All hands on deck: Emory staff exhibit ‘can-do’ spirit and enduring sense of community

By Mary Loftus | Emory Report | March 26, 2020

Story image

While the usually bustling Emory campus is now quiet, thousands of staff members are working behind the scenes to support the university as it transitions to remote learning, and many more are supporting Emory Healthcare’s work to care for patients in the COVID-19 pandemic.

PrintPrint

Working around the clock under unprecedented circumstances, university and health care staff members are keeping Emory’s vital enterprise running and providing support whenever and wherever needed.

They are helping students and faculty transition to remote learning, staffing COVID-19 information lines, conducting Zoom counseling sessions, creating graphics about the proper way to use personal protective gear, directing snarled hospital traffic, providing free restaurant meals to front-line medical teams, and so much more. 

While essential employees are still working on campus and in Emory’s many health care settings in Atlanta and across the state, other staff members are sheltering in place at home, working remotely to keep things running smoothly and efficiently. Some are doing their given jobs; others are volunteering to help colleagues who are overwhelmed.

Here are just a few of their stories as Emory launches a new weekly series profiling staff members across the university who are going above and beyond during this challenging time.

Supporting transitioning students

It was the empty vending machines in the residence halls that got to Dana Tottenham. On March 11, students received an email that spring break was extended by one week until March 22. Students were told that residential learning would be suspended for the remainder of the semester while the university remained open and transitioned to remote learning.  

“It was all hands on deck to support the team,” says Tottenham, senior associate director of global internships for Emory College, who volunteered to help her friends and colleagues Sherry Ebrahimi, director of conference services and housing administration, and Elaine Turner, senior director of housing operations, as they got Emory students moved out of the residence halls. “We had 11 days to make this transition a reality.”  

Turner has been on the front lines managing the creation of almost every form students had to fill out.

“She got the housing exemption form up and running in about 10 hours as well as the ‘What to do with my stuff’ form that led to the process of packing and storing students’ things if they didn’t come back to campus or needed to leave without packing,” says Scott Rausch, senior director of residence life. “She has been leading the teams of folks that have been going building to building packing, shipping and storing student’s belongings. And she has been managing the facilities upkeep.” 

Ebrahimi answered more than 1,000 inquiries that came into the housing email inbox, assuaging fears and helping students solve problems. She was the primary driver in determining who would stay on campus and where they would be assigned.

“This has been particularly tricky as information has changed several times due to the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sherry has worked to communicate these changes, even when the news hasn’t always been positive,” says Rausch. “She has rallied volunteers, spoken to countless students and parents and worked to make sure her staff were safe. Just plain awesome.”

Some students had nowhere to go, so they requested for Emory to house them temporarily, and the team had to move them out of their existing rooms and consolidate them all into one residential building — but space them out per CDC guidelines. Some are international students who, with the borders now closed, cannot get back home.

Building supervisor staff, complex directors, and the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life coordinators assisted students in moving and are providing care for students who needed to remain. They moved 4,000 students out and relocated the other 400 in just over a week, Rausch notes.  

“Our team is stronger than ever because we have risen to the occasion to complete this Herculean task,” says Ebrahimi. “Personally, it is my love and commitment to our students that keep me here late every night and early every morning.  Anything we can do to take stress off of our students during these unprecedented times is a pleasure.”  

Remote support sessions

The fear is real but so is the courage, says Gordon Tuttle, a psychologist with Emory Faculty Staff Assistance Program. “Staff working in health care directly with COVID-19 patients are, of course, experiencing personal fear for themselves and their families,” Tuttle says. “But they are also showing extreme resilience and bravery. It is as inspiring as it is heavy. There are acts of true heroism.”

The Emory Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences are coordinating to offer remote group stress debriefing and support sessions. Also, Spiritual Health staff at Emory Healthcare are providing support in person for those who request it.

“Requests for group support have increased,” says FSAP clinical social worker Robin Huskey, manager of education and outreach. “Several departments have called for support and stress management sessions.

"We invite employees to share how they’re doing, what’s been challenging and what is working well to shift the focus more to resilience," Huskey explains. "For example, employees share strategies of how they are navigating remote work with children at home. Facilitators offer tips and encourage creative ideas for team connection during this time of physical distancing.

“I think the additional challenge in interacting with patients and each other is a pressure not to show fear or vulnerability,” Tuttle says. FSAP counselors have been using HIPAA compliant Zoom sessions to counsel groups across campus and beyond, from health care providers to IT staff.

Staff members across Emory are sharing feelings of disorientation from sheltering in place at home, with decreasing ways to destress, says Tuttle, as everyone transitions to a new normal.

