DEL NORTE- The Rio Grande Hospital (RGH) Clinic in Del Norte, along with their other clinics in Monte Vista, South Fork and Creede, want to assure the community they are taking precautions to keep clinic environments as safe as possible. It’s just as important now as before COVID-19 to see your provider for chronic and acute conditions. RGH’s providers and staff are going above and beyond to ensure the safety of all of their patients. After hearing some patients are so concerned about COVID-19 they are not coming for regular visits, RGH wants the community to know the importance of receiving regular care for chronic conditions and annual wellness exams, and the many ways RGH and their skilled providers are taking extra precautions to ensure safety while providing the personalized and comprehensive quality of care patients have come to expect from RGH.

The clinic in Del Norte starts by screening patients when they call to make appointments. If callers are concerned about exposure to someone with COVID-19 or are displaying symptoms, their triage system will connect them to a nurse to provide further screening and recommend testing and quarantine if they deem it necessary. The goal of this system is to get patients help quickly before they become sicker and possibly exposing others. Additionally, every entrance to the clinics and the hospital has staff asking screening questions about potential exposure and symptoms of COVID-19 and checking everyone’s temperature who comes in the door. All patients are expected to wear masks whenever possible during their time in the clinic waiting areas, and when seeing providers and RGH staff has implemented stricter cleaning measures to ensure any solid surfaces utilized by staff or patients are sanitized between each patient.

Heidi Helgeson, M.D., is the Chief Medical Officer of Rio Grande Hospital. She sees patients of all ages for “Everything: chronic illness, acute illness like upset stomach and colds, well-child care, Medicare wellness exams, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and chronic pain” at the RGH clinic in Del Norte adjacent to the hospital. Dr. Helgeson noted she has seen a decrease in patients coming in for treatment of these chronic conditions since the clinics reopened following a brief closure this spring. Dr. Helgeson also reported a slight decrease in the number of people utilizing the telehealth options the clinic offers as well. “The clinic is one of the safest places you can be right now,” Dr. Helgeson said of the cleaning and triage precautions the RGH staff are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She added the clinics have been consistent about these precautions, and patients can feel confident in receiving care that these precautions have been implemented and practiced, unlike other public places with inconsistent adherence to rules from place to place.

“Our goal is to take care of everyone. We’re here for them,” Dr. Helgeson said, expressing concern for those not treating those common chronic conditions she outlined because consistent monitoring and following the recommendations of providers prevent the conditions from becoming immediately life-threatening or worse. She pointed out it doesn’t really help the patient to end up in the hospital with a heart attack or other issues because they don’t want to seek treatment because of COVID. “We’re not just for the acutely ill,” she added.

Dr. Helgeson has been with RGH for 11 years and stated she really enjoys the medical continuity she can establish with patients in this environment. She noted providers have to be resourceful sometimes, as rural areas don’t have as many specialists but overall, this does make the medical relationship with her patients meaningful. Dr. Helgeson grew up in a rural area in Minnesota and always knew she wanted to practice in a rural area. She attended the University of Colorado for Medical School and completed her residency practicing Family Medicine in Fort Collins. When she attended Medical School, she utilized a National Health Service Scholarship, which required her to work in an underserved area, which brought her to the San Luis Valley, where she has stayed for many years following the completion of that program. She currently is pursuing a master’s degree in Public Health (which she will complete in 2022) as she wants to get “a broader perspective on medicine for how to care for the community.” She explained medical school is focused on disease, treatment and patients, and a public health degree will help provide a better understanding of how to approach the issues that are affecting both individual patients and having a negative impact on the community as a whole, like COVID and the opioid crisis. Dr. Helgeson is also an avid gardener during the spring and summer and enjoys cooking and hiking. She is a mother to two little girls who also enjoy science from different perspectives. Her oldest wants to be a scientist, and her youngest wants to be a veterinarian for a zoo.

Amanda Lewis, Physician Assistant (PA-C), also practices in the Del Norte Clinic. She has been a Physician Assistant for 22 years, has been in the SLV for five years, and has been working with RGH for four of those years. She previously worked for 16 years in Phoenix, including at the Mayo Clinic and the Cancer Treatment Center of America, and several private practices. She moved to the SLV to be closer to her family, although her mother had to move to Oregon recently for elevation/medical reasons. She is married, enjoys embroidering, hunting, spending time with her dogs and has a side business making body care products.

“I love primary care because you get to see the impact of health screenings and especially after working with cancer patients for many years, I understand the reward of prevention,” Lewis said, adding she enjoys the longevity of the relationships she forms with patients and seeing them in their roles in the community reminds her how interconnected everyone is.

At RGH, Lewis also treats people of all ages for a variety of conditions. Most commonly, she sees patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, chronic pain, wellness care screenings, and acute illnesses and injuries. She also expressed concerns about those who are not treating chronic conditions due to COVID-19 concerns, pointing out risking not treating those can also be life-threatening in a short time, whereas the RGH staff are taking all steps possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She added, “Being in the best health possible will also help you get the best possible outcome if you do get sick [with COVID or another viral illness]… Not treating chronic conditions is much more dangerous than coming to the clinic.” Lewis also reviewed the extra precautions RGH is taking to prevent the spread of the virus, including only allowing one person per appointment unless the patient is a child with a parent or needs a care provider present. She also pointed out the staff is cleaning lots of surfaces that wouldn’t normally be cleaned between every patient, like the fronts of cabinets and counters, and the staff is spreading out even on breaks.

“Everything we’re doing is to avoid overwhelming the hospital system both here and on the Front Range because if hospitals fill up there, we can’t send anyone there for higher levels of care.” Lewis also noted RGH CEO Arlene Harms has been very forward-thinking through the pandemic, and RGH hasn’t had the shortage of PPE and equipment other systems in the Valley have dealt with. RGH also has a daily briefing on the local COVID statistics from their Director of Nursing, and they work very closely with the Rio Grande County Public Health Department as well as CDPHE.

“What I wish I could impress upon people is if you wear your mask, you can decrease the outbreak, and more businesses can stay open. Nobody wants businesses to close. We really want them to reopen and stay open, and taking extra precautions is how we get there,” Lewis said, “I hope everyone is willing to make that small sacrifice.” She also pointed out she recently saw one positive person expose and infect seven of their family members, and situations like that keep COVID a moving target. “Unfortunately, we’re also seeing that it’s difficult for people to return to their baseline and recover fully [after COVID infection].” For the most part, Lewis has seen the local community and patients are supportive of the precautions “They understand what we’re trying to do.”