Helen Gobeil, Staffing Supervisor, Visiting Angels

This Administrator Provided a Steady Hand in Rough Seas

Helen Gobeil

Helen Gobeil had recently relocated to Western Mass. from the other side of the state, and was looking for work.

She remembers seeing the small, as in small — maybe two lines — ad in the paper for an administrative assistant at Visiting Angels in West Springfield, a home-care provider, and becoming intrigued enough to apply — and prevail in that search.

She would eventually grow into the position and became adept at handling the many responsibilities within the job description, said her boss, Michele Anstett, president and CEO of the company, adding quickly that this was a good thing because all those talents would be needed when COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

Indeed, every aspect of this job, from recruiting caregivers to consulting with new clients; from matching caregivers with these clients to scheduling regular care and coordinating care in emergency situations, would become more difficult. Much more difficult.

And there would be new responsibilities added to that already-long list, including the daunting task of providing PPE for those caregivers and providing a compassionate ear to family members coping with something they would struggle to get both hands around.

Anstett summed up Gobeil’s work during this ultra-challenging time by describing her as a “hidden hero of COVID-19.”

By that, she meant she worked mostly, but not exclusively, behind the scenes and not on the front lines. But her contributions to what is an ongoing fight to carry on business in the middle of a pandemic, while keeping both employees and clients as safe as possible, are worthy of that adjective ‘heroic.’

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience,” Anstett wrote in her nomination, “she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience, she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.”

“COVID-19 has not only presented physical challenges, but also mental ones, including severe anxiety and depression and exacerbating loneliness, isolation, and sleep problems, particularly in the senior population,” she went on. “To this end, Helen has not only served to protect the health of seniors across Western Massachusetts, but she has also given peace of mind to the families, seniors, and caregivers.”

To put these phrases ‘positive force’ and ‘peace of mind’ in their proper perspective, we turn back the clock to last March 23, when Gov. Charlie Baker imposed his lockdown. At Visiting Angels, staff members packed up and prepared to work remotely for what would be three months. But as they did that, Gobeil, in particular, had to develop detailed plans for providing care in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when people, and especially seniors, were wary about letting people into their homes.

For many, though, home care is an essential need, so they had to let people in. But before anyone went in, Gobeil and Anstett would conduct a risk assessment for both clients and caregivers within a given match.

“We would go down the list, and give each client a number — ‘1’ being the least at risk, and ‘3’ the highest,” Anstett noted, adding that there are more than 60 clients on average at any given time. “We would talk about each caregiver and each client and discuss how to keep them safe; if there was a facility that had COVID, we wouldn’t go into that facility.

“Helen stayed on top of all this,” she went on. “She would talk to every single caregiver and find out where they were going, where they had been, whether they had another job … and she would just cut it right down, every day.”

Helen Gobeil with Michele Anstett, president and CEO of Visiting Angels West Springfield.

Meanwhile, there would be new protocols concerning cleaning within those homes and other steps to control the spread of the virus.

“These were things we did all the time,” Gobeil explained. “Caregivers just had to be extra, extra cautious about what they did.”

And she had to be extra cautious and extra diligent about who else was going into these homes. With that, she relayed a story that brings this element of her assignment into perspective.

“The daughter of one of our clients showed up from Florida — and that was an event,” she recalled. “She didn’t tell anyone she was coming, and went into the home to a bedbound client with our caregivers in the house. She didn’t quarantine — she went from the plane to this home.

“This was a 24/7 case, and we pulled out of that house immediately,” Gobeil went on. “I said, ‘it’s her or us; until she’s gone, we’re out!’ She went to a hotel that night and left the next morning. Another daughter went in and cleaned top to bottom.”

Beyond delivering some tough love in situations like that, she has also been providing some compassionate outreach to family members of clients, including one who had to cope with the death of a loved one at a time when the grieving process, like everything else, was made different by COVID-19.

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment,” she explained. “In this woman’s case, her mother was dying, and she was very anxious about the whole thing. I said to Michele one night, ‘I’m going to see the client, and I’m going to take some time with the daughter,’ and I did. And after her mom passed, she came here, stood in the doorway, said said, ‘please tell me I can come in — I just owe you a big hug.’”

There have been myriad other tasks and challenges as well, including the matter of simply securing needed PPE for her caregivers. It was very difficult to procure items such as masks and gowns in the beginning, and it’s still a challenge, she said, adding that Visiting Angels and other providers have certainly been helped by Gowns 4 Good, the national effort to collect graduation gowns.

“As we started to get them in, the stories that accompanied them … they were incredible,” said Gobeil. “Notes from high-school graduates, class of 2020, including some from West Springfield, who couldn’t have their own ceremonies — they were heartwarming. We were crying.”

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment.”

Meanwhile, another stern test, especially after the federal stimulus package was passed, was hiring caregivers. Indeed, many solid candidates for such jobs were in a position where they were making far more in employment than they could as a caregiver — so they stayed unemployed.

“In the beginning, we couldn’t get anyone to answer our ads,” she recalled. “But we made it through that rough patch, and now, a lot of people are eager to get back to work.”

One of her priorities now is to keep both her caregivers and their clients diligent as the pandemic enters its eighth month of impacting virtually all aspects of life as we know it.

Summing up what it was like — and is still like — she said, “it just multiplied the concern and the vigilance, and the stress was unbelievable, every day. And it is still like that. Every day.”

Coping with all this was certainly not in whatever job description was part of that tiny ad she saw more than a dozen years ago now. And it is certainly not what she signed up for.

But as this job changed with COVID, Gobeil rose to the occasion, accepting each new challenge with diligence and ample respect for her ultimate responsibility — the health and well-being of both her caregivers and clients.

Call her a ‘hidden’ hero if you like, but her hard work and dedication are certainly not lost on anyone she has been involved with during this pandemic.