Editor’s note: Several area residents have risked their own safety and/or overcome personal obstacles in order to help keep their communities going during the coronavirus pandemic. These profiles provide a glimpse into the lives and work of a few essential workers.

RN Molly Hillukka is 'there for the people'

Molly Hillukka says she’s never seen anything like the COVID-19 crisis.

The Perham woman is a registered nurse at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s in Detroit Lakes. She said some of the differences at the hospital now are obvious and tangible, such as the face masks worn at all times by staff and patients.

Less obvious, but just as real, are the many things happening behind the scenes.

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At the bedside, nurses are holding patients’ hands a little longer, providing extra support in the absence of friends and family who are not allowed to visit during the pandemic.

They’re addressing ample amounts of fear and anxiety these days, too, from patients who have a lot of questions about the virus — such as whether it’s “really as severe” as they’ve heard. (“Yes, yes it is,” is Hillukka’s immediate answer.)

“Social distancing has definitely affected us,” Hillukka said in a recent phone interview. “Patients who normally would have family at the bedside aren’t able to do that right now, so nursing is really playing that reassuring role with both the patient and family members, and making sure there’s communication.”

There’s also “absolutely” a lot of fear in the public about the virus, she added, and she believes one of her roles as a nurse is to educate patients on the facts, to be a source of information and assistance for them.

“The big thing is, I hope people aren’t overcome by fear,” Hillukka said. “I truly hope that people will take this as a learning experience and really support each other. I feel like we, as a health care industry, we’re in a good place; we’re there for the people.”

Kyah, left, and her mother, Molly Hillukka, work on the same floor as nurses at Essentia Health-St. Mary's. Wearing face masks is just one of many changes Molly Hillukka has seen at the hospital due to the coronavirus. (Submitted Photo)
Kyah, left, and her mother, Molly Hillukka, work on the same floor as nurses at Essentia Health-St. Mary's. Wearing face masks is just one of many changes Molly Hillukka has seen at the hospital due to the coronavirus. (Submitted Photo)

Recently, Hillukka has taken on a leadership role, helping to plan and prepare a special COVID-19 unit at the hospital.

“It’s been really remarkable to watch everything coming into place, and the amount of time that is spent planning for what could happen,” she said. “Unfortunately no one knows what that’s going to look like, so we have to prepare for anything … a worst-case scenario.”

Her COVID-19 leadership role has changed Hillukka's perception of her job and abilities as a nurse.

“Before, I was actually just going to work; I would show up for my shift and work on the floor,” she said. “I think it’s kind of changed the whole way I’ve been thinking about everything. It’s more about, what can I do? I’m ready to embrace this situation, and I will do whatever you need me to do to get this floor set up and ready.”

She and her husband, Dale Hillukka, live in Perham with their four children, who are in high school or are recent graduates. Their 21-year-old daughter, Kyah, is a nurse on the same floor at Essentia as her mother.

“That’s pretty cool,” Hillukka said of working alongside her daughter.

-- Reporter Marie Johnson

Robyn Habedank has worked at All in All in Frazee for just over four years. She's known for giving hugs to her customers, and has a "very spunky attitude, very very fun," according to friend and coworker Kari Grewing. (Desiree Bauer / Tribune)
Robyn Habedank has worked at All in All in Frazee for just over four years. She's known for giving hugs to her customers, and has a "very spunky attitude, very very fun," according to friend and coworker Kari Grewing. (Desiree Bauer / Tribune)

'Hugger' Robyn Habedank missing gas station customers

Robyn Habedank used to have customers lined up outside the door of All in All almost every morning at 6 a.m., waiting for the downtown Frazee gas station to open so they could get their coffees and donuts. Business would keep her hopping throughout the day, but she was never too busy to give a friendly hug to a familiar customer.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic. Before stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules.

“Now, sometimes I wait an hour before my first customer comes in,” Habedank said in a recent phone interview. “During the week it’s OK, sometimes you only wait 15 minutes for your first customer … Weekends is when it’s really bad.”

Habedank, a Perham High School graduate who has lived in the lakes area all her life, has had to completely adjust how she interacts with customers.

“I’m a hugger,” she said with a laugh, adding with disappointment that she can’t do that anymore, at least for a while.

Overall, Habedank’s job duties have remained the same, but with more cleaning and fewer customers. Running the cash register, checking the coffee, making pizzas (and now bringing them out to customers in their cars) — all the normal aspects of the gas station are still there.

“We just do a lot more cleaning, more sanitizing ... The door handles on everything, the counters … the coffee handle,” Habedank said. “Everything that someone touches we try to wipe every hour or every two hours.”

Robyn Habedank, right, says she and daughter Alexis have been taking drives to get away during the pandemic. (Submitted photo)
Robyn Habedank, right, says she and daughter Alexis have been taking drives to get away during the pandemic. (Submitted photo)

She admits that the stress of slow business at work, shortened hours, and not being able to interact with customers the way she likes to has taken a mental and emotional toll on her. Talking with friends helps her cope.

But more than anything, what’s affected Habedank most about the pandemic is the separation it’s created between herself and her family. She misses seeing her mom, she said, and her aunts. She does have her daughter, and the two have found comfort in spending more time together. They try to get out of the house in whatever ways they can.

“We’ll go for a drive and we’ll go at night and we’ll count deer,” she said. “I went outside for a week and I cleaned up the yard … Just day by day, we find something different (to do).”

-- Reporter Desiree Bauer

Bartender Matthew Hanson takes on new duties at Spanky's

"Courage is grace under pressure."

This quote from author Ernest Hemingway is Matthew Hanson’s favorite, and since all bars and restaurants in Minnesota closed their dine-in and bar facilities March 17 to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the Spanky’s Stone Hearth bar manager has done his best to live up to it.

“Social distancing and the governor’s stay-at-home order has pretty much eliminated my job, since the bar can’t be open,” Hanson said during an interview in the first few weeks of the shutdown. “I’m grateful I can still come to work and help fulfill the to-go orders and play a role in keeping the restaurant running under these circumstances.”

“I made the decision early on that if I felt healthy, I would want to keep working and help out the business and our community,” he added.

Matthew Hanson is happy to be able to provide Spanky's Stone Hearth customers with to-go orders, though his regular job as bar manager dried up as a result of the governor's decision to shut down the dine-in facilities at all Minnesota bars and restaurants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)
Matthew Hanson is happy to be able to provide Spanky's Stone Hearth customers with to-go orders, though his regular job as bar manager dried up as a result of the governor's decision to shut down the dine-in facilities at all Minnesota bars and restaurants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)

Hanson first started work at Spanky’s “11 summers ago,” with the last six years being full-time and year-round.

“When I was younger, I filled in as a busser and dishwasher,” he said.

In May 2011, when the restaurant reopened after a devastating August 2010 fire that destroyed the kitchen and part of the dining area, Hanson started bartending.

“I had zero experience behind the bar and had to learn on the job and perfect my craft,” he said.

Where once his work days were filled with purchasing wine and liquor to keep the bar stocked, curating menus and serving customers, Hanson’s recent duties have involved “answering phones, making salads and organizing to-go orders, retail purchases and working with vendors.”

Recently, restrictions on bars and restaurants in Minnesota were relaxed, allowing for outdoor seating and service in some cases.

Meanwhile, Hanson stays focused.

“I’m wondering what the ‘new normal’ for bars and restaurants will be, and how we can continue to serve our community,” he said.

-- Reporter Vicki Gerdes