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Healthcare Heroes Class of 2022

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges — the editors and management at BusinessWest — eight of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2022 are (click on the names to read their stories):

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Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

Since BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, launched the recognition program known as Healthcare Heroes in 2017, the initiative has more than succeeded in its quest to identify true leaders — not to mention inspiring stories — within this region’s large and very important healthcare sector.
The award was created to recognize those whose contributions to the health and well-being of this region, while known to some, needed to become known to all. And that is certainly true this year.
They are leaders. In some cases innovators or collaborators. In all cases, inspirations — people and organizations that have devoted their lives to improving the quality of individual lives and the health of entire communities. We find these stories to be compelling and inspirational, and we’re sure you will as well.

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges — the editors and management at BusinessWest — eight of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2022 are (click on the names to read their stories):

See the BusinessWest 2022 Healthcare Heroes Special Section HERE.

We’re excited to celebrate our Healthcare Heroes on Thursday, Oct. 27 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Tickets cost $85 each, and tables of 10 or 12 are available.

The Healthcare Heroes program is being sponsored by presenting sponsors Elms College and Baystate Health/Health New England, and partner sponsors Trinity Health Of New England/Mercy Medical Center, American International College, and MiraVista Behavioral Health Center.

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Healthcare Heroes

Here, Shared Research by Nurses and Engineers Will Benefit Patients Everywhere

Co-directors Frank Sup and Karen Giuliano

Co-directors Frank Sup and Karen Giuliano. Leah Martin Photography

Intravenous (IV) infusion pump systems are among the most recognized technologies in healthcare, used by about 90% of hospital patients.

They’re also hopelessly out of date, Karen Giuliano said.

“The design has been around a long time, and hospitals don’t buy one; they buy an entire fleet. They have to invest in training, service contracts, and IT infrastructure. To install a platform is a huge investment and effort.”

And that has led to stagnation, she added. “Over 80% of pumps are really old platforms and don’t do the job they need to do. They’re not developed for today’s standards.”

Enter the Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation at UMass Amherst, which has made improving the safety and usability of IV smart pumps one of its first major projects. The team has been exploring flow-rate accuracy in a variety of settings and use cases, with the goal of developing pumps that eliminate inaccuracy, inconvenience, and resulting medical errors through new technology and simplified design.

The work is gaining widespread attention, as Giuliano, co-director of the center and associate professor of Nursing, and postdoctoral research fellow Jeannine Blake were recently recognized by the Assoc. for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) for the Best Research Paper in 2021.

Their paper, “Nurse and Pharmacist Knowledge of Intravenous Smart Pump System Setup Requirements,” explored knowledge of intravenous smart-pump system setup requirements among nurses and pharmacists. The results were published in Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology, AAMI’s peer-reviewed journal.

“There’s already a critical nursing shortage, fatigue, and burnout. How can robotics be used to maybe alleviate some of those problems? We can use robotics as an extension of the nurse.”

“We don’t want to build a new pump; we want to build a set of requirements for manufacturers that have been sitting idle for too long without being forced to innovate for the safety of patients and the workflow of the nurses,” Giuliano told BusinessWest.

The effort demonstrates the types of innovation she and Frank Sup, associate professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the other co-director of the Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, intended when they launched the center in early 2021. It also reflects the cross-educational opportunities for people like Blake, the first nursing doctoral student to enter an engineering postdoctoral fellowship at UMass.

“Students have come out of here with a siloed education, nurses and engineers. There’s not a natural inkling to work together; they might not even know the importance of collaborating in that way,” Giuliano said. “What we want is to have students graduate that already have that in common, to reach across the aisle. The healthcare environment should not be a silo.”

Under Sup’s leadership, the center has also begun research on the use of robotics in healthcare. It teams doctoral students from both engineering and nursing, as well as an undergraduate nursing honors student, to identify challenges and develop robotic solutions to improve healthcare delivery for patients and providers.

The incorporation of robotic technology into the healthcare system is ongoing and already includes innovations like fully autonomous disinfecting systems and invasive surgical devices, and Sup feels it’s essential that these new technologies are integrated into the field of nursing at multiple levels, including hospital administration, the clinical workplace, and university education. And students need to interact with robots to better understand and utilize this technology in a controlled setting before patient care is involved.

“What are robotics, what can they do, what are they good for, and how can we start to train nurses and engineers in robotics? What day-to-day situations might nurses face in the hospital, clinic, and home, and what might be the best use cases for these robotics systems?” he asked. “That’s where this program started. Nurses are not typically trained in robotics, so we actually start to expose them to these things.”

That may seem like a scary thought to some, or imply that robots could replace nurses, but that’s far from the case, Sup added.

“There’s already a critical nursing shortage, fatigue, and burnout. How can robotics be used to maybe alleviate some of those problems? We can use robotics as an extension of the nurse, potentially doing things when they’re not there, like monitoring and lower levels of service.”

By bringing nurses and engineers together at the earliest stages of product innovation, the Elaine Marieb Center promises a raft of such breakthroughs that will result in better technology and, more important, better patient care.

 

Come Together

This is how Giuliano and Sup described the center’s mission at its opening last year:

“Today, healthcare technologies are too often made without the insights and understanding that clinicians bring to the table. Nurses are end users, facing healthcare challenges on the frontlines of patient care. Engineers have the expertise and skills to envision and create medical devices and can work with nurses who bring the real-world healthcare experience needed to design the best possible products and solutions.

“This transformation depends heavily on collaborative research and development work among nursing, engineering, and other disciplines,” they went on. “The ability to quickly and effectively develop and test innovations requires both nursing and engineering skillsets. The power of the nurse-engineer approach is derived from the mutual collaboration between the two, where the nurse identifies the problem, and the engineer facilitates potential solutions.”

One problem in the past, both of them explained to BusinessWest, was that products too often wound up in the hands of nurses too far along in the design and development process to change very much.

“I realized how important it was to have a front-end-user perspective built into the products rather than trying to back-engineer it when it’s 90% done.”

Giuliano, with more than 25 years of experience in critical-care nursing, medical product development and innovation, and patient-centered clinical outcomes research, should know. Prior to joining UMass Amherst, she spent many years working on medical product development from an industry perspective, including 12 years with Philips Healthcare.

Early in her career, she said, “I realized how important it was to have a front-end-user perspective built into the products rather than trying to back-engineer it when it’s 90% done.”

Now, at the center, “we have the ability to prototype things and test them in nursing simulation labs and test them in actual hospitals,” she added, the latter through a collaboration with Baystate Health.

Meanwhile, Sup was also a natural choice to co-direct the new center. As director of UMass Amherst’s Mechatronics and Robotics Research Lab, his research has long focused on developing human-centered mechatronic technologies for augmenting human performance and exploring how to enable robots to fluently interact physically with humans. To that end, he brought teams of nursing and engineering students together to work on senior capstone design projects.

The model was formalized as the Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation with the help of two major gifts: $1 million in seed funding from alumni Michael and Theresa Hluchyj, longtime supporters of both the College of Engineering and the College of Nursing; and $21.5 million from the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation to the College of Nursing, with a significant portion designated to support the new center.

“Innovation is often accelerated at the intersection of different academic disciplines,” Michael Hluchyj said when announcing the first gift. “The worldwide health crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic make clear the critical need for innovative solutions in clinical settings where both nursing and engineering play vital roles.”

And nurses need to have a seat at the innovation table early, Giuliano said.

“Nurses use more products and are part of more services than any other healthcare provicer,” she told BusinessWest. “If they’re not at the table, you’re not going to have the right products. They’re not going to be usable, and if they’re not usable, then they don’t do the job. And from an economic standpoint, they don’t generate the revenue that the company wants. So it’s a lose-lose, which we can turn into a win-win.

“We want to be a usability testing center,” she went on. “So if a company has a product at a certain point in development, has an idea what’s supposed to do and how it’s supposed to work and what its value is, we literally bring it into a sim lab.”

The usability test involves two people, a nurse and a volunteer patient, and both evaluate it, as test administrators watch how it’s used. “If the same mistake is made over and over, it’s a design flaw; it’s not a user error,” Giuliano explained. Then all those results and perceptions go back to manufacturer, who has the opportunity to make improvements early in the process.

To that end, the emerging product prototyping laboratory on the Amherst campus will enable students to design and prototype new products, while a proposed usability laboratory on the Mount Ida campus will allow for product and service testing by frontline clinical end users.

“Having a better understanding of frontline clinician knowledge is a fundamental part of our overall program of research on improving the safety and usability of IV smart pumps,” Blake said when she and Giuliano received the AAMI’s award for their research earlier this year. “We are very excited to receive this award, which supports our continued efforts in this important area of research.”

 

Promising Outcomes

Better research resulting in better patient care is the goal, whether it’s IV pumps, robotics at the hospital bedside, or any number of other ongoing projects at the center, from cloud-based home-healthcare monitoring to wearable sensors that record body movement to assess chronic pain.

Part of the center’s raison d’être is that nurses and engineers are both trained problem solvers who rely on innovation to find solutions, but their paths rarely cross, and the timeframes required for them to find solutions are dramatically different.

Giuliano got her PhD while at Phillips Healthcare because “I really wanted to be a better researcher so I could test products in a meaningful way.” Later, she added, “I realized I liked academia — I was a better student as a 40-year-old than as a 20-year-old — and I knew I wanted to go into academia and try to recreate the nurse-engineer pairing in the academic environment.”

By teaming up with Sup, who was already pursuing those connections, and with the help of some generous gifts from supporters who saw potential in this model, a center was created that is not only generating some impressive outcomes, but is paving a new way for diverse minds to collaborate and improve the patient experience across the globe.

“The whole idea of this center is for academic clinicians, students, nurses, and doctors to bring in industry partners,” Sup said. “It’s going to be innovative, and it’s going to make a difference.”

And it clearly lives up to the title of Healthcare Hero in the category of Innovation.

“This work that’s being done will make its way to safety standards everywhere,” Giuliano said. “Nobody else is doing that. It’s huge.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

This Critical Team Provides Hope — and a Roadmap to Recovery

Team members of the Addiction Consult Service

Team members of the Addiction Consult Service at Holyoke Medical Center, from left: Eddie Rodriguez, John Martinez, Lauren Carpenter, Maria Quinn, Kelly Jean Deming, Em Moulton, and Jose Ramos.

 

Patrick Hamel remained calm and collected as he chronicled his quarter-century-long battle against addiction.

In telling that story, he recalled more relapses than he could count; how he lost jobs, alienated family and friends, and had run-ins with the law (including some B&Es to support his drug and alcohol use); getting thrown out of the house by his wife on a few occasions; the awkwardness of having his daughter visit him in a halfway house; and even that night a little more than two years ago when he decided that enough was enough and tried to end his life.

He didn’t become emotional — though he did have to stop and collect himself a few times — until he started talking about the Addiction Consult Service (ACS), or the Recovery Support Team, as members call it, at Holyoke Medical Center’s Comprehensive Care Center (CCC) and, especially, Maria Quinn, the charismatic psychiatric mental-health nurse practitioner and leader of that unit.

That’s because Quinn, those who work with her, and those to whom she has referred Hamel have enabled him to move beyond all that has happened to him and now lead a much better life.

“She just listened, and we came up with a plan. She got me hooked up with an amazing therapist. We saw each other every week — she was there for me; she was my support.”

“She is so amazing; she’s like my knight in shining armor,” said Hamel, who would then concisely and effectively sum up what Quinn and other members of this team do. “She just listened, and we came up with a plan. She got me hooked up with an amazing therapist. We saw each other every week — she was there for me; she was my support.

“Mind you, I’ve been in other types of medical treatment facilities and other programs,” he went on. “And I always felt like I was a number, or I was there to meet a quota; it was just a job. You can see with Maria that it’s not just a job; it’s something she’s passionate about.”

Patrick Hamel

Patrick Hamel says those at the Addiction Consult Service listened and helped him come up with a game plan for recovery.

Hamel didn’t nominate the ACS for the Healthcare Heroes award, but his words, and the emotion attached to them, help explain why this special unit is being honored this year in the Community Health category.

In short, there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of people, who would say the same things if they were asked — about not just what the ACS does, but how it goes about its difficult and critically important work.