Contact FSAP at efsap@emory.edu to arrange group sessions or call 404-727-WELL (9355) for free individual counseling, which can be done remotely by phone or video conferencing.  The Department of Psychiatry is offering free 30-minute consultations to individuals from Emory University or Emory Healthcare (sign up here). 

A site for medical teams using personal protective gear

As Michael Konomos, visual medical education team leader for the School of Medicine, well knows, a picture can often be worth a thousand words, especially when trying to keep health care workers and, in turn, their patients, safe. 

“Everything is ultimately for the patient, no matter who we are teaching,” he says. “That’s why I love what we do.” 

Emory’s Visual Medical Education team and Library and Information Technology Services (LITS) assisted the School of Medicine and Emory’s Serious Communicable Diseases Program in the creation of a set of graphics and videos that instruct medical personnel on the conservation and use of personal protective equipment (PPE). The site can be found at med.emory.edu/PPE.

Emory is part of the National Emerging Special Pathogen Training and Education Center (NETEC). The NETEC Resource Repository was created and is maintained by LITS, and provides free access to a database of up-to-date education and training resources, including webinars, online courses, research articles and printable posters to help train and prepare U.S. health care facilities for emerging threats.

It was a true team effort, says Konomos, who led the VME efforts and video and flyer production: “Sonia Bell led the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit (SCDU) efforts, and nurse leaders from SCDU were all in the discussions about protocols and would approve the work or offer corrections before it went out. Steve Bransford from Emory Center for Digital Scholarship shot almost all of the video, VME’s Satyen Tripathi and Bona Kim did flyer production and video editing, and health care providers allowed us to film them doing the training.”

Views of the resource repository have recently increased from 100 to more than 3,000 per day.

“Institutions around the country and in the military are using the site regularly, and checking back in when we have updates,” says Konomos. “Veterans Affairs requested the build files to modify for their purposes. Grady did the same, since they have PPE. We’ve had 8,000-plus views in the last week. People are viewing the pages from as far away as Brazil, Mexico and Canada.” 

Konomos says he hopes that, above all else, “our friends who are at the greatest risk there know that they are supported and cared about by people in all kinds of roles, working day and night to help support them.” 

Stay safe out there

Emory’s police force has been called on to support Emory’s hospitals, clinics and campuses during this time of crisis. One such officer, Sgt. Sean Williams, serves the Midtown campus where he supervises a team of officers.  

Last Friday, says Emory Police Chief Rus Drew, EPD assisted with vehicle and pedestrian traffic to support the installation of triage tents in front of Emory University Hospital Midtown (EUHM). The triage tents, which have now been installed at all of Emory’s hospitals, are part of the new COVID screening protocol to protect patients and visitors.

“Sgt. Williams moved quickly to mobilize a team of our officers and Atlanta police to support the trucks making the delivery and workers during the installation,” says Drew. “All along, he was communicating with EUHM staff to prevent hospital operations from being impacted.”

Williams is a 14-year veteran of the Emory Police Department and “consistently provides a smile and positive engagement in his interactions,” says Drew. 

EPD has 61 police officers serving Atlanta, Oxford and Midtown campuses. 

Feeding health care teams

Emory speech pathologist Dena Cohen, who works at Emory University Hospital, was talking with her family about ways to help when they hit upon creating an online platform to link people who want to donate restaurant meals to local hospital workers. 

Over the course of one weekend, the Meal Bridge was up and running. And with her mom and dad both working full-time, Cohen’s 16-year-old daughter, Grey, a sophomore at Druid Hills High School, has taken over operations.

In its first three days, the Meal Bridge has provided enough meals to serve about 60 hospital workers at Emory University Hospital.

The idea came from Grey’s uncle, Shawn Janko, who asked Cohen whether he could send pizzas to a shift at the hospital. Grey thought the idea could become something bigger.

Through her contacts at Emory Hospital, Cohen identified the units and shifts most in need of donated meals. “What started with my brother wanting to buy pizza for my fellow Emory staff took flight with my daughter Grey’s simple and compassionate idea,” Cohen says. “I’m proud of her and amazed by the kindness of our Atlanta community. It has become a needed bright spot during this difficult time for our family, friends and Emory Hospital.”

It’s truly a family effort: Cohen’s husband designed the site, and her other daughter, 14-year-old Sidney, is in charge of social media. Grey created the system for connecting would-be donors with restaurants and hospital workers. 

Donors log onto the Meal Bridge’s website and click a button that sends them to the sign-up page, where they can choose a time slot and a number of people to feed by ordering from a list of approved restaurants. Emory Hospital’s head chef must approve each restaurant, ensuring they follow CDC safety procedures. The Meal Bridge’s first arranged delivery happened on Monday night, providing meals for the hospital’s 20-person ICU staff.