Professional reflections: Team members look back at past year and lessons learned from COVID-19

March 16, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees, ,
Photo by Steve Upton

A little more than a year ago, Michigan Medicine began treating its first COVID-19 patient. Since then, thousands of patients have received care from faculty and staff, a large chunk of the workforce shifted to working from home in order to keep the community safe, and others made their top priority COVID-19 testing or COVID-19 vaccinations.  

In short, just about everything changed.

So what has the last 12 months been like for team members? Headlines recently caught up with a few from across the organization to find out. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: How has your daily work changed since Michigan Medicine began treating COVID-19 patients?

Rebekah Ashley, senior administrative director, U-M Medical School

When COVID-19 hit, I had only been in my position for about six months. I was settling in and getting to know my colleagues and really just starting to get my “sea legs.” All of a sudden, we were thrown into a storm and instead of worrying about sea legs it became ‘how do I keep my crew from going overboard?’

We’ve spent a lot of time listening, learning and adapting to the remote work environment. We’ve had to embrace the transition of meetings and events to an online platform while still trying to stay connected to each other and foster that sense of team. While a lot of the work that my colleagues and I do has not changed, the way that we do that work has shifted. We have had to think about how to make processes that had once been hard copy/paper into electronic or virtual. We’ve had to test out tools and resources that we had not previously used to share information or connect quickly when stopping by someone’s desk wasn’t an option. The silver lining is that many of these processes should have changed a long time ago and this environmental shift forced us to put in the work to get it done.

Jessica Powers, R.D.N., food service manager, Patient Food & Nutrition Services

Think of the challenges and struggles that you personally have faced in a grocery store over the past year. Perhaps you were among the many who struggled to purchase flour, meat, toilet paper, basic necessities etc. We faced those same challenges within PFANS. Our food supply chain was not equipped to handle the sudden increased demand and resulted in shortages that we are still fighting through today. This means my work may involve finding an alternate juice box to store in a nourishment room, identifying a replacement for a suddenly discontinued dressing packet or planning ahead for an extended delivery time of chickpea protein powder. All the while, I must ensure we adhere to our dietary guidelines and allergen requirements for replacement products and ingredients, and do everything within my ability to prevent an outage that could impact patient care. 

Paul Lephart, Ph.D., associate director, clinical microbiology laboratory

Nearly all of our focus throughout the pandemic has been related to expanding our COVID-19 testing capacity and flexibility to meet the needs of the patient populations at Michigan Medicine. Testing for COVID-19 has overshadowed all other test volumes in the clinical microbiology lab, to the tune of more than 330,000 COVID-19 tests run in the past year, requiring the validation of nine unique SARS-CoV-2 assays. Our annual test volume pre-COVID-19 in the molecular lab was about 100,000 tests.

Jennifer Bergendahl, molecular diagnostics laboratory manager

Our daily work changed greatly. We are primarily a molecular lab performing hematology-oncology testing, but we brought on a COVID-19 assay to assist the clinical laboratory and overall organization. This was new testing and a new workflow for us to learn, because we do not normally perform infectious disease testing. But our staff was eager to learn and assist in any way they could!

What have you learned about the way you and your team carries out its work? Have there been any highlights that stand out to you?

Elizabeth Roach, R.D.N., adult hospitals

At the onset of the pandemic, registered dietitian nutritionists began rotating between working in the hospital and working remotely to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. As a result of these changes, working as a team has become especially important. Everyone has been generous with their time while working on-site, often delivering physical materials to patient rooms for RDNs who are scheduled to work remotely. The ability to problem solve and think critically about how to make sure our patients’ needs are met has really stood out over the past year, especially when navigating this new disease and understanding the role of nutrition in its treatment and outcomes. I am appreciative of all of those who have dedicated their time, efforts, and both mental and physical health to fighting COVID-19.

Chris Rigney, anatomic pathology operations director

Our team is incredibly resilient and generous. I have always realized both of these things, but to see it in action throughout the year of a pandemic (complicated with issues of hate, intolerance, shutdowns and all that 2020 seemed to endlessly serve up) has left me humbled. Their endless efforts coupled with the commitment to our patients and decedents have filled my heart in a way that has changed me forever. I am more inspired than ever as a leader to support our faculty, staff, trainees and community. They deserve the best I can deliver. 

Penny Kunkle, research coordinator

I have been incredibly impressed with how quickly Michigan Medicine was able to get telework laptops and other equipment to personnel. The organization has been flexible with work schedules due to all the changes and inconveniences in everyone’s lives, which is allowing us to perform our jobs to the best of our abilities.

Carmen Gherasim, Ph.D., clinical core laboratory-chemistry

Clinical laboratories operate similar to a symphony orchestra. Every team member carries out an important role, and an incomplete team can greatly affect the overall performance. When COVID-19 pandemic started to affect our teams, many staff members step up beyond expectations. Despite the physical distance of our department (ranging from UH to Brighton, Northville and beyond), we have maintained a highly-collaborative environment and inclusive working relationships for both staff and faculty. It has been a life-changing experience for all of us and very quickly everyone realized that we were all in this together, responding to society’s needs. 

This is part of a series of stories reflecting on the past year at Michigan Medicine.