Rural health CEOs take to hardware stores and delivery trucks in the coronavirus pandemic

Adam Willmann, president and CEO of Goodall-Witcher Healthcare, delivers pizza to employees. By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) -- In a small town, everyone pitches in, said one rural hospital CEO Tim Putnam.

So even as the coronavirus pandemic puts added strain on many rural hospitals' finances and resources, they are buoyed by the support and sacrifice of their communities and individuals. Neighbors leave encouraging messages, businesses make donations and medical professionals work around the clock in compromising environments.

Even those at the top of rural hospital administration are getting in the thick of the coronavirus fight. For three CEOs, it meant hitting the road to ensure their staff had the supplies they need to continue serving the communities that need them.

'Everyone's job has changed'

Putnam, CEO and president of Margaret Mary Health in Batesville, Indiana, had to increase capacity and stock up on protective equipment as a coronavirus surge hit the 25-bed hospital in a town of 7,000 people.

They were running short as suppliers became less dependable. That's when a local hardware store called about a supply of N95 masks.

"We just got a shipment in. Do you guys want them?" Putnam recalled the store saying.

That's when Putnam went down to the store himself to pick up the masks.

"Everyone's job has changed," he said. "It's even tough to measure how a small community comes together when it faces a threat like this."

CEO Alan Morgan, of the National Rural Health Association, said involvement like Putnam's makes rural health care unique.

"You're not going to have the CEO of a New York City hospital driving down to the hardware store to address their supply issue," said Morgan. "That's fairly widespread of these small town CEOs to be able to in the short-term, address these needs."

But Putnam emphasized that he is not the only one stepping outside his typical role to make sure the hospital can continue to provide care.

Restaurants are donating food, seamstresses are making cloth masks and nurses are becoming fill-in family for patients whose loved ones cannot visit, Putnam said.

"I've seen the community and our team come together like no time in the past. It's really awe-inspiring to see what goes on," he said.

'We went to literally every corner of Texas'

For John Henderson, CEO of Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, the coronavirus pandemic posed a 10,000-mile-long problem.

Henderson is usually focused on advocacy and education for the organization that works to address the challenges specific to rural hospitals in the state. Getting supplies to these rural hospitals was a specific challenge in the pandemic.

An article in a local paper alerted the organization to a supply of masks, and Henderson was soon out of his office and part of a "daisy chain" transporting a supply of 70,000 surgical masks to 40 or 50 rural Texas hospital sites, he said.

"We'd make a delivery and hand off to a hospital site, and they would arrange to hand off to the next," he said. "It was probably 10,000 miles and went to literally every corner of Texas."

It's not his usual job, Henderson said, but it is becoming a habit for the organization.

The ad hoc delivery system is assembling once again for another 50,000 masks, 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and 2,000 face shields, he said.

"I hope we don't have to do it forever, but we are going to keep doing it until our member hospitals say they have enough," Henderson said. "It frustrates me that they put themselves at risk and we can't even protect them when they carry the responsibility of keeping all the rest of us safe."

'I take this a lot more personally'

Goodall-Witcher Healthcare in Clifton, Texas has been in a holding pattern waiting for the pandemic to strike. While they waited, President and CEO Adam Willmann noticed the rural hospital was being put on waiting lists for necessary supplies like masks.

And when they would get their supply kept getting pushed back.

"We're going to get some next week, no next or they are going on a plane tomorrow," Willmann said the suppliers would tell him. "But tomorrow never comes."

The community is familiar with N95 masks for agriculture, so he began frequenting local hardware stores, lumber yards and feed stores to stock up, he said.

It wasn't a deal with the business; he walked in like anyone else and bought whatever they had available. Stepping outside his normal job duties was important to him professionally and personally.

Willmann was born at Goodall-Witcher hospital. The doctor who delivered him is now the town's mayor. His grandmother lives in the nursing home.

"I take this a lot more personally than maybe others do at a normal job because it's not a normal job to me," he said.

Willmann is not just delivering supplies. The hospital café had to shut down to limit the number of employees coming in, so the CEO delivered pizza to the staff. The laughs, as well as the protective gear, are important as fear and anticipation increase in the facility.

It's the staff on the frontlines caring for patients that are the heroes, he said.

"They don't have the luxury of checking out, so I have to find a solution I have to get them the tools they need," Willmann said. "We have to come up with solutions because there's no other alternatives."

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