“We’re essentially ever-present — we like to make jokes that we stalk our patients while they’re here, even if we’re not fully involved,” she explained, adding that this is her way of saying that Recovery Support Team members make sure that those patients with addiction issues, either from the Emergency Department or inpatient units at the hospital — many of whom don’t have anyone to visit them while they are in the hospital, for many of the reasons Hamel listed above — have someone to talk to. And, far more importantly, someone to listen, someone who can help them determine what comes next for them, whatever that might be, including ongoing support at the CCC.

“That connection needs to happen so that people can stay and continue to get the treatment that they need,” said Quinn, adding that one of the goals of the program is to build trust among those touched by the ACS, because such trust has often been missing, and it is a key ingredient in their success.

“Historically, people with addiction haven’t been treated well in the healthcare system, so there’s a lot of mistrust, and we see that,” she noted. “We talk about it often and sense that the wall may be coming down and people are starting to bloom because we see our patients become a little more trusting.”

“One thing I’ve learned in this process is that everyone’s recovery is different. You have to listen to the patient to understand what they’re looking for in their recovery. By listening to them, I’ll know what kind of direction I can give them.”

Lauren Carpenter, a certified addictions nurse, agreed. When asked how she got into this specific line of work and what she likes about her work with this constituency, she said simply, “being able to help and care for people who aren’t used to being helped and cared for — building that connection and that rapport and making sure they know there is someone there who cares.”

The ACS is comprised of a nurse practitioner, a certified addictions nurse, a recovery-support coordinator, and recovery coaches. And, as noted, it is a collaborative effort, involving partners such as Tapestry Health, the Gándara Center (which employs the recovery coaches), River Valley Counseling Center, Hope for Holyoke, and the Holyoke Health Center. Together, these agencies are working to reduce opioid overdoses and help people like Hamel find a path to a better life.

The positive results of their efforts can be seen — and heard — with people like Patrick Hamel and countless others like him.

 

The Power of Hope

John Martinez’s battle against addiction was and is very similar to Hamel’s.

He described several stints of incarceration, homelessness, and, by his count, four suicide attempts.

He’s been sober now for 13 years and has spent the last several as a certified recovery coach, helping others find the strength and conviction to change their lives, as well as needed referrals and direction. The process starts simply with providing hope that life can get better, he said, adding that this isn’t all that coaches provide, but it may well be the most important thing.

“I remember being hopeless — I know what that’s like,” he recalled. “One thing I’ve learned in this process is that everyone’s recovery is different. You have to listen to the patient to understand what they’re looking for in their recovery. By listening to them, I’ll know what kind of direction I can give them.”

Recovery coach John Martinez

Recovery coach John Martinez says that, among other things, he provides those he counsels with the hope that life can get better.

As noted, recovery coaches are part of the team at the Comprehensive Care Center, and part of a broad, collaborative effort that has come together at a critical time for the Greater Holyoke area.

Indeed, while much of the focus the past few years has been on the pandemic, and understandably so, addiction has only become a bigger, more dangerous, and more deadly problem for the region.

The number of opioid-related overdose deaths increased 9% in Massachusetts in 2021 over 2020. Meanwhile, there are significant disparities in overdose rates, particularly among Black and Latino individuals in Massachusetts; from 2019 to 2020, there was a 70% increase in overdose deaths among Black/non-Hispanic individuals and a 10% increase in Hispanic/Latinx individuals. From 2020 to 2021, there was a 6% decrease in Black/non-Hispanic deaths and an increase of more than 7% for Hispanic/Latinx individuals, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Steadily rising numbers over the past several years prompted the HEALing Communities Study, whereby scientists from the nation’s leading health agencies and four major academic institutions are partnering with communities in four states, including Massachusetts, to test a set of interventions designed to reduce overdose deaths by 40% over three years in participating communities.

Through a grant awarded to Boston Medical Center, a collaborative was created involving several agencies in Greater Holyoke, with Quinn taking the lead as the appointed addiction expert for the Holyoke community. The goal is to address opioid use, with a specific focus on overdoses, she said, adding that the linchpin of the initiative was creation of the ACS and the CCC.

“Prior to that, it was just me trying to do it all — start people on medication, get referrals out, try to make appointments, trying to get people to stay here [the hospital] — and it was challenging.”

“Our goal is not to cure them; our goal is to treat them with dignity and respect, and that includes treating their withdrawal. It includes giving education and resources. Some people decide that they no longer want to use and want to work toward abstaining and not using, and some don’t.”

With the grant funds, Quinn was able to hire Carpenter as well as a recovery-support coordinator and other team members.

Together, they have put together a system to “find patients,” said Quinn, noting that, before creation of the ACS, many would essentially fall through the cracks.

“Lauren became really good at figuring out which patients we should look at, and we started finding our patients and going to them, often intervening even before a consult was sent,” she told BusinessWest. “And that’s important because people would be leaving the hospital; if you were using opioids or were addicted to opioids, in particular, and didn’t get that, you would feel really, really sick, and if your withdrawal wasn’t being treated, you would probably be leaving.

“So we’d introduce ourselves and let people know why were there,” she went on, adding that, by and large, patients were not used to such a “proactive and impactive” approach to their care, and would have questions about what they could do for them.

What they can do is listen and begin a discussion about what happens next, said Carpenter, who walked through what might be a typical case.

“Someone will come into the ED, and I’ll get notified that this person is there and that they are in withdrawal,” she explained. “At that point, I will meet with the person, gather a history, assess their withdrawal, and then I’ll get Maria involved. I’ll talk with the ED provider, Maria, the addiction consult … Maria will meet with the patient, give recommendations, and order appropriate medications to treat their withdrawal. And when someone is actually on the med floor, we’d start the discussion of ‘what do you want to do from here?’”

As Quinn noted, the course varies with the patient. Often, those at the ACS will connect them to opioid-treatment programs, including two in Holyoke, if they are not already in a program, or connect them with a recovery coach while they are in the hospital.

“Not everyone’s goal is abstinence,” she said. “Our goal is not to cure them; our goal is to treat them with dignity and respect, and that includes treating their withdrawal. It includes giving education and resources. Some people decide that they no longer want to use and want to work toward abstaining and not using, and some don’t.”

When asked how those at the ACS measure success, Quinn said it depends on what how the patient would define that term.

“For some people, having air in their lungs is successful,” she told BusinessWest. “Anyone who leaves here feeling that they’ve been treated well … that’s a big success for me.”

 

Impact Statement

As he talked about Quinn and those she works beside at the CCC, Hamel stressed the present tense.

He is still working with these individuals at the CCC, and they are still making a huge impact on his recovery. He’s not sure they, and especially Quinn, understand just how much of an impact. So, he made it clear.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” he said, adding that these individuals are more than healthcare providers, but are, in many respects, friends and even family.

“They want to make a difference — it’s not just about an f-ing paycheck,” he said in conclusion. “That’s where I get a little passionate and emotional; two years ago, I wanted to kill myself, and now…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, but didn’t really have to. The pause explained not only the journey from where he was to where he is now, but why the Addiction Consult Service is truly a Healthcare Hero.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Chief and Physician, Baystate Noble Hospital Emergency Department

He Has Devoted His Career to Improving the Community’s ‘Safety Net’ Net’

Leah Martin Photography

Dr. Sundeep Shukla, or ‘Sunny,’ as most everyone calls him, has always felt at home in the emergency room, and he has never really wanted to work anywhere else.

There is a fast pace and decidedly unpredictable nature to the work, he told BusinessWest, noting that each day, and each hour, are different from the one before and the one after. But there are many more reasons why he has chosen to spend his career in this setting, the most important being the ER’s important role, both to the hospital in question and to the community it serves.

“The emergency room is the safety net for all patients,” Shukla explained. “Many patients do not have access to healthcare; we feel that the ER can provide care to anyone who walks through the door, regardless of whether you have insurance, regardless of your background; we’ll see anyone who walks through our doors, and I’m proud to say that.”

But Shukla has done more than work in the ER. Indeed, throughout his career he has devoted time and energy to bringing new efficiencies, better ways of serving patients, and, yes, better ways of doing business to the ER, especially in his current role as chief of the Emergency Department at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield.

And he brings what would be considered a somewhat unique background to this assignment. In addition to his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri and his medical degree from Manpial University in Karnatka, India, Shukla also earned an MBA, with an emphasis in medical management, from UMass Amherst in 2017.

He has used all these degrees, as well as his hands-on experience in the ER, to help improve service, efficiency, and quality, and reduce wait times and what are known as ‘walkouts’ — people who come to the ER but leave before being seen, for whatever reason.

“Having earned that MBA, I was able to reconfigure how I look at things in my brain. Before, it was all medicine-related, but by doing the MBA, I was able to focus on flow and how we could improve certain processes to make an impact on the total visit.”

“Having earned that MBA, I was able to reconfigure how I look at things in my brain,” he told BusnessWest. “Before, it was all medicine-related, but by doing the MBA, I was able to focus on flow and how we could improve certain processes to make an impact on the total visit.

“At Baystate Noble, we do small thinks like put a greeter in the waiting room so when patients come in there’s someone they can talk to, someone they ask questions to; they round, they give patients blankets or small things just to make them feel appreciated,” he went on. “We also strive to push our nurses and docs to really bring patients in when they come into the ER; they don’t sit very long in the waiting room.”

As a result of such initiatives, Noble’s ER has made great strides during Shukla’s tenure. The unit has dramatically increased patient-satisfaction scores, for example, while also gaining certification as a geriatric ED, well-suited to serve the needs of older patients in the community.

The sum of these efforts has earned Shukla the Healthcare Heroes award in the highly competitive category known as Emerging Leader. And he is worthy of that designation, not only for his work in the ER, but also at Baystate Health (he is on the system’s board of directors), in the community (he sits on the nonprofit People’s Institute and also coaches youth soccer and baseball), and even on the ice.

Indeed, Shukla is one of the team physicians for the Springfield Thunderbirds, and was with the team through its exciting run to the Calder Cup finals last season.

He described that work as fun and rewarding — adjectives he would apply to every aspect of his work in medicine and administration.

 

Degrees of Improvement

Shukla was born in England and came to this country with his family in 1980. Early on, he said, his father, a professor of Pharmacology at the University of Missouri, and mother, a school teacher, impressed upon him the importance of not only education, but service to the community.

He achieved both while serving as a volunteer at the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics while in junior high school, work he described as a learning experience on many levels.

“During the summer, I went there every Tuesday and Wednesday and spent eight hours each day volunteering in different parts of the hospital,” he recalled. “It was then that I realized that this was my true calling because I really wanted to help people and really wanted to make a difference.”

After graduating from medical school, he became a resident at Baystate Medical Center with a focus initially on general surgery. But at the advice of some friends who implored him to consider emergency medicine because he seemed a natural for that kind of work, his career outlook began to shift.

Dr. Sundeep Shukla, seen here with his son, Deven

Dr. Sundeep Shukla, seen here with his son, Deven, is one of the team physicians for the Springfield Thunderbirds, one of the many ways he is involved in the community.

“I did some shadowing, I did some shifts in the ER, and eventually I went through the process of applying to be an ER resident,” he said, adding that he quickly fell in love with that setting — again, not just because of the fast pace and each-day-is-different aspect of the work.

“Not everyone has access to healthcare, and I’m a big proponent of health equity because I feel everyone should have the same access to healthcare as your next-door neighbor,” said Shukla, who, before coming to Noble, served as associate medical director in the Emergency Department at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. “When patients some come to my ER, I treat them with respect, I treat them exactly how I’d want to treat my family members, and I try to everything I can to make sure their health is better when they leave the ER.”

Elaborating, he said many people are coming to the ER on the worst day of their life, whether they’re having a stroke, a heart attack, or other medical problem, and it is the job of the ER doctor to “step up and help those patients.”

“It’s our goal to help lift them up and help them feel better,” he went on. “And in terms of mindset, you have to be able to function on the go and multi-task many different things, because there so many problems that are detail-oriented: the lab or CT scan, whether you have to stitch someone up, give different medications … there are all these processes you have to follow, and with every visit, there’s quality involved, and you have to meet certain metrics.”

Despite the fast pace and the constant flow of new patients, Shukla said he makes it a priority to truly connect with his patients.

