UF Health workers reflect on a year like no other, when a pandemic arrived
The following UF Health communicators contributed to this report: Michelle Jaffee, Bill Levesque, Lauren Baker, Jessica Slater, Jamie Rapp, Doug Bennett, Michelle Moore, Frank Faust and Allison Wedekind.
When reports of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, researchers, clinicians and health system executives around the U.S. began to prepare for the unexpected. The resulting pandemic that continues to ravage the world has led to more than 500,000 deaths in the United States alone, with untold millions of lives forever impacted.
This has been a year no one at UF Health will ever forget. The pandemic has led to extraordinary efforts to find ways to fight an invisible enemy while providing care and hope to patients and co-workers. We all discovered the indisputable truth in the expression: We’re all in this together.
As the lifesaving vaccines continue to work their way through the world’s population and the tide appears to be turning on the deadly disease, we can spare a moment to reflect on a year unlike any other.
We asked a number of people throughout UF Health for their thoughts about this shared experience. Here are some of their responses.
Lisa Merck, M.D., M.P.H., vice chair of research in UF’s department of emergency medicine
Lisa H. Merck, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine, normally focuses her research on clinical trials for acute brain injury. But once the pandemic hit, Merck also took on leadership roles as site principal investigator for multiple national clinical trials to study COVID-19. One trial is aimed at determining COVID-19’s impact on health care workers; another is examining whether transfusion of convalescent blood plasma can stop the progression from a mild to a severe form of the disease; and several other studies are evaluating new pharmaceutical interventions for COVID-19 patients in the emergency room and intensive care unit. All the while, Merck has continued to treat acute brain injury patients and COVID-19 patients in the emergency department.
“Since COVID, there are many times that a patient’s family is unable to see them in the ICU until the results of COVID testing are back. Like most units nationally, visitors are then limited. There is an extra layer of vigilance to communicate with the family, to keep them informed while they wait outside of the walls of the hospital. This winter, after responding to a page regarding a patient with a critical brain injury, our team sat outside of the hospital for an hour with the patient’s extended family. We sat around a picnic table, in the sunshine, until everyone’s questions were satisfied, at least for that moment. Then, we went back to the patient’s bedside. COVID has changed the way we navigate illness, but the patients and their families remain our central focus.”
Zoe Sherman, UF College of Nursing student
As a senior amid a global pandemic, Zoe Sherman, has had to adjust how she connects with patients during her clinical experiences. Building relationships is one of her favorite aspects of nursing, and Sherman used to rely on facial expressions and close contact to form trust and promote a comfortable environment. However, UF’s comprehensive COVID-19 protocols — which require masks, other personal protective equipment and social distancing — have made her more creative when interacting with patients, especially when administering vaccinations.
“I started giving vaccinations the first week of January and have not stopped since. It has been an incredible experience; it has provided me with the opportunity to connect with members of the Gainesville community. I feel honored to be involved in such a historic movement. I cannot even begin to thank the College of Nursing enough for reaching out and asking if we wanted to help.”
Rebecca J. Bartell, R.R.T., respiratory therapist, UF Health Shands Hospital
Rebecca J. Bartell, R.R.T., has worked at UF Health Shands Hospital for more than two years. Most of her time during the last year has been spent treating COVID-19 patients, who have compromised lungs and other breathing problems. She and other respiratory therapists are essential members of the UF Health team, operating ventilators and other equipment to help save the lives of the sickest COVID-19 patients.
“One thing really stuck with me over the last year, it’s something that will haunt all of us forever. There were just so many people who died alone. They didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to their families, their friends. We watched people who knew they weren’t going to make it ask to make phone calls to loved ones before being put on a ventilator. And it worked both ways. It affected family members who didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye. That’s just one thing that I feel that will always stick with me — just people being alone.”
Amanda Goglia, M.L.S., microbiology supervisor, UF Health Jacksonville
Amanda Goglia’s role shifted and expanded during the pandemic. She led the effort to bring multiple laboratory tests for COVID-19 to the hospital, strategized with Supply Chain and outside vendors to procure the supplies needed for COVID-19 testing, and created COVID-19 collection device kits to enable UF Health to perform in-house testing for patients and employees. She also served as a media spokesperson, providing her expert perspective to local news outlets.
“The pandemic gave the laboratory the opportunity to branch out and collaborate with other departments across the UF Health enterprise. It highlighted the value of the clinical laboratory in patient care and the benefit of collaborating with colleagues to support our collective mission. I’m honored to be part of a team that continues to work tirelessly to provide excellent care to our community during this extraordinary time.”
Alyssa Morris, UF College of Dentistry student
Learning to navigate the information surrounding COVID-19 is a new essential part of education for first-year dental student Alyssa Morris. This year has equipped her with critical research skills to differentiate credible science from misinformation, helping her to educate family and friends on what they can do to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. The campus limits on in-person learning made her classes more challenging, but she said that just added to her resilience. Morris said the global health crisis has made her more determined than ever to tear down barriers to better oral health care.
