Hospital Security Guard in COVID-19 Hot Spot Calms Anxious Families

Elizabeth Gardner

Hospital security guard Jeff Orsborn's own bout with COVID-19 has given him special empathy for COVID patients and their families at Banner-University Medical Center in Phoenix -- a city in the throes of one the worst viral outbreaks in the country.

"I use what happened to me constantly, on a daily basis," says Orsborn, 35, who was hospitalized for a week in January -- when COVID had barely arrived in the U.S., officially anyway -- and spent the next two months recovering.

"I can absolutely understand what they're going through. I didn't know when I would be able to see my kids. I thought, 'I have to go home and feed the dogs. What if I can't?' My chest was super weak, and I could barely breathe on my own."

When Orsborn was hospitalized there were not yet restrictions on visitors, and his girlfriend, an emergency room nurse at another Banner hospital, was allowed to feed him and sit with him.

He can well imagine the extra stress of the current no-visitor policy, and in his role as hospital gatekeeper, he can calm irate and frustrated family members even though he can't let them in to see their sick loved ones.

A mask is part of his uniform now, with Phoenix a major hot spot for the virus, and he'd no more forget it than he'd forget his badge -- or his pants. "It's inconveniently appropriate -- hard to breathe in, but needed."

Orsborn grew up in a military family and spent eight years on active duty stateside as a Marine. Returning to civilian life in the recession of 2009, he found employment for his skills in the security arena, and has been with Banner for about seven years.

Orsborn has three functions at Banner. (Harkening back to his military days, he calls them "billets.") He's a security lead, heading a team of officers during a given shift and serving as the officer in charge. If a patient or visitor becomes combative, he takes whatever action is needed to defuse the situation and calm things down. He trains new members of the security force. And he's a crisis intervention officer -- part of a team that's been in place for a couple of years.

The frequency of crises is way up due to the pandemic: At least once a shift, he finds himself helping someone who's going through something, whether it's anxiety over a family member, suicidal thoughts or just intense loneliness. He helps patients, visitors and sometimes even fellow employees.

"We let them freak out," Orsborn says. "It's a human reaction." Often his first response is to offer a drink of water or a snack -- and a smile. "I'm kind of a clown and I try to make people laugh when I can."

Not long ago he sat with an angry patient for an hour, listening to him vent about life in general, and eventually persuaded him to take his medications and have some food. "I visited him every hour after that, just to make sure he was good, and when he was discharged he requested to see me before he left and he cried and thanked me," Orsborn says. "I gave him some quotes I live by day to day and some resources to follow up on. Just recently I found he has his own place and a job."

Orsborn's de-escalation skills get a regular workout, both in the hospital and sometimes even when he's off duty in these stressful times. They're second nature now, and he's even shared them with his daughters, 12 and 11. "I teach them to respect everybody even if they're being mean to you, and eventually they'll come around," he says. "They'll go out of their way to talk to someone who looks like they've been crying."

[Read: ICU Nurse 'Prescribes' Mindfulness to Help COVID-19 Survivors Cope.]

It was in mid-January that Orsborn developed the now all-too-familiar dry cough. After six days, he suddenly felt himself going mysteriously downhill, and he uncharacteristically called in sick. "I have good intuition when there is something really wrong," he says. His girlfriend took him first to an urgent care center and then to the nearest emergency room when he started struggling to breathe. Though a chest X-ray was completely clear, the pulmonologist diagnosed bilateral pneumonia (that is, in both lungs) -- the same diagnosis that was ravaging the hospitals of northern Italy at the time.

High-flow oxygen and a BiPAP machine to force air into his lungs got Orsborn through a week in the hospital without having to be put on a ventilator. He stayed home healing for a month, and then spent another month on light duty. "All the time I felt like my chest had someone wailing on it with their fists."

He's a perfect example of the imperfections of COVID testing: He repeatedly tested negative for both COVID-19 infection and antibodies, until the third antibody test came back positive.

Unlike many, Orsborn seems to be suffering no long-term aftereffects: "Chest and lung-wise, I feel great." And so far no one else in the family is infected, though his girlfriend is tested frequently. The couple goes through an elaborate decontamination ritual when they come home from work, removing their outer clothes in the garage and putting them directly into the washer before they head for the shower, disinfecting their shoes, and putting their ID badges, wallets, keys and phones in a special box that bathes them in ultraviolet light to kill any virus on their surfaces.

[Read: Meet a Fearless Arkansas Housekeeper Volunteering on the COVID-19 Unit.]

Orsborn used to unwind with vigorous outdoor activities like hiking and paddle boarding, but these days, he's sticking close to home in his free hours. He's fixing up the house in North Phoenix and has gotten into woodworking and smoking meats. The family plays board games, watches movies together and experiments with making their own pizza. Three enormous dogs -- two pit bulls and a German Shepherd -- round out the household.

Orsborn recognizes that COVID is going to be part of life for the foreseeable future. "This is it now," he says. In addition to wearing a mask, he counsels patience for everyone.

"Some of our staff have broken down and had to leave," he says. "People don't seem to get that this crisis is also very taxing for them. They are thinking, 'What if I get it? Am I going to live?' The staff is going through as much stress as the patient."



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