“I always try to make a connection with my patients because, if I’m able to make that connection, whether it’s with a sports team that they like or a restaurant that they enjoy or some type of hobby they like, I feel like we can relate much better, and they can trust me. They just met me just a few minutes ago, so it’s really important that I build a trust and a relationship with them so that when I give them advice or we have what’s called ‘shared decision making,’ we can come with a good plan together. That’s why I’ll always spend the extra minute just to know them a little better.”

“They just met me just a few minutes ago, so it’s really important that I build a trust and a relationship with them so that when I give them advice or we have what’s called ‘shared decision making,’ we can come with a good plan together. That’s why I’ll always spend the extra minute just to know them a little better.”

Shukla currently works at all the hospitals in the Baystate system — Baystate Medical Center, Baystate Wing, and Baystate Noble — and became chief of the ER at Noble in March 2020, just as the pandemic was reaching Western Mass.

In each setting, and especially at Noble, he has been consumed with not only treating patients and making those important connections, but improving the overall experience.

“We try to look at the entire process — from when a patient walks into the waiting room all the way to when they go home,” he explained, adding that little things, such as having a greeter in the ER and having nurses, doctors, and other care providers working collaboratively so that patients don’t have to repeat their history and answer the same questions over and over again, often add up to big improvements in service, patient-satisfaction ratings, and statistics such as those concerning walkouts.

“The most dreaded word that most people see in emergency medicine is walkouts, which is basically a person who registered but wasn’t actually seen,” Shukla said. “That’s a problem throughout the United States, so we work really hard in the Baystate Health system to bring those numbers down. Even one patient walking out troubles us.”

Meanwhile, throughout his career, and even more so during COVID, he has put considerable emphasis on outreach and educating the community, with the goal of helping people make better, smarter choices about their health and well-being.

Indeed, he’s a frequent guest on area radio stations and has penned articles for several media outlets, all with the goal of creating a better-informed community.

“If people are educated, they can take care if their health better,” he said, adding that such efforts took on greater importance during the height of the pandemic, when the public had more questions — and needed more answers — and trust was a huge factor.

“We had a lot of COVID issues to contend with, but we also had to build up trust in the community,” he said, “because a lot of people were concerned about the ways people were contracting COVID, how they would protect themselves, the vaccines … there were many thongs we had to educate people on, and we did a lot of outreach for that.”

 

ERing on the Side of Caution

Overall, Shukla, as chief of the ER, assumes a role that blends medicine with administration, and, with his background and MBA training, he can bring a unique perspective to the table.

“Not many physicians go back and get a degree like an MBA; most of us go to school for a very long time as physicians, so not a lot of us go back,” he explained, adding that he enjoys both sides of the equation — business and especially medicine.

“It’s important for me to be well-rounded and understand how things are run,” he said, adding that he took a marketing class in 10th grade and since then has always been fascinated by business and management. “I really enjoy business, and so there’s the budget/financial aspect that I really like in administration, because I feel I can look at spreadsheets and Excel sheets in a different way than I did a few years ago before I earned my MBA.

“I understand the budget and the finances a lot more than I used to,” he went on, “and also how I can cut costs and improve efficiency in the ER, whether it’s flow in the ER or how I can reduce the cost of staffing or increase staffing to help show a return on investment.”

Going all the way back to when he was volunteering at the University of Missouri Hospital as a junior-high student, Sunny Shulka has known that he was destined to be in a profession — and a place — where he could help people.

That profession turned out to be healthcare, and the place is the ER, or the safety net, as he called it, which is now more his home.

For his efforts to continually improve that safety net, make it stronger, more welcoming, more comfortable, and better able to serve all those who come through its doors, Shukla is certainly an emerging leader, and truly a Healthcare Hero.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Chief Operating Officer, MiraVista Behavioral Health Center

This COO Empowers Team Members and Leads by Example

Leah Martin Photography

 

Mark Paglia was a wrestler at Cathedral High School and later at American International College.

He said the great thing about wrestling is there is “no one-size-fits-all method that leads to success.” But there are several qualities, traits, and habits that wrestlers possess. “They trust themselves and count on their teams to train together to get better. They aren’t afraid to try new things. They are disciplined, grateful, focused, detailed-oriented, and able to adjust.”

These are qualities, Paglia told BusinessWest, that positioned him well for his current role as chief operating officer at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, and the myriad challenges that have come with that assignment.

While working for Mercy Medical Center and its parent company, Trinity Health Of New England, Paglia served in several different roles, including executive director of Behavioral Health. He would sum up his tenure this way:

“I became the ‘project guy,’ the ‘turn-around guy,’ where I would be asked to go into departments or services that were really struggling both from a regulatory side or the financial side and turn them around,’” he said.

He was given a number of difficult assignments in that vein, such as leading efforts which led to the successful redesign of the methadone maintenance treatment program, resulting in two-year licensure with the Department of Public Health; leading efforts to open the new Clinical Stabilization Services unit; stabilizing redesign throughput for behavioral-health patients in Mercy’s emergency room; and leading the Outpatient department from a state of uncertainty to being fully licensed and financially viable. Ultimately, he was charged with winding down behavioral-health services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital when Trinity Health Of New England made the difficult decision to close them in 2020.

As noted, these experiences, including his wrestling prowess, helped steel him for what has been his most stern career challenge, but also the most rewarding one: opening a new behavioral-health hospital, MiraVista, at the Providence Hospital site in April 2021 — in very little time, in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of a nationwide nursing shortage and general workforce crisis, and at a time when the need for behavioral-health services was soaring due to COVID and the many ways it impacted people of all ages.

“I really find myself leading from behind, where I screen, recruit, and hire exceptional people, identify what the goals of the organization are, invite the individuals to participate, and identify what their passions are — what they believe in — and then empower them to go.”

But his efforts to open MiraVista’s doors under such difficult circumstances and then put it on a path to accreditation and expansion of both inpatient and outpatient services only partly explains why Paglia has been chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2022 in the Health/Wellness Administrator category.

Another key consideration is the manner in which he manages — and has managed throughout his career.

He calls it ‘invitational leadership,’ which, as that name suggests, aims to ‘invite’ employees and all other stakeholders to succeed. It involves sending positive messages to people, making them feel valued, able, responsible, and worthwhile.

“I identify goals for the organization and goals for the various departments, and then invite the individuals responsible for that work to participate and own the work,” he said while explaining what this practice means to him. “Through that, I really find myself leading from behind, where I screen, recruit, and hire exceptional people, identify what the goals of the organization are, invite the individuals to participate, and identify what their passions are — what they believe in — and then empower them to go.”

Summarizing thoughts expressed by team members at MiraVista, Erin Daley, chief Nursing officer and herself a Healthcare Hero in the Emerging Leader category in 2017, wrote in her nomination of Paglia:

“His impact is garnered through his compassionate and inclusive leadership of clinical and operations teams; we find Mark, more often than not, behind the scenes working with the team and individual staff members to make them as effective and productive as they can be. Universally, team members remarked that Mark inspires them to do their best work for patients and for each other because he makes them feel their contribution is valued and an essential part of the process. Simply put, he listens. He engages people and integrates ideas, and this is what distinguishes him as a hero; his impact has longevity and grows exponentially through others.”

Such sentiments explain why Paglia will be taking the stage at the Log Cabin on Oct. 27 to be recognized as a Healthcare Hero. More importantly, they explain why he has emerged as a true leader within this region’s healthcare sector.

 

Taking the Lead

Paglia took what would be considered a non-traditional path to his current post with MiraVista.

Indeed, after earning a degree in business management at AIC, he went to work for a flat-glass manufacturing company. Along the way, he was asked to coach wrestling at Minnechaug High School, a role that made him realize how much he liked working with young people and helping them develop.

Mark Paglia, seen here with several team members at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, practices what is known as the ‘invitational’ style of management.

Mark Paglia, seen here with several team members at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, practices what is known as the ‘invitational’ style of management.

That experience inspired him to go back to school to earn a teaching degree. He would eventually land a job in Connecticut working in a day-treatment program for youth with behavioral-health issues.

“I was really drawn to the kids, but I felt like I didn’t have enough time with them in the school setting,” he told BusinessWest, adding that these sentiments led to another rather sharp turn on the career path, this one taking him to a job as director of the Adolescent and Family Services Department at the Gándara Center’s main office in Springfield.

“I think that’s where I found my passion for caring for those who are in need,” he explained. “And that’s where I started to understand business management and performance management, and that’s where I learned the invitational model of empowering people; that was the foundation for my career.”

Fast-forwarding somewhat, Paglia said he spent nine years at Gándara before becoming program director for the Brightside Treatment Center, part of the Sisters of Providence Health System, in 2009, and later became director of Outpatient Services – Behavioral Health at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, and then executive director of Behavioral Health for Mercy Medical Center and its affiliates, including Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, Brightside, and behavioral-health services on the Mercy campus.

“I’m blessed to work with some of the most passionate, committed, extraordinary leaders … it’s a joy to come to work every day.”

While he was in that role, Trinity Health Of New England made the difficult decision to close Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in early 2021, leaving a huge void in services available to the public.

Seeking to fill that void, Health Partners of New England acquired the property with GFI Partners with the intention of bringing back inpatient psychiatric services and a compliment of substance-use programming. And it turned to Paglia to get that difficult job done.

Recalling those days and, ultimately, the reopening of that facility, Paglia said the sum of his previous experiences certainly helped him overcome a number of hurdles, adding that he was essentially starting up a new business, starting with the hiring of staff.

The first priority was the methadone clinic, which served 600 patients and needed to remain open, and did, with the transition from Trinity Health Of New England to MiraVista, sister facility to TaraVista Behavioral Health Center in Devens, taking place at midnight on April 20. What followed was a ramping up to open an adult inpatient psychiatric unit, he went on, adding that this was achieved 10 days after the acquisition, with a second unit added in June, followed by a detox unit and then an adolescent inpatient psychiatric unit, a clinical stabilization service unit, and other substance-use addiction services.

From left, Mark Paglia with Erin Daley, chief Nursing officer; Erica Trudell, director of Nursing for Inpatient Behavioral Health Services & Education; and Alicia Morel, Talent Acquisition specialist.

Overall, MiraVista has expanded inpatient bed capacity from 36 at opening to 101 today. This includes 50 acute-care psychiatric beds in separate units for adults and adolescents, 30 detoxification beds in its acute-treatment unit for substance-use disorders, and 21 beds in post-detoxification for individuals transitioning to outpatient care. And it is staffing up for the opening of another unit, a substance-use program. Meanwhile, planning and preparation continue for the opening of what Paglia called the most challenging unit — a child psychiatric facility — with an anticipated opening date of February 2023.

Overall, MiraVista has gone from one employee, Paglia, to roughly 350 team members in just over 16 months — again, in the middle of a pandemic and a workforce crisis. In a word, he described this as an “extraordinary” accomplishment, adding that “we are midway through our journey to hire the very best staff to reach an expected 650 employees.”

Equally impressive, he said, is the number of visits from the Joint Commission on Healthcare Accreditation that the facility and its team have endured on its way to accreditation.

“Typically, an organization has one visit every three years for their accreditation,” he explained. “Because we had different lines in different units open at different times, we had four surprise Joint Commission visits where they did a complete audit and survey, and I’m incredibly proud that we passed all four with deeemed status, which gives us the opportunity to qualify for our CMS-contracted services with Medicare and Medicaid, which is a difficult achievement. To do all that in one year is pretty extraordinary.”

“I picked up quickly a long time ago that when someone is passionate about what they’re doing, they have their own internal motivation to be successful.”

He credits all that MiraVista has achieved to date to the team of leaders he has assembled.

“I attribute a lot of it to the leaders that we were able to bring in to create the foundation for this organization,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m blessed to work with some of the most passionate, committed, extraordinary leaders … it’s a joy to come to work every day.”

 

Shared Mindset

One of the goals of invitational management is to make all members of a team feel the same way, Paglia explained, adding that he strives to accomplish such sentiment through active listening, getting employees involved, inspiring them to assume a sense of ownership in the operation, and making sure those in every position know they have an active role in the success of the company.

MiraVista Behavioral Health Center

MiraVista Behavioral Health Center is appropriately lit up for September, which is Recovery Month.

“I picked up quickly a long time ago that when someone is passionate about what they’re doing, they have their own internal motivation to be successful,” he said, adding that one of the goals for him and other leaders is to match this passion with career opportunities that will enable those individuals — and the company — to grow.

While doing all that, he also likes to bring fun into the equation. In fact, it’s a big part of the success formula.