“This pandemic has brought to light how important disease prevention is to the general population, and I am excited to enter the dental field when preventive care is in high demand. The impacts of this pandemic on oral health will be lasting into the time I can provide patient care, and I am grateful that I will be able to alleviate some of these effects.”
Chirag Patel, D.O., assistant professor of medicine UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville
As a hospitalist and member of the internal medicine faculty, caring for patients infected with COVID-19 presented new challenges for Chirag Patel, D.O., in terms of ever-changing, and sometimes nonexistent, evidenced-based clinical guidelines. It has also been difficult to practice patient- and family-centered care the way Patel is accustomed to due to the necessary visitation restrictions. Family and caregiver support has always been key to a patient’s successful transition from the hospital to their home setting. The pandemic forced everyone to be nimble and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
“This past year has been full of emotional extremes for me personally, as I’m sure it has for everyone. What stands out to me the most about health care – specifically, the entire health care team including all of those folks who work behind the scenes — is that everyone shows up and does what it takes to provide excellent, high-quality care. This is despite the inherent risks that come with showing up in the face of a highly contagious and extremely deadly disease. That speaks volumes about the character of people who we are blessed to work with each and every day.”
Caroline Srihari, M.D., emergency medicine physician
For Caroline Srihari, M.D., an ER doctor and assistant clinical professor in the UF College of Medicine, the arrival of COVID-19 meant having to adapt, to find new ways to treat patients and carry on outside of work. Being resourceful in making personal protective equipment more comfortable, holding conferences via Zoom rather than in person, and safely enjoying outdoor visits with friends are just some of the ways she and others have made the changes smoother and more manageable.
“At the outset of the pandemic, the emergency medicine team had to quickly develop and adapt to new safety procedures to keep patients and ourselves safe. Overhauling all our usual routines and protocols while continuously caring for patients was stressful, but our nurses, techs, respiratory therapists and physician colleagues are very familiar with working in a high-pressure environment.”
Yvette McCarter, Ph.D., director, clinical microbiology laboratory UF Health Jacksonville
Prior to the pandemic, Yvette McCarter, Ph.D., worked on new test implementation and interacted with providers and other hospital staff to ensure optimal care, regulatory compliance, research and education. The pandemic brought about significant shifts in operation. Within six months, McCarter’s team implemented seven new SARS tests and became responsible for COVID-19 test collection, calculating test statistics and developing new testing algorithms to accommodate all patient populations that needed to be tested for the virus.
“The pandemic resulted in a paradigm shift, not only in how we care for our patients, but also in how we perform testing, especially for COVID-19. The pandemic has also taught me the true value of teamwork, whether it’s been within the laboratory or throughout the entire UF Health system. We have collaborated with so many colleagues to ensure we all had what we needed to provide patient testing. One day the pandemic will be over, but the relationships that have been built will most certainly continue.”
Julie Ng, UF College of Nursing student
Julie Ng’s experience as a nursing student during the COVID-19 pandemic renewed her commitment to become a nurse. From changing her senior project to focus on patient care during the pandemic to volunteering in the vaccine clinics, Ng is doing her part to make a difference. But this difficult time has also amplified her awareness of health disparities and inspired her to work on a community outreach initiative for minorities focused on providing education for risk reduction so that everyone can have access to health information.
“Each time I go to administer vaccinations, UF Health has improved their process of giving the vaccine because they are trying to find the most efficient way to operate. It is rewarding to hear the patients’ gratitude for our innovative processes. Being able to see different health professions and students working together to help the community is something I will remember forever.”
Christine Rodhouse, UF College of Medicine student
The pandemic has taught Christine Rodhouse how to be more flexible and adaptable to change. After the university initially sent students home, Rodhouse, a senior, helped organize a volunteer child care service for UF health care workers, studied and took her next board exam, and completed coursework online. Upon returning to her clinical rotations in-person, she found the hospital looked a little different with everyone wearing masks, fewer patient visitors and delays in procedures due to pending COVID-19 test results. The pandemic has also taught her that life is uncertain, which has led her to call and Zoom with friends and family often.
“It [the pandemic] has made me realize how important it is to educate our patients and the public about science and health because there is so much conflicting or inaccurate information out there. The pandemic has reinforced my passion for medicine and patient education.”
Sarah Hodge, executive assistant, UF Health North
During the pandemic, Sarah Hodge saw how UF Health North came together and navigated the unprecedented times. Her day-to-day role looked different, but she was quick to adapt. She said dealing with COVID-19 over the past year has demonstrated the resiliency of the staff. Challenges include adjusting to new visitation procedures, handling staffing challenges and dealing with one’s own personal health.
