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PROGRESS 2020: Home health care worker in-demand in rural Northeast Michigan

News Photo by Julie Riddle Patient Chester Szymanski asks questions as home health care worker Billie Jo Karsten checks a wound on his foot.

ALPENA — In a region where a sizable portion of the population is older than 65 and a doctor’s office can be an hour’s drive from home, in-home health care workers are a vital piece of the safety and vitality of the community.

Providing at-home health services to Northeast Michiganders is a rewarding — if hardworking — career, said Billie Jo Karsten, a registered nurse who provides personalized care through MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena.

Traveling the length of the Alpena region, from Millersburg to Harrisville, Karsten brings her medical kit and a caring demeanor to residents who are at risk of falls, have compromised immune systems, or for other reasons can’t leave their homes to seek basic medical treatment.

In any given visit, she may dress a wound, check an intravenous line, collect lab specimens, or change a catheter.

She teaches, too, during her visits, instructing patients and their families how to manage their symptoms and administer medications, reminding them when to call for help, and making sure they are connecting with their doctors.

News Photo by Julie Riddle As trainee Karen Friend takes notes, home health care worker Billie Jo Karsten checks on patient Chester Szymanski in his Alpena home.

“With this job, we see it all,” said Karsten.

The Alpena-area native has never wanted to work anywhere other than Northeast Michigan.

The remoteness of the area can prove a challenge — especially in winter, or when trying to find a rural home where cell reception isn’t available to guide GPS — but it’s also the reason she feels so needed, Karsten said.

When a patient lives an hour from the hospital, or even from their nearest clinic, getting to a doctor for a post-surgical checkup isn’t always an option, she said.

“We get there,” Karsten said. “They’re just thankful that we do get to them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t get any care.”

News Photo by Julie Riddle Home health care worker Billie Jo Karsten checks on patient Chester Szymanski in his Alpena home.

Despite the challenges, Karsten said Up North home health care has its advantages, for the patient as well as for the provider.

Going into homes lets her see the people for whom she’s caring in their own environment — where, she feels, patients can heal better than in a hospital. Allowed into their living rooms and bedrooms, she can spot clues that may help her provide more personalized treatment.

Patients in the remote areas where she travels get to see the same person with each visit, developing a relationship with their care provider that might be harder to establish in a larger, busier health care community.

“These people are never in a hurry,” said Chester Szymanski, 97, during a recent professional visit from Karsten in his Alpena home.

He likened home health care workers to doctors who made house calls in the 1930s, although, he said, those care providers were always in a rush to be gone.

Keeping up cheerful conversation with Szymanski as she worked, Karsten checked his oxygen level and blood pressure and changed the dressing on a wound on his foot, checking on its progress.

“You like when we come over, don’t you?” Karsten said, gaining her patient’s ready agreement. “Well, here we are.”

While still at the house, Karsten rescheduled a doctor’s visit and confirmed Szymanski’s medication instructions. He thanked Karsten and another nurse for their help and sang them a song before waving them out the front door.

Sometimes, home health care workers are the only outsiders patients see for a long time, Karsten said. The nurses are on-call 24 hours a day, always ready to head out on a long drive to bring help to a Northeast Michigander who needs it.

The job is demanding, but she has no intention of leaving it — or the Alpena area — Karsten said.

“It’s a neat job,” Karsten said. “It’s not for everybody. But it’s for me.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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