Theresa Sander’s ’16 greatest satisfaction in life has been affording individuals the basic human need to be safe and secure from whatever is troubling them. When all seems lost and people don’t know where to turn, the Muscoda, Wisconsin, native takes great comfort in helping others and watching for a ray of hope to come back into a person’s eyes.
A psychology major, Sander bears a positive outlook on what life throws at her and those she cares for. Needless to say, it comes as no surprise she is among the countless Upper Iowa University alumni who have risen to face the new challenges brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
After earning an associate degree at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, Sander transferred to UIU with the assistance of the University’s Prairie du Chien Center staff and graduated with her bachelor’s degree through UIU’s online programming.
“Deciding to go back to school at the age of 50 was scary, but it was the best decision I ever made,” Sander said. “I wanted to improve my career and volunteer skill set, and UIU gave me all the tools I needed to do that. My education has provided me with the knowledge and tools for increased awareness and observation skills when working with individuals—whether it’s the employees I work with, the patients we are called upon to help or the EMS personnel I volunteer
alongside. I also have a better understanding of mental illness and substance abuse and how individuals may suffer more or experience severe episodes of illness during stressful times such as we are experiencing now.”
Employed as a human resources manager with Biddick Inc., a seed corn, small grains and cattle producer in Livingston, Wisconsin, Sander’s duties include safety training and administration. She is also a volunteer first responder and is EMT-Basic certified for an area that covers approximately 80 square miles. In addition, she serves on a critical-incident stress debriefing team for the Southwest Wisconsin District five-county area.
Sander’s volunteer service and career often cross over when it comes to public safety, but this has been especially true since the onset of the pandemic. Her EMS training and experience helped her work with Biddick’s management team in putting protective practices in place, such as wearing face masks, social distancing, cleaning, sanitizing and taking employee temperatures. She utilized her creativity in finding sources for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and dust masks for employees to carry out their duties.
“Since our suppliers were unable to provide us dust masks, I put my sewing skills to use and made each of our employees a cloth dust mask to wear at work and at home,” Sander explained. “In addition, I came up with my own version of a face shield for several employees who struggled to wear a face mask.”
As part of her debriefing duties, Sander works with public service providers (EMTs, firefighters, law enforcement, etc.) who have been involved in a critical incident, such as a fatal accident, shooting or suicide. She assists the individuals in defusing the incident and working through a process of recovery so they can continue to provide service to others without experiencing post-traumatic stress or other long-term effects.
A group of five firefighters, who had been directly involved in a fatal house fire, provided the first test during the pandemic in ensuring everyone’s safety at an in-person critical incident debriefing.
Sander noted the reasons for the in-person meeting was that not all participants were familiar with Zoom and the team’s need to closely observe the firefighters’ body language to work through the defusing process. By following the guidelines to ascertain that no one was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and with all participants washing their hands and/or using hand sanitizer while maintaining social distancing, the debriefing proved successful and the firefighters quickly returned to their daily lives.
Sander praises state and county EMS administrators for the many new protocols put in place for personnel to follow when called to an emergency. She also noted dispatch centers ask pertinent questions to help determine the specific COVID-19-related procedures to follow during each call.
“Overall, I think I’ve had an easier time than most other employees because of my EMS training and knowing the importance of washing hands and wearing the proper PPE,” Sander said. “I did find that it was important to become more available to the employees to answer questions, provide information and calm their fears, especially those who were experiencing anxiousness or were considered at greater risk due to age or preexisting medical conditions. We continue to do everything we can to keep our employees safe so we can produce quality crops and cattle and provide for our customers.”
“While safety has always been a priority both in my career and volunteer work, the pandemic forced me to become hypervigilant about it,” she added. “I couldn’t afford to take chances if I hoped to remain healthy while working and helping others.”
Sander credits her family for being an inspiration to her during the pandemic. Husband, Rodney, is a patrolman for an area township and serves as the Montfort, Wisconsin, fire chief. The couple have been married for 32 years. Daughter, Nicole, an elementary special education teacher, and her fiance, Brandon Naeger, a county law enforcement deputy, are engaged to be married in September. Meanwhile, son, Luke, a civil and construction project engineer, and his wife, Anna (Moen), a hair and makeup stylist, have a newborn son, Brue, to care for.
“They all inspire me with what they do each and every day,” Sander said. “It was because of them that I decided to sew the face masks and help keep them as safe as possible on the job and in their personal lives. Then it was a natural process to do what I could to keep the employees at work safe, as well as other friends and relatives.”
Sander admits that the most difficult part for her during the pandemic occurred when she was unable to immediately see and hold Brue, her first grandchild, when he was born in April. And when she had the opportunity to do so on Memorial Day, the 55-year-old still had to wear a face mask outside and couldn’t kiss and cuddle the baby like she so desperately wanted to. As the pandemic persists and affects everyone’s daily life, Sander recommends that people continue to educate themselves about COVID-19—research, read, watch documentaries, ask questions and talk to those working on the front line.
“The more you know, the better prepared you will be to ensure your own health and safety,” Sander said. “Don’t get complacent and assume that because the number of cases is falling that you won’t get sick. Someone standing next to you may suddenly sneeze and forget to cover their mouth, and suddenly you’re exposed.”
At the same time, she wishes to convey the following message to other health and safety personnel and all other public servants: “Take care of yourself. Find time to get away and do things that make you happy. Don’t worry about the things that you can’t control. Make time for friends and family. Above all else—just breathe.”