“We plan for fun,” he said, adding that an ‘engagement committee’ he established has launched several initiatives that team members can take part in together, from a Halloween party to a recent barbecue and cornhole tournament; from an ice-cream social to fitness challenges.

The cornhole event and ‘mismatch day,’ where employees wear outfits that do not match, don’t explain why Paglia is an effective leader — or a Healthcare Hero for 2022 in the Administrator category.

But they are part of the explanation.

There are, in fact, many parts to this equation, but the result is an engaging administrator who has taken the lead at MiraVista — in every sense of that phrase.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Director of Medical Oncology, Sister Mary Caritas Cancer Center, Mercy Medical Center

This Physician Provides a Needed Blend of Science and Humanity

Leah Martin Photography

 

On one wall of Dr. Philip Glynn’s office at the Sister Mary Caritas Cancer Center, sharing space with some diplomas and a few other photographs, is a framed, signed picture of Glynn standing beside Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

Glynn was instrumental in bringing Mukherjee to Springfield several years ago for a talk at CityStage, and prevailed upon the author, and fellow oncologist, for a photo that would become a treasured keepsake.

As he talked with BusinessWest about his career and being chosen as the Healthcare Hero for 2022 in the Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider category, Glynn gestured toward the photo — but really Mukherjee and his widely acclaimed book — on several occasions.

He did so to indicate everything from his great fondness for the book and general agreement its author on the progress made to date to the promise of great advancements in the future, to the fact that cancer, treating patients diagnosed with it, and providing them and their families with an all-important support system has in many ways defined his life and career.

Indeed, for more than 35 years now, Glynn has been at the forefront of cancer treatment in this region, touching the lives of several generations of area residents, and in many different ways — but mostly by providing quality of life, however it is to be defined by each patient, a subject we’ll return to later.

“It’s such a challenging balance — the human side and the science side. We are all disciplined to make sure that we stay abreast of the science side — that’s our fundamental responsibility, and it all starts with knowledge; there’s no substitute for that. How you integrate that into what patients need on a daily basis … that’s the art of it.”

While he is being honored as a Healthcare Hero in the Provider category, Glynn could be a recipient in almost every one of the others, with the notable exception of Emerging Leader, which would have been an apt description a few decades ago.

He has been an effective administrator and leader, having been instrumental in creating a comprehensive oncology program at Mercy that rivals anything that can be found in much larger cities such as Boston and New York.

Meanwhile, he has been innovative on many fronts, from the telehealth program he piloted in 2017 that allows Mercy cancer patients to get a second opinion on treatment from physicians at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, to his leadership role in creation of a new palliative-care unit that at Mercy that take the name of one of Glynn’s patients, the late restaurateur and serial entrepreneur Andy Yee.

He would certainly draw consideration in the Community Health and Collaboration categories for his work in this region to not only treat cancer but work in concert with others to diagnose and prevent it. And the sum of his many accomplishments would make him worthy of the Lifetime Achievement honor.

Dr. Philip Glynn, seen here with Oncology Nurse Manager Cynthia Leonard

Dr. Philip Glynn, seen here with Oncology Nurse Manager Cynthia Leonard (left) and Stephanie Palange, RN, has spent his career guiding patients and their families through their cancer ‘journeys.’

But he is being honored in the Provider category because this is what Glynn, who is certified in medical oncology, palliative care and hospice, and internal medicine is perhaps most noted for — being a provider, of not only direct care, but also information, guidance, and, on many occasions, inspiration to fight the most difficult fight of one’s life.

He is described as a fierce advocate for his patients and a great listener who enables patients and their family members to be heard. Glynn said that what begins when individuals hear that they have cancer is a journey, one that often tests them in ways they could not have foreseen or imagined, and he is there with them for every step of that journey.

Overall, he described oncology as an intricate, all-important blend of science and humanity.

“It’s such a challenging balance — the human side and the science side,” he said. “We are all disciplined to make sure that we stay abreast of the science side — that’s our fundamental responsibility, and it all starts with knowledge; there’s no substitute for that. How you integrate that into what patients need on a daily basis … that’s the art of it.

“The other thing that’s really important is that you don’t give treatment for hope. You give treatment to help people live longer and better.”

“And that’s where the greatest satisfaction comes in,” he continued. “When you sit down with someone and say, ‘here’s what we’ve got, here’s the science that will take care of this disease, here’s the limits of the science for this disease’ — that communication with the patient, with the family, brings you to the point where they’re comfortable with the plan of action.”

Making patients and families comfortable, in every sense of that term, is why Glynn is certainly worthy to be called a Healthcare Hero.

 

A Compelling Story

As he offered BusinessWest a tour of the Caritas Center, Glynn talked with recognizable pride in his voice about what has been accomplished at that facility.

Formerly a provider of radiation treatment, it is now a true cancer center, he said, noting that it now includes a large treatment space with more than 30 infusion bays, an oncology pharmacy, laboratory space, and other facilities. Overall, the center provides care that may include cancer surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and clinical trials that provide patients with access to new treatments.

In many respects, the expansion and evolution of the cancer center is the culmination of a career spent in oncology, one that was inspired by many factors and several role models.

Early on, however, Glynn wasn’t sure if he was a good enough student or if he would work hard enough to pursue a career a health career.

Two summers working as an orderly at an Appalachian hospital in West Virginia while he was attending Boston College eventually convinced him that he did.

“The second summer I was there, I was hooked. I said, ‘this is what I want to do,’” he recalled. “It was a great experience; it all become something that I wanted to be part of.”

Glynn earned a degree in psychology at BC, attended Columbia University for pre-med, and earned his medical degree in Italy after failing to gain admission to schools in this country (and learning Italian). After residency at St. Raphael Hospital in New Haven, he completed a medical oncology fellowship at Baystate Medical Center.

Initially, he had visions of becoming a primary-care physician in a rural setting, but during residency, several role models in oncology steered him toward that specialty. He went into private practice, first in Agawam and then Springfield, while also serving as director of Medical Oncology at Noble Hospital and the Noble VNA and Hospice Service.

In 2012, he joined Mercy Medical Center and the Sister Caritas Cancer Center as director of Medical Oncology. In that role, he wears many hats and is responsible for all aspects of the program, including cancer prevention, screening, diagnosis, state-of-the-art treatment and services, counseling, and rehabilitation. He also assists with the implementation of new initiatives, such as cancer survivorship, navigation, community outreach, and clinical research and clinical-trial participation.

He is also a provider, seeing 20 patients a day on average and guiding them through their own individual journey that generally begins with three basic questions regarding their cancer: ‘what is it?’ ‘how much is there?’ and ‘what are you going to do about it?’”

Obviously, the answer to that last question has changed most profoundly over the course of his career.

“I couldn’t have imagined it when I started; it’s changed that much,” Glynn said, gesturing toward the picture on the wall and how Mukherjee had carefully and effectively chronicled the advancements. “Seventy years ago, we did gruesome surgery, and then we had gruesome surgery with radiation, and then you added in chemotherapy. But now we’ve learned about cell biology and what drives cancer cells, so we look at genes, potential immunotherapy, a host of options; it’s absolutely exceptional.”

His ultimate goal is to bring to each patient an improved quality of life, which, as noted, varies with each case.

“If you come in, an oncologist sits down, describes to you what you have, and says, ‘this is not a curable disease; this is lung cancer that has spread to the bone,’ or ‘this is colorectal cancer that has gone to multiple different organs; you do not have a curable disease. Then, what becomes critically important is to give a treatment that is going to ideally shrink the tumor and help someone live longer and better,” he explained. “You need to avoid treatments that are going to make the treatment worse than the disease. Someone may come in with bad disease, but they’re not terribly symptomatic with it … you don’t want to give them a treatment that’s going to be terribly debilitating if you can’t give them some kind of promise that they’re going to live longer from it.

“On the other hand, if you take the other end of the spectrum, the 22-year-old kid with an advanced testicular cancer … that kind can be cured,” he went on. “You have the conversation with him and say, ‘look, the next several months are going to be hell, but you’re going to get through it, and you’re walking away. That quality of life is a quality of life you’re giving a promise to — ‘you’re going to be OK,’ as opposed to the quality of life of ‘this isn’t curable, but we’re going to make sure you’re as comfortable as you possibly can be.

“The other thing that’s really important is that you don’t give treatment for hope,” Glynn continued. “You give treatment to help people live longer and better.” All this brings him back to that integration of humanity and science that he spoke of earlier, a balance, he said, which is at the very heart of effective oncology care.

There are many aspects to this equation, he added, with one of the most important, and sometimes the challenging, being communication and providing information.

“And there are times when it gets really hard,” he explained. “We live in a world that’s packed with information. Some of it’s good, and some of it’s not so good. Patients come in with very unrealistic expectations, and that becomes a very challenging conversation.”

For that reason, he brings patients to his office, positions them in front of his computer, and directs them to websites he considers reliable, with much of the rest he described as ‘storytelling.’

He said patients — and, often, family members — want and need to know about everything from prognosis to the toxicity of treatments; from their therapeutic options to recovery time and what recovery will be like.

“But it’s also important to let them know that we’re going to have a support system there for them,” he explained. “There is going to be a doctor available 24/7.”

Throughout his career, Glynn has been that doctor, there for early-morning and late-night phone calls to make sure patients are heard, and staying with them often well beyond the end of treatment, regardless of outcome.

 

The Plot Thickens

Returning once again to the photo on wall, Glynn said he believes the best message of that book is the promise of the future.

“He [Mukherjee] says that we probably won’t cure cancer, and I find that sensible,” Glynn noted. “After all, we don’t cure diabetes, we don’t cure heart disease, and we won’t cure cancer.”

But there will be new advancements, new and better ways of screening, preventing, and treating the emperor of all maladies, he said, adding that, while his career is winding toward its conclusion, the oncologists who follow him will have new, previously unimagined tools with which to carry on the fight.

And they can certainly draw inspiration from him.

Glynn may not have written the definitive biography of cancer, but he has authored a remarkable career, one marked by treating patients with respect and dignity, handling the heavy burden of their care with grace and humility, and providing that critical blend of science and humanity.

And that makes him more of than worthy of the title Healthcare Hero.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic and Its Partners at Springfield College and UMass Amherst

Helping People with Brain Injuries Maintain Function Is a Unique
Group Effort

Leah Martin Photography

Ellen Werner has been helping people with acquired brain injuries for decades.

But since she arrived at ServiceNet a decade ago, she’s learned how powerful collaboration can be in serving this population that often falls through the cracks in today’s healthcare system.

Werner’s work with ABI patients began in Pennsylvania, at one of the first dedicated brain-injury rehabilitation programs in the country, Bryn Mawr Rehab. After moving to Massachusetts, she did homeless outreach through the Statewide Head Injury Program that was created in 1985. “I was trying to find people in shelters that had brain injuries and needed proper medical care and housing.”

When she was approached by the then-vice president of ServiceNet to help launch its Enrichment Center in 2013, she was intrigued; the center helps people with brain injuries to become more functional and engaged with others and their community.

“I had some kind of an understanding of what I wanted to do for these people and what kind of opportunities I wanted to be able to provide them,” said Werner. “But I just didn’t know how we were going to afford therapies. The agency had already put in a lot of money just opening the program, so that’s when I started sending out messages. Springfield College was the first to respond to them.”

Today, the Enrichment Center and ServiceNet’s Strive Clinic in West Springfield — day programs for adults with brain injury caused by trauma or medical conditions — actively collaborate with two area academic institutions to provide outstanding rehabilitative care, while helping train the healthcare professionals of tomorrow.

“I had some kind of an understanding of what I wanted to do for these people and what kind of opportunities I wanted to be able to provide them.”

This work began in 2014 when Werner, director of Operations at the Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic, met with leaders of the Physical Therapy program at Springfield College to develop an innovative model of community-based care that would bring in graduate students, under the direction of their instructors and on-site clinical staff, to work with clients on a variety of PT modalities. The model proved so successful that this partnership expanded in 2017 to involve the Communications Disorders program at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health & Health Sciences in developing and providing speech-language pathology services at the Enrichment Center.

Since she facilitated those partnerships with Springfield College and UMass Amherst to better serve people with ABIs, the program has grown from a small group of students and instructors to a full-fledged clinical team.

