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No "I" in Team: HOAG Community Champions

By JEFF GOLDBERG, 04/22/21, 5:15PM PDT

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no "I" in team

We know what the tireless and selfless staff at Hoag has meant to the region in the war against Covid. We have seen the life-saving efforts of the doctors and nurses on the front lines.

But there is so much we don’t know, or never see, that is as critical to sustaining life as the treatments and vaccines that garner the biggest headlines. These are the people who keep the patients’ rooms clean and sterile to stop the spread of the virus in its tracks; the folks who use data analytics to battle the virus on a mathematical battlefield. The nutritionists who keep patients strong enough to fight back against their invader. And even those miracle vaccines? They need special assistance each day to get ready to join the fight.

The Orange County Soccer Club has unveiled its new uniforms for the 2021 season – a return to competition and normalcy that both players and fans have been dreaming of for more than a year. To help introduce the new uniforms, OCSC and Hoag are celebrating their partnership by having them modeled not just by OCSC players, but by the Hoag heroes who helped shepherd the Orange County community through the darkest days of the pandemic back to the light of a bright and healthy future. Here are some of the untold stories of Hoag’s life-saving efforts.

THE HOUSEKEEPER

It became clear right from the beginning: None of this was going to work if the clinical staff could not be safe to enter and work an infected patient’s rooms. That meant environmental services technicians such as Maria De La Cruz, were never more valuable to the Hoag community. Keeping rooms sterile was paramount, and De La Cruz and her crew took on the challenge, despite all the potential contamination risks, to keep everything scrubbed down and safe.

“When I went to clean that first [Covid patient’s] room, I felt scared because I didn’t know what was going on. Nobody knew,” De La Cruz said. “When this was happening, we felt sad for the people coming in. I felt so tired. I heard my co-workers crying. I will never forget it.”

De La Cruz’s colleagues will never forget, either, the courage and expertise the environmental services staff displayed under unforgiving conditions, and they gained a new appreciation for what used to be an unheralded task.

“In the past, you didn’t want to see a housekeeper,” said Lesa Blake, Hoag’s executive director of support services and supply chain operations. “They came at night, they kept quiet, didn’t make a lot of noise. You didn’t want to see them. [But in a pandemic] they wanted to see the housekeepers so much so, we got them shirts saying environmental sanitation technician, so people could see that we were there to support them and we were going to clean and make sure the environment was safe for them.”

THE DATA ANALYST

As all sports fans in the 21st century know, data analytics are everything to front-office staff trying to put winning teams on the field. From “Moneyball” to spin rates and launch angles, it’s all about the data. But that’s just fun and games. In the fight to end a global pandemic, Hoag’s clinical data coordinator Graham Gerrard crunches the numbers for a higher calling.

“As the pandemic evolved, it was an all-hands-on deck situation,” Gerrard said. “My job was definitely expanded at that point. I was collaborating with all the frontline staff, hoping to ensure their processes were correct and safe. I also helped with educational opportunities to train our staff.”

Gerrard manages the data for the Infection Prevention department. The analytics staff created a comprehensive dashboard that tracked the daily use of protective equipment, testing capabilities and influx of new patients.

“We know how sports teams use data to create a competitive advantage, and at Hoag, we did the same thing for the Covid pandemic,” Gerrard said. “We worked together with our data teams and our front-line staff to track [the spread of the virus] on a daily basis, to make sure we were always ready for the next wave. We always had the data at our fingertips.”

THE NUTRITIONISTS

How does the saying go? Feed a cold, starve a fever? Or is it the other way around?

It’s actually neither. When it comes to battling illness, feeding is always the way to go, as proper nutrition is as critical as any treatment. At Hoag, there is an entire staff dedicated to making sure patients are eating well and keeping up their strength to fight illnesses, including Covid.

“A lot of [Covid patients] didn’t want to order meals, because they had no sense of taste or smell,” said lead nutrition assistant Amber Carlsen. “We would pick foods, just to get the nutrition down, any way we could. For most of the patients, it was getting the calories in them. A lot of the diets are regular diets, but it was a struggle to get enough calories in.”

Carlsen and fellow nutrition assistant Julia Jaime are primarily responsible for taking patients’ meal orders, making sure their food choices are in line with their dietary needs, as prescribed by their physician. Some of the requests are decidedly off the menu.

“There are people who want something like restaurant food, or have it cooked certain ways that we can’t do,” Jaime said. “But we do assess their nutritional needs, and we go from there. We have to follow portion sizes and strict diet. That’s the main goal.”

THE VACCINE’S FIRST ACT

We’ve all seen the end result of a successful Covid vaccination. Sleeves rolled up, relieved smiles on faces, stickers on shirts, photos on social media. As the nation continues to ramp up its vaccination numbers in record-setting fashion on a daily basis, it’s the injection itself that gets all the glory.

What no one sees, and basically no one knows, is that without individuals like Stephanie Chao, Hoag’s Director of Pharmacy, those moments of triumph in Orange County would not be possible. Hoag’s Pharmacy team meticulously plans out the daily vaccine needs, hours to days to weeks before each vaccine event. At times during these last few months, the team would stay late into the evening or awake in the early morning hours while people are still asleep in the pre-dawn hours, dreaming about the shot that will bring them safety from the coronavirus. Chao and her team have been known to literally thaw the vials of vaccine in the early dawn hours to get them prepared for duty.

“It’s an important part, and a lot it has to do with making sure we do it so it doesn’t waste,” Chao said. “We have to get it right, so you get enough for the community, but not thawing too much that you can’t use it. It’s just like thawing a turkey – the more you need, the more appointments you have, the longer it takes.”

Particularly with the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept at extremely cold temperatures, it is Chao’s responsibility to keep the vials at the various correct temperatures, so the syringe can do its job and extract the liquid lifesaver for future arm insertion. Chao takes the vials from the deep freezer and places them in a standard refrigerator to thaw, and makes sure all the temperatures are continuously monitored. It is one of a multitude of functions that go on behind the scenes, yet are as vital as any step toward ending the pandemic.

“It’s so amazing,” Chao said. “All the efforts around getting the vaccine here, and then knowing we play a role in providing it, providing some hope. It’s very humbling and incredible to be a part of it.”

These are the vignettes of a long fight to save lives and bring the pandemic to an end. Each are individual tales, but they speak to the larger truth that at Hoag, as well as health care facilities across the globe, the value of teamwork never goes out of style. At Hoag, Medical Director of Infection Prevention Dr. Philip Robinson describes the efforts as a “team of teams,” working together seamlessly to keep the hospital running at peak performance when nothing less is demanded of them.

“Without the organization gelling as a team, we wouldn’t have fared as well as we did,” Robinson said. “We had a nursing team, we had a pharmacy and therapeutics team, and infection prevention team, a cleaning team. And each one of those teams had a leader. And there’s no way we would have made it without coming together.”

Communication, coordination, leadership, a well-executed game plan -- It’s what makes for a winning team on the pitch. It also meant saving lives in a global pandemic for the staff at Hoag. They kept their heads when the world around them panicked, and their bond and trust in each other prevented disaster in their community.

“It’s really about the team,” said Hoag’s Chief Quality Officer, Dr. Grace Lozinski. “Fortunately, the teams that we have and the processes in place at Hoag, they’ve taken years to develop, and a lot of us have worked together for such a long time. Some of the things we’ve put into place have really changed the culture about how we do things.

“A lot of these things have become hard-wired and become our standard, and we’re able to rest on that a bit. We have incredibly talented people that are able to continue the good work they’re doing, even in a pandemic. It’s the years of cultivating that culture of excellence that allowed us to continue that.”