tabitha Althoff, the neurodiagnostics manager in the unit. But they were up for the challenge.

“The team did a great job pulling together and then driving each other to stay pumped, to come back to work every day,” Althoff said.

The younger, less at-risk techs seamlessly took over the bulk of patient care and senior techs took on more leadership. Althoff described the sacrifices of her staff as inspirational.

Althoff manages a team of 27, covering four hospitals and two clinics serving in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Her staff assists with routine EEGs, transcranial dopplers, evoked potentials, long-term monitoring, and epilepsy monitoring.

As one of the hubs for Milwaukee, the system cared for a lot of COVID-19 patients, Althoff said. At first, people were scared and no one knew exactly what to do. One by one, the techs stepped up, she said.

As an example, a tech named Romell relied on her years of experience to take the “bull by the horns” and show her colleagues how to handle work safely when patients need to be in isolation, Althoff said.

Another tech, Kerry, helped with infection control, “making sure that we were staying sterile and not cross-contaminating,” Althoff said. A senior tech, Angie, took on responsibility for PPE.

“She went to the floors and spoke with the nurses, making sure that the techs walked out with exactly what they needed,” Althoff added.

Other senior techs helped train new employees hired right before the pandemic hit. Althoff credits a senior tech named Alyssa with helping her new hires get trained and acclimated to the unit.

As with most hospitals, elective surgeries were canceled and outpatient volume decreased. More patients came into the hospital on the acute side, however, so volume there didn’t decrease. Althoff’s team also had its hands full with a fluctuating staff as technologists became sick with the coronavirus or other respiratory illnesses that kept them off campus.

“People pulled doubles to make sure not only was their team member taken care of, but the patients were still taken care of. They were doing 12 or 14 hour days,” she said. “I can count seven or eight shifts where I worked a full 26 hours straight.”

Today, the neurodiagnostic department is running much more smoothly and its outpatient service has returned to near-full capacity. Many of the changes forced by the pandemic will stay in place.

This includes cross-training, using single-use medical devices to protect against cross-contamination, and limited staff in patient rooms, Althoff said.

Special thanks to Tabitha Althoff MBA, BS-NDSS, R. EEG T, R. PSG T, RST,  Manager of Neurodiagnostics at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for sharing the outstanding work done by her team in 2020.