Lisa Sommers, clinical director and clinical associate professor in Communication Disorders at UMass Amherst, said the partnership with the Enrichment Center is a natural offshoot of the clinical training program first-year graduate students have to complete.

Kathy Pappas

Kathy Pappas says the program wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for Ellen Werner.

Kathleen Pappas, associate professor of Physical Therapy at Springfield College, agreed. “It really aligns with the mission of Springfield College to educate our students to become leaders in service.”

 

Specialized Care

The Enrichment Center is an adult day-care center that offers physical, occupational, and speech and language therapies as needed, but clients also have the ability to choose from an array of activities to help promote cognitive growth and social interaction, such as support groups, music and dance sessions, arts and crafts, and trips to museums, bowling alleys, and movie theaters.

The Strive Clinic uses the Enrichment Center’s well-equipped gym, providing a safe space for limited-contact services by appointment only, which allows for more individual work for a client.

Clients at the Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic are typically adults with ABIs, many of whom suffered them years ago. Brain injuries can be inflicted by traumatic, external forces, such as car accidents, assaults, and other forms of violence, or from medical issues, such as strokes, aneurisms, and brain tumors. An ABI can cause changes in identity, mental health, relationships, family structure, the ability to work, and economic status.

Years past the big event that altered their life, people with ABIs sometimes fall off the radar in the healthcare system, but ServiceNet and its partners want to change that. Clients are able to go through the Acquired Brain Injury/Moving Forward Plan (ABI/MFP) waiver program.

“There’s some kind of a beautiful milieu … that is developed between them.”

“With the waiver, there’s really no end to the amount of therapy that we could provide people,” Werner said. “Our clients have really benefited from it; it’s just wonderful. We’ve had people that have been in wheelchairs for years, and now Kathy is getting them up, standing and walking. And we have clients that didn’t have communication devices that really benefit from them and the sessions provided now. There are all sorts of things that we’re able to do that we wouldn’t be able to do if we had just traditional insurance.”

Maintaining the client’s level, or hopefully going beyond it, requires constant, consistent therapy, she noted, so the waiver program allows the center and clinic to be more flexible in accepting and keeping clients. At the same time, the State Licensing Board of Massachusetts requires the facilities to follow all the same regulations any other clinic would follow.

The main focus for both facilities is to help people who are living with a brain injury to become more functional and engaged with others. And because every brain injury is different, students get a more varied education than they might elsewhere.

“By having us, the instructors, available on site, providing the supervision, we know exactly where they are in the curriculum,” Pappas said. “We hold them accountable to applying the knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom and measuring that as they prepare to become entry-level clinicians.”

Because there isn’t any prior conditioning, students are able to adapt to the center and provide the care clients need, she noted. In short, they come in with a learner attitude, so they’re more receptive to the clients and their habits.

Many people have a narrow idea of what therapy is and what it should look like, but the programs provided by the Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic “really explode that,” said Michael Starr, clinical instructor and supervisor in Communication Disorders at UMass Amherst. He went on to explain the relationships this intense care creates in the center.

Lisa Sommers says the Strive Center teaches students how to provide continuous services for a person who is living with an ABI.

Lisa Sommers says the Strive Center teaches students how to provide continuous services for a person who is living with an ABI.

“At the end of a recent spring semester, the student clinician got a beautiful thank-you note written by this client who has a really hard time expressing herself through writing. They had been working on it all semester. So she was able to do that and send it to the clinician, which was amazing and left everyone in tears.”

Sommers said the client and student spend the semester teaching and connecting with one another, and that connection leaves a lasting impact on both of them.

“There’s some kind of a beautiful milieu, like Michael said, that is developed between them,” she added. “I think it teaches them how to provide services across the continuum of a person’s life who is living with a brain injury.”

But while students and faculty are impacted, Starr added, the program can be life-changing for the clients at the Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic.

“The clients really love it so much. Certain clients will park themselves outside of our offices and wait and sometimes demand a session,” he noted. “Or I’ll go to get someone and say, ‘hey, do you have 30 minutes for a session?’ and they really want it, but they say, “I have to go to PT first,” and they’re on their way to PT because they’re not going to miss their appointment for love or money. They’ll come back and see me after. They just really love our services.”

He went on to tell BusinessWest that, because of their injury and especially when living in small group homes, clients can be marginalized or cut off from what’s happening in the world around them. Sommers agreed.

“When people encounter the medical system, there is so much that is determined for the patient, particularly when the patient can’t communicate or has cognitive impairments,” she said. “They don’t get to participate in person-centered care, which we know has the best outcomes, but is not really the model used in our healthcare system. And there are so many barriers for people — just think of all the cognitive challenges that are in our healthcare system. I can’t even navigate my own health insurance half the time and struggle if something isn’t covered or denied.”

Historically, the healthcare system has been “a top-down, patriarchal model,” Sommers added, putting clients in a vulnerable position emotionally, financially, medically, and more. Through the Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic, that model is upended, allowing clients “to have agency, to have a voice, to be able to say what they want and be able to say.”

 

Striving for Tomorrow

In supporting the program’s Healthcare Heroes nomination, Amy Timmins, vice president of Community Relations at ServiceNet, noted that “the partnership between ServiceNet, Springfield College, and the University of Massachusetts exemplifies the vision and innovation so central to the Pioneer Valley — where academic and healthcare programs are each strengthened by the other, for the benefit of those they serve. In working together, they have created an environment where new goals and possibilities are free to take hold every day.”

That they have, which is why Sommers sees potential for other collaborations; in fact, the clinical educators she’s worked with have also articulated as much because of the opportunities collaboration brings to the community.

Their next goal: “world domination,” Werner said with a laugh. Actually, she wants to continue to create more opportunities for people living with ABIs.

“In healthcare, it’s all about collaborating with other professionals, and Ellen has brought that to the top and forefront of what’s best for these clients,” Pappas said. “Without her vision and enthusiasm and ability to really work within and out of the system to make things happen, none of us would be here. So I am eternally grateful to her for what she’s given our students as opportunities and what she’s given to the clients on a daily basis.”

For finding and fostering the connections that not only help people with acquired brain injury, but cultivating the next generation of therapists, ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic, and its academic partners, are certainly worthy of being called Healthcare Heroes.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Division Chief, General Medicine and Community Health, Baystate Health

He Convened a Broad, Effective, Street-level Response to a Pandemic

Leah Martin Photography

 

From his years working at a VA hospital in Rhode Island to his more recent community-health role overseeing Baystate Health’s medical practices in Springfield, Dr. Paul Pirraglia has always seen himself as a problem solver.

“It’s gratifying to take care of a patient and get a problem solved, or at least controlled for them — when you can address a concern that is having an impact, not just around a health issue, but in a broader sort of way,” he said. “Take a patient who has diabetes. You can get their diabetes under control, but because food is such a huge part of diabetes, if you can actually get them access to good, nutritious foods, then it’s not just about the diabetes; it’s a life changer in a way.

“As medical professionals, we really want to make a difference in people’s lives,” he went on. “So it’s gratifying to be able to serve when there’s a substantive need.”

COVID-19 would certainly qualify.

Which is why Dr. Andrew Artenstein, Baystate’s chief physician executive, who spearheaded pandemic response throughout the system when COVID arrived early in 2020, asked Pirraglia and Dr. Jackie Spain, co-chief medical officer of Baystate’s BeHealthy ACO, to convene a workgroup to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the most vulnerable patients in the community, particularly those with significant social needs.

“It was clear that traditionally underserved populations were going to get hit especially hard by this pandemic.”

The workgroup included representatives from Baystate Health and its four community health centers, Caring Health Center, the BeHealthy Partnership (a Medicaid accountable-care organization, or ACO, that includes Health New England as the insurer and Baystate Health and Caring Health Center as care sites), the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School – Baystate.

The group looked at factors that could contribute to risk, such as low-income housing, where COVID cases were occurring, where ACO members lived, medical conditions were associated with worse COVID outcomes, as well as solutions such as access to pharmacies that home-deliver, food delivery, and transportation.

“On a personal level, I’m drawn to research: here’s a vexing problem; how do we solve it?” Pirraglia said, which is one reason this strategy resonated with him. “When Dr. Artenstein said we needed to do something, it was very, very early on, but it was clear that traditionally underserved populations were going to get hit especially hard by this pandemic. He said, ‘do what you need to do; I’ve got your back.’ So what Jackie and I did was convene a group which was not limited to just Baystate; we got all the leaders we needed.”

That included professionals from a wide range of offices at Baystate and beyond, from infection control to diagnostics and laboratory; from diversity, equity, and inclusion to community relations.

“We were able to pull together a multi-disciplinary group of folks who saw the importance of convening and doing this work,” Pirraglia said. “Despite the jobs they had and their schedules, we met on a weekly basis for many, many months in a row; attendance was phenomenal. That’s because people saw the need to do this.”

This Springfield Housing Authority testing event

This Springfield Housing Authority testing event was organized by the COVID mitigation team.

The goal was to figure out the needs of the Springfield population and communicate with them in a way that was meaningful, and the work progressed rapidly.

Initially, the workgroup explored ways to protect people who were at risk, trying to catch people who had not been infected and keep them from getting infected, while identifying who was infected and making sure those around them had protection. To aid in this effort, a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts enabled community health workers (CHWs) to supply materials such as facemasks, portable pulse oximeters to measure blood-oxygen levels, and room dividers and air mattresses so families could quarantine within their own living spaces.

“We really broke into two groups, one group more patient-facing and another group more community-facing, and then continued to meet and engage and make sure there was good crosstalk back and forth between us,” Pirraglia told BusinessWest, while stressing the importance of communication early on.

“The communication was with the community and within all the different groups that were participating in this workgroup. But we were also communicating with our community health workers, the on-the-ground folks, the ones gathering the patient needs and delivering on those needs. And the communication, I have to say, was pretty robust, in large part because people were committed to making this happen.”

The group performed geographic analysis to determine where to focus its efforts, gathering information about patient conditions in various areas so they could inform the CHWs on the ground about which areas were riskiest and who needed help, he explained.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important our community health workers were in this work. We were the coaches, but they were the players; they were the ones on the field making this happen.”

“We had to prioritize what we were doing, so communication was paramount. At our Tuesday meetings every week, we’d say, ‘this is what the maps are showing, this is what we now about pharmacy deliveries, this is what we know about food deliveries, this is what we know about the ability to reach out to people.’ We needed to make sure all the different arms knew what the others were doing so we were able to work in concert.”

 

Mission Accepted

In nominating him for the Healthcare Heroes award in the Collaboration category, Michael Knapik, Baystate’s vice president of Government and Community Relations, noted that Pirraglia — an attending physician who sees some of the city’s most vulnerable patients at Baystate Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center and also a professor of Medicine at UMass Chan Medical School – Baystate who teaches residents at Baystate High Street Health Center and Baystate Brightwood Health Center — has always been mission-driven.

“This became especially important as the COVID pandemic snapped into sharp focus the inequities that have been occurring in healthcare,” Knapik said. “People who were already suffering due to inequities related to their vulnerabilities — socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and identification factors as well as medical comorbidity all contributing — were now at highest risk from COVID-19 in terms of cases, hospitalizations, and death.”

But Pirraglia himself stressed multiple times during his interview with BusinessWest that he’s not the Healthcare Hero here, not really.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important our community health workers were in this work,” he said. “We were the coaches, but they were the players; they were the ones on the field making this happen. Based on priority lists that we made for them, they were able to reach out to patients and find out what their needs were. We created a needs assessment, and then the CHWs were the ones who came up with a contact-free delivery system. COVID mitigation isn’t their primary work, but they jumped in with both feet: ‘what do you need us to do?’ If you ask me, they’re the heroes.”

As the initial surge eased and vaccines became available early in 2021, the workgroup pivoted to that effort, as vaccination delivery to traditionally underserved groups has been a challenge in a state where early allocations from the federal government were deemed insufficient to supply both mass-vaccination sites and smaller providers, Knapik noted. The rollout through a state registration site put those without access to the internet, as well as transportation to such sites, at a disadvantage.

To address this, Baystate started to vaccinate patients age 75 and older from its community health centers in lockstep with the state’s phased rollout, with staff calling patients and inviting them to get vaccinated. In all, they were able to vaccinate 650 people over the course of six weeks, many of them individuals who would have had difficulty getting to any of the state sites. Meanwhile, the workgroup used a series of webinars and other outreach programs to communicate the importance and safety of vaccines.

