The heroes who come to mind in the COVID-19 pandemic are those we’ve heard much about.

Nurses. Doctors. Grocery store employees. First responders.

While they all perform critical roles, there is yet another group on the front lines, helping hospital staff and patients stay safe.

“We’re the secret heroes,” said Marquis Martinez, an environmental services specialist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “Nobody really knows about us, but we’re essential.”

‘Safer for everyone’

The Spectrum Health environmental services team works around the clock to keep hospitals clean and help people stay safe.

Martinez is the newest team member.

For the past three months, he has helped clean waiting rooms, playrooms and common areas. His manager describes him as hardworking, always smiling and willing to help anyone.

For his part, Martinez recognizes his critical role in this pandemic. If there’s a tough job, he tackles it.

“Now I sanitize more, clean more things, make sure things are safer for everyone,” he said.

He spends about half his shift on waiting rooms, meticulously cleaning every nook and cranny. He carefully wipes down chair arms and other high-touch amenities.

The hardest part of the job is the isolation. When Martinez finishes his shift and returns home, he has to distance himself from his best friend and baby, who he lives with, to ensure he’s not spreading germs.

He spends his free time studying to become a firefighter, recognizing the tough road to get there.

It takes commitment and a keen appreciation for detail, but he’s got those in abundance.

‘Stick together’

Diane Smith has seen her share of challenges and triumphs in 44 years as an environmental services team member at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.

But she’s never seen anything quite like COVID-19.

With more than four decades under her belt, Smith knows a thing or two about keeping an emergency department clean for staff and patients.

Her mantra: “We’ve got to work together, stick together and focus.”

She treats each room according to a strict ritual: Before entering, she dons a gown, mask, gloves and face shield. She then disinfects the room top to bottom, a process that takes about 20 minutes.

Upon leaving the room she discards her protective equipment, replacing it with a fresh batch before entering the next room.

She repeats this process all throughout her shift.

As it has with many, COVID-19 has changed how Smith performs her job. She has to clean faster but also more efficiently, thoroughly disinfecting each room for the next patient.

After years of hard work, she recently retired to spend more time with her retired husband and her dog. They’re planning a well-deserved trip to Hawaii next year.

Appreciated

Amber Harper works in a cardiac ICU unit that has been converted to treat patients battling COVID-19.

She cleans nurses’ stations, staff lounges, bathrooms and staff alcoves.

Depending on the size and use, a single room can take Harper up to an hour to clean. That’s about double what it used to take.

There’s no question she’s become an expert in her field.

She offers advice on how to adapt her rigid protocols: Clean like you were spring cleaning. Wipe down everything—cabinets, remotes, laptops, knobs, high-touch surfaces.

Every spot must be cleaned.

And it isn’t just about cleaning. Harper takes time to comfort patients when she crosses their path.

With some, she’ll get them to crack a smile by asking, “Are you going to help me clean your room?”

Others she’ll reassure.

“I know you don’t want to be here,” she’ll tell them, “but you’re here so you can get better so you can go home.”

Family members are always grateful for Harper’s work and how she treats their loved ones. They express gratitude in person when they can, but more often—because of visitor restrictions—their words come virtually.

“They appreciate everything that I do,” she said. “And it makes me feel appreciated.”

‘Doing our part’

Wanda Bellingar leads her team with 12 years of experience on an ICU floor.

She lives with her mother who has multiple risk factors for COVID-19.

“We don’t hug anymore,” Bellingar said. “That’s hard. Our chairs are spaced 6 to 8 feet apart now.”

As nerve-wracking as it is, she also knows the importance of her job. She and her teammates do everything they can to help people stay safe.

“We wipe down every last inch,” she said.

And while she takes steps to help the community stay safe, she hopes community members respond in kind.

“We are doing our part,” Bellingar said. “The community has to do theirs in order to get life back to normal. Keep up what you’re doing and we’ll keep up what we are doing.”

She smiled thoughtfully.

“Someday, we’ll have a party together,” she said.

‘Stay safe’

Ann Zukowski can’t help but enjoy the fast pace of the job at the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency department.

She loves meeting people and she’s not one to fear the occasional excitement that comes with a challenging second shift. She takes pride in her work.

Most importantly, she cares deeply for people.

It shines through in her work. Her process involves cleaning in an L shape—starting in one area, then working her way around the room. She pays close attention to hot spots.

“Hot spots are anything that I think a doctor or person would touch,” Zukowski said. “Those could be light switches, cabinets, drawer handles, soap handles, hand sanitizer pump.”

The pandemic has added challenges to the job, but nothing she can’t handle.

“I like what I do, I like to help,” she said.

Her work ethic is noticed. She receives plenty of compliments from fellow team members who appreciate her eye for detail.

And when she’s not on the front line, Zukowski remains committed to good hygiene.

She’s attentive to social distancing. She walks her dogs, Gracie and Sam, early in the morning to avoid interactions with crowds.

She remains hopeful everyone will do their part—wearing masks, socially distancing.

“It’s not a joke,” Zukowski said. “We’re going to get through this. It’s just going to take some time. Just be smart and have some common sense. Do the best you can to stay safe, so you can keep others safe.”

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