When Courtney Callahan, a medical assistant at Brigham and Women’s Harbor Medical Associates in Scituate, learned that a new COVID-19 testing site at Brigham and Women’s Health Care Center in Pembroke needed staff support, she didn’t hesitate to volunteer.
“I wanted to do something — I wanted to help,” said Callahan, who was among the thousands of staff members who accepted temporary reassignments during the pandemic.
As hospital operations shifted to address the rapidly evolving demands of COVID-19, entirely new categories of staffing needs emerged. In response, the Brigham community heeded the call to serve wherever help was needed. At the same time, maintaining a flexible workforce enabled staff whose normal duties were temporarily suspended to remain employed during the pandemic.
After valet service was halted in March, valets helped distribute face masks to employees, patients and visitors at hospital entrances. Nurses from clinical areas whose services were scaled back, such as procedural and perioperative areas, went to inpatient floors to care for COVID-19 patients in specialized units. Administrators, physical therapists, practice assistants and others helped run attestation sites at employee entrances, where staff were required to report their wellness upon entering the building.
A Rewarding Experience
For Callahan, supporting the team in Pembroke, where she helped prepare and swab patients for COVID-19 testing, was more rewarding than she ever anticipated.
“I remember my first day. I was very nervous, but the nurses there were so helpful and supportive, and they always made sure we were safe,” she said. “I’m going to attend nursing school in the fall, and I’m so glad I experienced this because it has shown me I’m on the right path.”
Robb Ponder, RMA, practice operations lead for Neurosurgery in South Weymouth, learned that the attestation team needed supervisor coverage for overnight shifts. Despite the personal sacrifices it entailed, he eagerly offered to help.
“I had just returned in February from parental leave, so I hadn’t even been back in the swing of things for long before the pandemic hit. I also hadn’t worked an overnight shift in 20 years, and personally it was challenging to adjust to that schedule and sacrifice the time with my daughter during the first months of her life,” he said. “That said, it was very inspiring to see so many people from across the organization come together for this important job. We all understood the value of what we were doing and did it with purpose.”
The experience also gave Ponder a new appreciation for the many, and sometimes unseen, contributions of departments across the Brigham.
“You can work your whole career in a place and not know half of what goes on in areas you aren’t directly working with,” he said. “Through this role, I got to know many new colleagues from other areas of the organization, and it gave me an appreciation for their work and all the elements that make a hospital function.”
Supporting At-Risk Patients
Other members of the Brigham community shifted the focus of their work to support the unprecedented needs around caring for COVID-19 patients.
Prior to the pandemic, Lynne O’Mara, PA-C, a physician assistant in the Center for Geriatric Surgery, spent much of her time providing consults for geriatric surgical patients. But that work paused in March when the hospital canceled all elective surgeries in preparation for a surge of COVID-19 patients.
O’Mara began working from home full-time — often balancing a toddler in her lap — and collaborating with on-site colleagues Rachelle Bernacki, MD, a palliative care specialist and geriatrician, and Shoshana Streiter, MD, a geriatrician, to establish a program for identifying older, at-risk patients with COVID-19 in the Emergency Department (ED).
Because older adults are at higher risk for the most severe symptoms of COVID-19, and the disease often progresses rapidly, there was an urgent need to establish a proactive model and remove the burden of arranging consults from their ED colleagues, the team said.
Each day, O’Mara would pore over the ED track board — a digital database of patients in Epic — and search for patients age 70 and up who had signs of frailty, a complex syndrome characterized by physical decline and increased vulnerability to stressors.
“Once Lynne identified a patient, she would call me, and I’d run down to the ED quickly to see them,” Bernacki said. “Because of this, we were able to have important conversations with patients and their families early in their care. Intubating a 90-year-old patient or sending a really frail patient to the ICU is different from a younger, healthy patient, and it’s vital that everyone understands what it means.”
Although the work in some ways familiar, O’Mara said much of it was new territory for her. Even so, it was immensely gratifying.
“I’m used to seeing patients in person, so I was adjusting to a new virtual world, and the number of patients was overwhelming at times,” she said. “But I always had Shoshana and Rachelle as backup, and I never met a patient or family member who wasn’t deeply thankful for every single person caring for them. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how many times people said thank you.”