Pirraglia and his team prepared a lengthy article for the International Journal for Equity in Health last year called “COVID-19 Mitigation for High-risk Populations in Springfield,” detailing the workgroup’s efforts. It concluded, “our highly intentional and methodical approach to patient and community outreach with a strong geographic component has led to fruitful efforts in COVID-19 mitigation. Our patient-level outreach engages our health centers’ clinical teams, particularly community health workers, and is providing the direct benefit of material and service resources for our at-risk patients and their families. Our community efforts leveraged existing relationships and created new partnerships that continue to inform us — healthcare entities, healthcare employees, and clinical teams — so that we can grow and learn in order to authentically build trust and engagement.”

That’s not to say the group couldn’t have done some things differently, Pirraglia said. “It’s difficult because we’re not in a setting where these entities would necessarily be meeting and collaborating. So there was probably more we could have done that was broader and more in concert.

“But I feel confident that, if another crisis came, we could convene another group, or at least use the methodology we used,” he continued. “Certainly, the community outreach and patient-oriented piece of it worked really well, and we’d probably carry that forward if we had another crisis. It really was, in my mind, highly effective.”

 

Mission Accomplished

As noted earlier, Pirraglia has always taken a mission-based approach to care.

“What I mean by that is we take care of a traditionally underserved population with a lot of social challenges in their life,” he told BusinessWest. “These are patients who have difficulty with travel, with food, with shelter, with a lot of other issues in their lives. So just being able to deliver care is more challenging because the patients oftentimes have these other contexts to deal with. Our work has been to try to deliver the best care we can to our patients despite some of the challenges they face.”

Throw in a pandemic, and … well, you can see why we consider the effort heroic, even though Pirraglia doesn’t consider himself a hero.

“It was a really gratifying experience to have people totally on point, using their expertise in trying to figure out this really scary problem,” he said. “We learned that you can be nimble, you can be collaborative, you can tackle a really complex problem. And when you’re working on a group like this and the communication is good, the sense of mission is good, and there’s clarity about where we’re going with it, great things can happen.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Health and Human Services Commissioner, City of Springfield

Public Health Has Become Her Life’s Work

Leah Martin Photography

When then-Mayor Michael Albano invited her to take on the considerable challenge of directing Springfield’s Health Department and Human Services Department as one entity and oversee that consolidation effort, Helen Caulton-Harris was caught somewhat off guard.

She didn’t know Albano, was not active in his campaign for the corner office, and was not expecting any invitations to join his administration.

So when the request came, she had to think about it for a while, but eventually said ‘yes.’ But certainly not with the expectation that 26 years and two mayors (including the current office holder, Domenic Sarno, who has had the job for 14 years) later, she would still have that title on her business card.

“I certainly didn’t see this as something that I would be doing two and half decades later,” she said, adding that she has stayed in this post for several reasons, but especially because she loves not only the work, but also her ability to make a real difference in the community, and also because there is still considerable work to do.

And there are always new and different challenges to meet, not the least of which is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has tested Caulton-Harris and her department in every way imaginable. It has also been a learning experience on many different levels, as we’ll see, and one that has provided some valuable lessons on how things can be done better and more efficiently.

“The way in which our public-health community has shifted because of the pandemic is that we’ve learned to work together,” she told BusinessWest. “We understood that we had to collaborate and coordinate, and that we must share information. We’re no longer working exclusively in silos; we are working across the public-health venue.

“The way in which our public-health community has shifted because of the pandemic is that we’ve learned to work together.”

“Every two weeks, we have a session with all of our partners to talk about our outreach, lessons learned, and best practices,” she went on. “So those things are part of what has happened as far as COVID-19 is concerned — our communication strategies have become more concrete.”

Caulton-Harris is the 2022 Healthcare Hero in the prestigious Lifetime Achievement category, and she has truly accomplished quite a bit in her career, especially this current chapter.

Overall, she has been an advocate, a true believer in the power of information — she preaches education — and a leader who has taken problems head on and achieved notable progress in areas ranging from teen pregnancy to infant mortality; from care for the homeless population to policies limiting smoking in public places; from substance-use disorders to violence prevention.

There are always new challenges, she said, adding that, today, there are many that she and her department are addressing as the landscape continues to change and evolve.

“Today, we’re dealing with the legalization of marijuana; cannabis is legal, but we still need to educate people about it,” she noted. “Also, gaming and problem gambling. We also have an opioid crisis, which is different than other substance-abuse matters because of fentanyl and the cheap way in which individuals are getting their products and how it escalates and has such an impact on our young people and our communities as well.”

Helen Caulton-Harris has tackled many different public-health issues

Helen Caulton-Harris has tackled many different public-health issues over the years, from teen pregnancy and infant mortality to violence, drugs, and HIV/AIDS. Leah Martin Photography

While there have been many accomplishments during her lengthy career, she considers the biggest to be the merger of the Health and Human Services departments into one entity.

“They should not be seen as separate — they flow together,” she said with clear conviction in her voice. “I describe public health as a social-justice movement rooted in science. And Human Services really is about social justice.”

For all that she has accomplished during her life and career, and for the manner in which she has worked to improve the health and well-being of all those living, working, and doing business in the City of Homes, Caulton-Harris is a true Healthcare Hero.

 

A Life’s Work

When asked if she misses the regular weekly press briefings that came to symbolize the early months of the pandemic, Caulton-Harris flashed a wide smile and said simply, “not really.”

Those briefings, which also featured Sarno; Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health; and Dr. Robert Roose, chief administrative officer at Mercy Medical Center, were conducted to keep city residents informed about was happening and what to possibly expect next, and provide up-to-date statistics concerning cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and more.

She doesn’t miss them because they came to symbolize the very worst days of the pandemic in a city that was hit very hard by COVID. But also because, while Caulton-Harris, as noted, preaches the importance of information and education and still makes regular appearances on TV, she prefers not to be in front of the camera. Instead, she would rather be working behind the scenes, advocating of behalf of area residents and providing a voice for those who struggle to make to make their voice heard.

It has been that way since her early days in the broad realm of healthcare, working with women on the issue of reproductive health, a subject which has, to a large degree, come full circle with the recent Supreme Court vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (more on that later).

“I would talk to them about the choices as far as pregnancy, whether that was to continue the pregnancy, terminate, or adopt,” she said. “So very early on in my career, I became an advocate.”

Later, while working at what is now the Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center, she was influenced by several role models, especially African-American nurses, who showed her that there were career paths for young people like her.

“I got an opportunity to see what the possibilities were for my own career,” she said. “There were individuals from my community who were making a difference in the lives of others.”

“I did not believe it was going to go on for two and half years — we’re still dealing with the pandemic today. Early on, we thought it might be a month or two, but it continues to be a pervasive virus that we’re dealing with.”

In 1994, Caulton-Harris would become executive director of the Area Health Education Center at Springfield Technical Community College, one of six such facilities in the Commonwealth, a role that enabled her to work with young people who were interested in careers in healthcare.

“I got to mentor and nurture them in a way that was very special to me,” she said, adding that, while she was in that post, she was approached by Albano about being the first commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Recalling that conversation she had with the mayor about this opportunity that doubled as a stern challenge, she said it focused on why the departments should be merged and how that should be undertaken, but also how such a merger could help address the emerging health issues of that day.

And there were many of them, she recalled, citing a sky-high teen-pregnancy rate, an equally alarming infant-mortality rate, HIV/AIDS, violence, and drugs, among others.

And it was that conversation that prompted her to leave what was a good position and step into one that would be challenging on many levels but also one that would enable her to impact lives and make a difference in the community.

“I was not quite clear on the politics of the position,” she admitted. “For me, I filtered it with the fact that I really can make a difference in the city by putting policies in place that would stay as a foundation moving forward.”

And that is exactly what she has done.

 

Learning Experiences

While tackling the many challenges that impact health, Caulton-Harris and other city leaders were confronted by the pandemic, which in some ways defines her career, but also sums up her straight-on approach to issues affecting the public.

“The pandemic was something that I was not prepared for and could not have foreseen as something that I would have to deal with,” she told BusinessWest. “I don’t think anyone thought we’d be dealing with a pandemic like we did in 1918, but here we are, 100 years later, dealing with a global pandemic that was devastating the world.

“Very early on, it was clear that this was devastating — our hospitals were overrun with COVID patients; our community was devastated. The Black and Brown communities in the city of Springfield probably got hit the hardest in terms of livelihood and being able to work, so we knew that staying home from some jobs simply wasn’t an option for some people. So it was all-consuming; I lived COVID-19 education every day, and I continue to do that.”

The seriousness of the virus was one issue, Caulton-Harris went on, adding that the degree of difficulty in coping with the situation was compounded by information from state and federal agencies that was often lacking, inconsistent, and at times quite confusing.

“In the early part of the pandemic, we were told that masks were not necessary, and then we were told we needed to mask up,” she recalled. “We did not have vaccines, so education and working with the public became critical. It was my lived public-health experience that enabled me to take on the pandemic. I did not believe it was going to go on for two and half years — we’re still dealing with the pandemic today. Early on, we thought it might be a month or two, but it continues to be a pervasive virus that we’re dealing with.”

As she noted, the COVID experience, if you will, has generated improvement in how those involved in matters of public health communicate, collaborate, and work together to serve the community.

As an example, she cited the work of a collective that came to be known as the ‘VAX FORCE.’

“This was a combination of physicians, community members, researchers … there were 15 individuals who were appointed by Mayor Sarno to be part of this VAX FORCE,” she recalled. “We met to put strategies in place to be able to work with the public, and that manifested itself in vaccination clinics that we had in the North End, the South End, Mason Square, Indian Orchard, and other neighborhoods. We were very intentional about the fact that we had to meet people where they were, and we used all of the expertise of the individuals on the VAX FORCE to come up with a strategy to market and make sure we were hitting all the various communities that we needed to hit.

“That, to me, was a very important strategy, and one that we put together in a way that was different than what we would have done had we not experienced the pandemic,” she went on, adding that this will be the blueprint for how to do things moving forward.

 

The Next Chapter

When asked what might come next for her as she nears retirement age, Caulton-Harris opted to borrow some words used recently by tennis star Serena Williams, who eschewed the term ‘retirement,’ and instead said that she will be ‘transitioning,’ or ‘evolving.’

Caulton-Harris said she will likely be doing some of the same, noting she is working on a book, a personal history of sorts, that she started maybe a decade ago.

“It’s going to be about the journey that I’ve had, from the public-health perspective, but also the personal side,” she said. “I think it’s important to be able to talk about the experiences and let people know the human side of who we are.”

Some would say she’s already written the book, the one about how to be a true leader in public health and make a difference in the community. The one about how to be a Healthcare Hero.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News Elder Care HCN News & Notes Health Care Healthcare Heroes News Retirement Planning Senior Planning Summer Safety

SPRINGFIELD — In the spring of 2017, Healthcare News and its sister publication, BusinessWest, created a new and exciting recognition program called Healthcare Heroes.

It was launched with the theory that there are heroes working all across this region’s wide, deep, and all-important healthcare sector, and that there was no shortage of fascinating stories to tell and individuals and groups to honor. That theory has certainly been validated.

But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of heroes whose stories we still need to tell, especially in these times, when the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many types of heroes to the forefront. And that’s where you come in.

Nominations for the class of 2022 are due July 29, and we encourage you to get involved and help recognize someone you consider to be a hero in the community we call Western Mass. in one (or more) of these seven categories:

• Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider;

•  Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration;

• Emerging Leader;

• Community Health;

• Innovation in Health/Wellness;

•  Collaboration in Health/Wellness; and

• Lifetime Achievement.

Nominations can be submitted at

https://businesswest.com/healthcare-heroes/nominations/

For more information call Melissa Hallock, Marketing and Events Director, at (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or email to [email protected]

Cover Story Event Galleries Healthcare Heroes Special Coverage

We celebrated our 2021 Healthcare Heroes on Thursday, Oct. 21 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke.

View the 2021 Healthcare Heroes Program Guide HERE

This year’s Healthcare Heroes program was  sponsored by: presenting sponsors Elms College and Baystate Health/Health New England, and partner sponsor Trinity Health Of New England/Mercy Medical Center.

Watch the Thursday, Oct. 21 Healthcare Heroes Event HERE!