“Throughout the trials and tribulations of adjusting to life 6 feet apart, the organization’s adaptability was put on display, with the increased utilization of telemedicine at the forefront. Within a short timeframe, ‘Zooming’ took on a whole new definition as patients, staff and faculty completely changed the way they communicate with one another. Despite sometimes only being able to see someone through a screen, our team recognized even in the midst of the chaos that we will always be able to rely on each other. We are truly better together.”
Andrew Rainey, UF College of Public Health and Health Professions student
Andrew Rainey, a Ph.D. candidate, has pursued his passion for environmental and global health by working with GatorWATCH, which monitors wastewater across campus to detect and track the virus. As a part of this program, Rainey has been able to apply the skills and techniques he learned in the classroom while doing his part to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Rainey has enjoyed working with scientists from a variety of disciplines during this time for a common cause.
“I believe this shows how we can work together in the future to tackle other problems. This pandemic should serve as a model for collaborative research moving forward.”
Paige Dorvè-Lewis, UF College of Pharmacy student
For Paige, continuing pharmacy school during the global pandemic has meant taking the material learned in the classroom and applying it to the real world. The biggest lesson learned for her has been adapting to changes. No one day is the same as the next either in school or elsewhere as the world has had to contend with ever-changing situations related to the virus.
“My passion for pharmacy has grown exponentially over the last year. My classmates and I have been awarded so many opportunities to engage with other health care professionals and serve our community by participating in COVID-19 vaccine clinics. Being a part of something bigger than myself to help our community stay safe and healthy has made me incredibly excited to be a pharmacist.”
Syera Ballmes, UF College of Veterinary Medicine student
Like many other D.V.M. candidates, Syera Ballmes’s resilience was put to the test when she had to learn to navigate online classes, labs and clinical skills during a global pandemic. Although there are inherent challenges to virtual learning, Ballmes said she appreciates the ability to work at her own pace despite the fast-paced nature of the college. This has taught her to hold herself accountable for managing schoolwork and life, including maintaining a good mental health state.
“This pandemic has taught me how to totally reconstruct my life depending on the obstacles presented to me, and to not necessarily see them as obstacles especially if they are out of my control. Regardless of the situation that is thrown at me, I’ll continue to adapt so that I can learn this medicine that I’ll be using for the rest of my life.”
Mustafa Kamal, UF College of Pharmacy student
Flexibility is the most important skill Mustafa Kamal has learned from the pandemic. He said he has learned the importance of being proactive and planning for the unseen. Though the environment was changing rapidly, his responsibilities were not. As an intern at UF Health Jacksonville, he often would visit hospital patient rooms to educate them on the side effects of their medications or to conduct medication interviews. After COVID-19, he had to conduct these conversations over the phone, which came with its own challenges. After witnessing pharmacies serving as crucial access points for testing and now for vaccinations, and the plethora of contributions pharmacists are responsible for in hospitals, he said his experience as a pharmacy student during the pandemic has reinforced his passion and the vital role pharmacists fulfil in the health care system.
“I also learned more about the necessity to communicate with others through empathy, authenticity, and honesty since we never know when our fellow peers could be going through difficult times and when we could find ourselves in difficult times.”
Brittny Randolph, UF College of Medicine student
For Brittny Randolph, continuing medical school through the pandemic was stressful, especially navigating medical school and applying to residency programs in a virtual setting. She also recognized the necessity of treating people with grace and compassion and was inspired from seeing the power of unity and collaboration in developing positive innovations and solutions, such as the vaccine, from such a negative situation. The pandemic also gave her the opportunity to contribute to solutions. Randolph volunteered her time to COVID-19 testing efforts in Alachua County and also co-chaired a task force focusing on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion for UF’s College of Medicine. Going into the field of psychiatry, Randolph also emphasized the mental health pandemic that exists alongside COVID-19 and systemic racism. Her interest and passion for psychiatry is both professional and personal as she has experienced first-hand the anxieties and trauma from seeing others be gunned down for being black. This has made her realize just how much she is needed in the field.
“I have never been more inspired and more passionate and more driven and more interested in learning all that I can to be a source of help and guidance to some of the most marginalized, stigmatized and disenfranchised members of our society. The timing is now, and I am honored to be able to serve in that capacity and to have matched into the field of psychiatry.”
Martin Monin, B.S., MT (ASCP) SC, laboratory director, UF Health Leesburg Hospital
Since the onset of the pandemic, Martin Monin and his team have worked with their counterparts at UF Health Shands in Gainesville to develop rapid testing for COVID-19 while maintaining accurate records documenting available supplies and viral positivity rates.
“Successfully navigating our COVID-19 response has required a tremendous amount of cooperation among multiple departments across our health system. The lab team worked closely with nursing leaders to develop patient testing and isolation protocols while testing processes were being established. We also collaborated with the Supply Chain team to ensure that needed supplies were available without interruption. It became evident very quickly how critical consistent communication would become for our organization. I could not be more proud of the clinical laboratory team and every department within UF Health Central Florida. Without them, we would not have achieved the outstanding outcomes we did while facing an ever-changing global pandemic.”