Presenting Sponsors

Partner Sponsors

Healthcare Heroes

Lifetime Achievement

President and CEO, Center for Human Development

Jim Goodwin

Jim Goodwin

In His Long History with CHD, He’s Seen Plenty of Lives Changed

On more than one occasion as he spoke with BusinessWest, Jim Goodwin referred to “short-termers” — employees who, for whatever reason, don’t stay at the Center for Human Development for very long, and don’t get to see the full scope of CHD’s impact on individual lives.

And that’s unfortunate because that impact, he noted, can be slow.

“One of the positives about being here a long time is you get to see how things change,” said Goodwin, the organization’s president and CEO. “We’re not working with a group of people where you sit down and have a conversation and they come away changed. It’s a process.”

For instance, he said, “people that experience serious substance-use issues often try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, and then they make some progress. When you’ve been around a while, you know failure is part of the process, and you see the change over time.

“It’s the same thing with mental health,” he went on. “Certain things in mental health never go away. It’s like diabetes; it’s with you for life. You figure out how to cope with it, how to live with it — and that is a long, hard process.”

That process may include a combination of resources, from medications to therapy to stress-management strategies, he explained.

“When you get to see it happen over time, you see that people can learn skills, they can learn to function normally with various forms of mental illness. You see the difference in people who get services and hang in there and fight the fight and come out the other end. I’ve gotten to see a lot of people come out the other end, develop those skills, and change their lives.”

“People that experience serious substance-use issues often try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, and then they make some progress. When you’ve been around a while, you know failure is part of the process, and you see the change over time.”

In his 42 years with CHD, the last 16 as president and CEO, Goodwin has seen plenty of growth; since 2005, the agency has grown from a $48 million entity to $125 million, and from around 1,300 employees to 2,000. He sees the impact, as he noted, in those individual lives changed, but it’s the sheer number of those stories, and the scope of CHD’s work, that has earned Goodwin the title of Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the Lifetime Achievement category.

“There are a lot of things I’m proud of,” he said, trying to sum up those years. “CHD has had tremendous growth over the years. And as needs have changed, we’ve been able to change and adapt and provide services in more areas.”

Opioid use is one such growth area, he noted. “Over the years, the need for substance-use services has grown substantially, and that has required us to deliver services differently.”

Today, CHD’s services span a wide gamut, including behavioral health and addiction recovery, housing and homelessness, food insecurity, youth welfare, intellectual and developmental disability, child development and advocacy, and more.

Jim Goodwin addresses those gathered to celebrate the 2018 opening of Goodwin House.

Jim Goodwin addresses those gathered to celebrate the 2018 opening of Goodwin House.

“Jim has led CHD to step in and provide services where many others would not, including to people involved with the justice system, the homeless, people with severe mental illness or disability, and many others,” said Ben Craft, CHD’s vice president of Community Engagement, who nominated Goodwin for the award.

One recent example Craft cited is Goodwin House, a 90-day residential program providing substance-use treatment services for male teenagers. The facility and its staff work to help clients not only maintain their sobriety through proven recovery strategies, but also reconnect with their families, education, and job opportunities.

“Jim has quietly built an organization that is racially and culturally diverse and one of the region’s most highly rated employers,” Craft added, “one that has grown with the needs for its services and remained nimble and innovative to keep up with the turbulent environment in which it operates.”

 

Expanding on an Idea

When Goodwin considers CHD’s impact over the years, he’s quick to include the organization’s 2,000 employees as well as its clients.

“These are good jobs with good benefits that allow people to have good lives and do work that they’re proud of,” he said, noting that the broad diversity of his team reflects the makeup of CHD’s clients, most of whom access services in a geographic region spanning from Amherst and Northampton to Hartford and Waterbury, Conn.

It’s an impressive footprint for an agency born from a desire by its three founders — Bill Seretta, Kathy Townsend, and Art Bertrand — to offer community-based care. In the 1960s, Goodwin noted, community services were hard to come by, and people struggling with hunger, homelessness, or simple healthcare needs easily got lost in the system. Young people, particularly those with mental-health issues, were shuffled into state training schools that were more like prisons than centers of care.

“CHD took kids from training schools and served them in foster-care and group-home models, and started to have a lot of success,” he added. “It grew from there. These community-based models started to take off because they were so successful; then we started doing it with adults.”

Today, community-based care remains the heart and soul of CHD’s mission, but the breadth of services has expanded, with more than 80 programs that help people tackle some of life’s toughest problems — often in ways that other agencies hadn’t considered.

“We provide a combination of different types of services,” Goodwin said. “Many can be identified as a mental-health problem or a substance-use problem, but it’s often tied in with other things, especially all the things associated with poverty, joblessness, and homelessness. Many times, especially in the past, agencies would take on one component or the other; they might provide homelessness services or mental-health services. But we’ve been able to combine lots of different services to create a bigger package that does the full scope of things.”

It’s those connections — recognizing the role of social determinants of health and tackling the root causes of issues — that sets CHD apart, but it’s not easy work, Goodwin said. “Some days, it can be very difficult, but when you look at the whole picture, most days I’m really glad we’ve taken all that on.”

It also cultivates an organization with career mobility, he added, as employees can move around and take on different roles as they gain experience in other fields. “One of the good things about CHD is you don’t have to leave to try something new.”

But those connections between clinical and non-clinical supports poses a constant challenge to come up with new ideas and approaches, he added. “You have to be creative.”

Take, for example, Innovative Care Partners (ICP), which is a collaboration between CHD (the managing partner), Gándara Center, and ServiceNet designed to better serve clients in the MassHealth program for their behavioral-health needs. ICP’s care coordinators connect clients with other members of the healthcare-delivery system, including hospitals, primary care, and other providers, across the four Western Mass. counties to help ensure they’re getting needed services without duplication or inefficiencies.

“We get people to follow a set of services that speaks to their behavioral-health needs,” he said, which might include medication, psychiatry, or counseling, but the program also focuses on the factors that get people into health trouble, such as poor nutrition, high levels of anxiety and stress, and high blood pressure.

“Together, primary-care health professionals sign off on a comprehensive plan that speaks to the full range of their needs,” Goodwin explained. “That’s a change. There used to be walls between mental-health services and medical services. Everybody knew that didn’t make any sense, but until recently, it never became a focus of attention.”

 

Learning Experiences

Needless to say, the Center for Human Development has had a challenging 18 months navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. With 850 residential mental-health beds and thousands of clients accessing outpatient care, there was plenty of learning on the fly — especially when it came to telehealth — but everyone came through to continue meeting the needs that drew Goodwin to CHD 42 years ago, and plenty of others.

“We’re proud of our impact, and that includes our economic impact,” he said. “We provide local jobs, and our people are spending money in their local communities, buying homes … a lot of things are happening because they’re here and CHD is paying them. I think we contribute to the economy in a big way.”

But the main impact remains those individual lives that are changed — albeit sometimes very slowly.

“My goal from the very beginning was to have an agency people would be proud to work for and feel good about what they’re doing,” he said, admitting that the work can be tough, navigating thorny issues like homelessness, drug addiction, and young people in trouble with the law.

“That can be very difficult for the workforce,” he added. “But overall, it’s also very rewarding. It’s the type of work you can be proud of and see accomplishment.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Collaboration In Health/Wellness

Collaborators in DASHH include Revitalize CDC, Baystate Health, Health New England, the BeHealthy Partnership, Holyoke Medical Center, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, and the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.

This Coalition Keeps People Healthy in Ways Its Partners Couldn’t Achieve Alone

If there’s anyone who understands the impact of asthma in Greater Springfield, it’s Sarita Hudson.

Specifically, as director of programs and development for the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts and manager of the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, she understands the connections between one’s physical environment and health — and the factors that have consistently placed Springfield high on lists of riskiest places to live with asthma. But even the Asthma Coalition has its limits.

“We had been doing asthma interventions, working with community health workers, working with clients, doing education, helping them identify triggers,” she said. “But it’s not enough if we can’t actually fix anything in the home.”

Meanwhile, as vice president of Public Health for Baystate Health, Frank Robinson understands the many ways the system’s community health programs and providers promote preventive health and wellness.

“We had been doing asthma interventions, working with community health workers, working with clients, doing education, helping them identify triggers. But it’s not enough if we can’t actually fix anything in the home.”

Still, “Baystate would never be going out and creating healthy homes by doing environmental changes and mitigations,” he explained. “That is not the work of the healthcare system. To be aligned with someone who does that work and gets the health implications and health impacts is perfect, though — it makes a perfect marriage.”

That organization would be Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC), which does have a long history of making critical repairs, modifications, and rehabilitation on the homes of low-income families with children, military veterans, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

When these three organizations started talking — about asthma and other issues — they were intrigued by what they might accomplish by working together, said Revitalize CDC President and CEO Colleen Loveless.

“We’d been doing some of this work — mold remediation, pest control — but hadn’t formalized the process in collaboration with insurance companies and the healthcare system,” she told BusinessWest.

Now, thanks to a collaboration called Doorway to an Accessible, Safe and Healthy Home (DASHH), these three organizations are not only identifying families in need of intervention for environmental health issues, and not just educating them on lifestyle changes, but actually making the necessary physical changes to their homes.

“We started talking, and we applied for a technical-assistance grant from the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore. They’ve been doing this work for decades,” Loveless explained. “We were one of five sites awarded that technical-assistance grant.”

Baystate followed with a capacity-building grant, other state grants followed, and DASHH was in business. Since its beginning in 2015, the program has served 130 households with asthma remediation and education, as well as 101 households for age-in-place modifications. Last year, it launched a COVID-19 response project (more on that later), impacting more than 1,550 households and approximately 6,881 individuals.

“It’s a business model that shows that, by intervening and creating healthy homes through environmental remediation, removing asthma triggers, and improving the physical environment, we could reduce asthma incidence in high-risk populations,” Robinson said.

Families referred by Baystate for environmental interventions receive three to five visits to conduct testing, at the start and end of the process, and provide education on how to keep the home clean and safe. If needed, Revitalize CDC brings in services ranging from air-duct cleaning to mold remediation; from pest control to floor covering and replacement, and also provides air purifiers, HEPA vacuums, and cleaning supplies.

By partnering with health-centric organizations, Colleen Loveless (center) and Revitalize CDC was able to infuse its home-rehab efforts with a focus on wellness.

By partnering with health-centric organizations, Colleen Loveless (center) and Revitalize CDC were able to infuse home-rehab efforts with a focus on wellness.

“The goal is to keep people from having to access primary care or the emergency room, and not miss school or work,” Loveless said. “Asthma has such a ripple effect.”

 

Better Together

The initial goal of DASHH was to help older people by improving their housing conditions related to asthma and falls, most notably by providing home assessments and home repairs to help them stay healthy and age in place. Breaking down this enterprise that has earned the title of Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the Collaboration category, the individual honorees are:

• Revitalize CDC; which performs assessments and interventions for adults and children with asthma and COPD and makes safety modifications and aging-in-place improvements so seniors may safely remain in their home;

• The Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which provides support on asthma issues; measurement evaluation; support and coordination for referrals, education, and outreach; coordination and support for asthma home-visiting services; and technical assistance and support, as well as providing materials and services in Spanish;

• Baystate Health and the BeHealthy Partnership (a MassHealth accountable-care partnership plan option made up of the Baystate Health Care Alliance and Health New England), which provide referrals to DASHH through five health centers: Baystate General Pediatrics at High Street, Brightwood Health Center, Caring Health Center, High Street Health Center Adult Medicine, and Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center; and

• The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a national network that provides technical assistance on planning, database services, and access to best-practice strategies. The organization worked with the other partners on feasibility studies to come up with ways to fund interventions in the home and determine how those efforts might impact healthcare costs and decrease healthcare utilizations regionally.

After its initial success with Baystate, Revitalize CDC expanded its service area in 2019 to begin collaborating with Holyoke Medical Center and its team of community health workers and navigators. To boost such efforts, the city of Holyoke recently awarded Revitalize CDC’s Healthy Homes Program $100,000 from American Rescue Plan Act funds.

DASHH serves low-income families in Hampden County, which ranks last among the Commonwealth’s 14 counties for health outcomes and health factors for racial/ethnic groups. Springfield had been the asthma capital of the U.S., according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, until 2019, and now ranks 12th — still not the most desirable ranking, but an improvement, to be sure.

“You talk to the families, and you see that this is the kind of impact that changes their health,” Hudson said of DASHH’s efforts. “It means they can breathe easier and get the supplies they need.”

For instance, in some cases, “the ventilation ducts have never been cleaned, and every time the heat comes on, they have an asthma attack. Now they’re clean, and it doesn’t happen,” she went on. “Some of these are small, simple repairs.”

This issue has been important to Hudson for a long time, through the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, which was formed 15 years ago to address childhood asthma by improving medical and self-management of the condition, as well as by reducing environmental triggers.

The coalition focuses on outdoor air pollution and indoor air quality and has successfully advocated for new policies, including statewide regulations to prohibit tobacco sales to those under 21; green cleaning policies and procedures adopted by Holyoke Public Schools; an ordinance against burning construction and demolition debris; and asthma protocols and an idle-free vehicle policy adopted by Springfield Public Schools, among many other successes.

It’s work — not just the physical interventions, but education of homeowners, landlords, and primary-care physicians — that should be happening on a wider scale, Hudson said, not just in homes, but in schools and other older buildings where people gather.

“We really see a lot of our housing stock as old, with deferred maintenance, including so much of our rental housing. That’s why we are pleased to see more funding around whole-house renovations.”

 

Quick Pivot

Last year, the DASHH coalition began supporting patients at risk of contracting COVID-19 by providing them with essential supplies and access to nutritious food at home. It made contactless deliveries that also included COVID-prevention supplies, including disinfectants, microfiber cleaning cloths, cleaning gloves, dish detergent, food-storage containers, hand soap, disinfectant wipes, paper towels, and food from local pantries.

“These are people who were quarantining, and we were providing them with cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and facemasks — and we found many were food-insecure, so they were provided food from local food pantries,” Loveless said. “The whole DASHH program just expanded from asthma to COVID, and we’re still seeing it now.”

Meanwhile, she’s excited about seeing the coalition continue its broader work — and those regional asthma statistics improve further.

“It’s been a really, really great partnership. It’s a win-win situation — the healthcare system saves money, we’re serving more low-income families in need, and patients are healthier. So it’s really a win-win-win.”

Robinson agrees. “I think the role of Revitalize and other housing providers that understand these issues have made a difference — and make healthcare providers’ jobs much easier,” he said. “They have been instrumental partners in creating safe and healthy houses for older adults as well as creating healthy homes for folks with respiratory diseases, asthma in particular.”

The work is both deeply collaborative and, dare we say, heroic.

“I’m so appreciative,” Loveless said. “Together, we’re able to serve more people in need.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Innovation In Health/Wellness

Director of LGBTQ Services, Cooley Dickinson Hospital

J. Aleah Nesteby

J. Aleah Nesteby

She Pioneered Appropriate Care for a Population That Sometimes Lacks It

By Mark Morris

Healthcare was Aleah Nesteby’s second career goal.

“My first career goal was to be a standup comic, but I eventually realized I didn’t have the stomach for all the rejection that involved,” she said.

As it turned out, comedy’s loss was healthcare’s gain. For the past several years, she has been a family nurse practitioner and director of LGBTQ Health Services at Cooley Dickinson Health Care — and is now beginning a new career at Transhealth Northampton.

In doing so, she will continue her pioneering work providing culturally sensitive healthcare for often-marginalized populations — work that many health organizations have since adopted, long after Nesteby became an early pioneer in this region — and a true Healthcare Hero.

“I thought, if my friends can’t access good care in San Francisco, is there anywhere they can? I also thought, well, I could do that.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, members of the LGBTQ community face an increased risk of health threats due to discrimination and stigma. In her role with Cooley Dickinson, Nesteby has worked to bring more equity and compassion to healthcare for the LGBTQ community. As a practitioner, she has maintained a patient panel of about 500 people, many of whom are transgender.

It’s a passion that predates her medical career, to be sure. Since college, Nesteby has had an interest in healthcare among marginalized populations, but at the time, care focused specifically on LGBTQ people didn’t exist. In the early 2000s, while in San Francisco, she learned that some of her LGBTQ friends were not able to access healthcare.

“I thought, if my friends can’t access good care in San Francisco, is there anywhere they can?” she said. “I also thought, well, I could do that.”

So she did. And for her years of cutting-edge advocacy for this broad and sometimes misunderstood population, Nesteby certainly merits recognition in the category of Innovation in Healthcare.

 

Training Ground

In addition to treating patients, Nesteby’s responsibilities include training providers and staff on how to make medical facilities more welcoming and inclusive.

Much of the training I would call LGBTQ 101,” she said. “It’s a discussion on how to treat people respectfully and how to engage them in language they would like you to use.”

After years of pioneering work at Cooley Dickinson, Aleah Nesteby is taking her passion and talents to Transhealth Northampton.

After years of pioneering work at Cooley Dickinson, Aleah Nesteby is taking her passion and talents to Transhealth Northampton.

One common question — she’s heard it countless times — challenges why LGBTQ patients should be treated differently than anyone else. She explains that everyone has unconscious biases that play into their decisions about treatment for people.

“I try to help providers understand that, even though they think they are treating everyone the same, some of what they are saying isn’t being received by the patient in the way it might have been intended.”

For instance, microaggressions are a common issue — those backhanded compliments and minor comments that might not be insults, per se, but add up in a negative way to the person who hears them. A gay or lesbian person might be told, “I couldn’t tell whether you were gay or straight,” and a transgender person might be asked what their old name was.

“It’s these low-level, unpleasant interactions that many medical folks aren’t even aware they are doing,” Nesteby said, emphasizing that training should include all employees in the medical setting, not just direct care providers. For example, a visitor to the doctor’s office typically first speaks with someone on the front desk, then a medical assistant or nurse, and, finally, with the physician or nurse practitioner.

“Even when all the providers are trained and great to be around, if the staff aren’t trained, it can still be a negative experience for some,” she explained.

Nesteby also helps providers with more detailed training that addresses health issues specific to the LGBTQ community, such as hormone therapy for transgender adults and working with transgender children.

“I’ve also trained doctors on PrEP, a pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV,” she said. “It’s a medication people can take before being exposed to HIV to help prevent transmission.”

In some ways, Nesteby has always been an LGBTQ trainer. She was studying to be a nurse practitioner back when the transgender health movement — commonly called trans health — was just beginning. Because it wasn’t included in the curriculum, she invited a lecturer to speak to her class about trans health.

“In the beginning, there were lots of things to learn and new ground to break,” she recalled.

Nesteby is now in demand as a speaker at conferences around the country, though her appearances during the pandemic have been virtual. She also participates in TransLine, an internet-based consultation service. “People can e-mail their questions about trans health to volunteers like me, and we answer them as they come in.”

As she became established and word got out that her practice included trans health, patients would travel from hundreds of miles away just to be seen by Nesteby. However, “as trans health has become a more accessible field and more providers have become comfortable with it, there’s less need for people to travel long distances.”

 

Continuing the Conversation

Reflecting on her work with Cooley Dickinson gives Nesteby a great deal of satisfaction. From training medical staff to policies to make the hospital more inclusive, she appreciates all the progress that’s been made so far.

“While there is still work to be done, there has been a cultural shift in Massachusetts on how we view our LGBTQ patients,” she noted.

Jeff Harness, director of Community Health and Government Relations for Cooley Dickinson, called Nesteby’s work critically important to the LGBTQ community.

“It is rare to find a primary-care provider who understands the unique health and social needs of LGBTQ patients,” Harness said. “It’s exceedingly rare to fine one who is so skilled, passionate, and caring.”

This month, Nesteby is leaving Cooley Dickinson to join Transhealth Northampton, a clinic that provides primary care for children and adults. Her role will be similar to her current one in providing primary care and hormone management for her patients. In her new position, she will continue to educate clinicians and will also focus on educating the general public about working with the LGBTQ community.

“I’m an advocate of asking people how they want to be addressed and what pronouns they use,” she said. adding that people often get nervous they might offend if they ask, but the conversation has to start somewhere. “If you are respectful and polite, people will usually respond in kind. They only get upset when someone is rude or asking for information that is gratuitous or not needed.”

In general, Nesteby would like to see a more welcoming and affirming atmosphere in medicine.

“Ideally, I’d like all providers to have some degree of knowledge about how to work with LGBTQ patients because within that there is more opportunity for people to specialize in that care.”

Harness credited Nesteby with making positive changes in the system while always providing excellent care to the person in front of her. “Aleah has improved her patients’ sense of well-being by showing them their medical provider cares about, understands, and welcomes them,” he said.

In her eyes, though, showing compassion is similar some ways to the old adage about a rising tide lifting all boats.

“If we are more open and understanding to folks in one group,” she said, “we tend to be more open and understanding to everyone — and that helps all of us.”

Healthcare Heroes

Health/Wellness Administrator

Medical Director, Holyoke VNA Hospice Life Care

Alicia Ross

Alicia Ross

This Administrator Has Been a Pioneer, a Mentor, and an Inspiration

By Mark Morris

Growing up in the Philippines, Alicia Ross always hoped to become a doctor. Her father, a dentist, had other plans and wanted his daughter to take over his practice.

“I didn’t want to go into dentistry, so I went into medicine,” Ross recalled. Shortly after graduating from Manila Central University and passing her medical boards, she emigrated to the U.S.

In 1971, Ross joined the staff of Holyoke Medical Center, specializing in hematology and oncology. At the time, she worked with cancer patients, with the single goal of healing them. But for patients with advanced cancers, doctors can often reach a point where there are no more treatment options. Ross understood those patients needed something else.

“It’s huge for the patient to be reassured they’ve done all they can do to fight their illness. It’s also just as important for family members because they will remember this for the rest of their lives.”

“We had to refocus our goal,” she said. “For those cases, instead of a cure, we would instead work toward comfort measures for the end of life and do our best to ease their pain.”

So began what could be called a new career for Ross, or at least a new, exhilarating, and rewarding chapter in a remarkable — and ongoing — career. In 1991, she would become the founding medical director of Holyoke VNA Hospice Life Care.

Over the past 30 years, she has changed countless lives, and not just those who come under her care. Indeed, as an administrator, she has been a leader, a mentor, and an inspiration to those she has worked with, primarily by challenging them to continuously find ways to bring comfort and, yes, quality of life to those in hospice care.

“Someone referred to Dr. Ross as a ‘pioneer,’ and I think that is a very apt term for her,” said Maureen Groden, director of Hospice and Palliative Care, adding that Ross has changed the way many think when they hear that word ‘hospice,’ and she has spent her career educating and innovating.

Alicia Ross says many people recoil at the idea of hospice without realizing what a benefit it can be.

Alicia Ross says many people recoil at the idea of hospice without realizing what a benefit it can be.

Jennifer Martin, director of Operations and IT for Holyoke VNA Hospice Life Care, agreed.

“As medical director, Dr. Ross has always been our go-to; she is the backbone of the hospice program,” she said. “In our weekly team meetings, she goes above and beyond to make sure we provide the absolute best care for every patient and every situation.”

Those sentiments certainly help explain why Ross has been named a Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the always-competitive Administration category. Over the years, that honor has gone to those who don’t simply manage, but lead; those who not only care for those in need, but inspire others to reach higher and find ways to continually improve that care.

Ross certainly continues that tradition.

 

Life-changing Decisions

Getting back to that word ‘pioneer,’ it is used to describe those who break new ground and blaze a trail for those who would follow.

As Groden said, that term suits Ross because of the way she studied hospice care and adopted best practices, but also because she sought to keep raising the bar in all aspects of this field of healthcare.

Turning back the clock to the late ’80s, Ross said she traveled to England to study under Dr. Cicely Saunders, considered the founder of the modern hospice movement.

“Before we started our hospice services in Holyoke, I went to England to better understand how they did it,” she told BusinessWest. While she worked primarily with the doctor’s staff, Ross also met with and learned from Saunders herself.

Ross turned her knowledge into action in 1990, joining others in creating Holyoke VNA Hospice Life Care. They did so, she said, with a simple philosophy: that “dying is a part of living.”

With hospice care, it’s possible to bring dignity and acceptance to patients and families when they are making difficult decisions about end-of-life care. But it is never an easy conversation.

“We still see patients who have a strong negative reaction to the word ‘hospice,’” Ross said, adding that this is unfortunate because people who could benefit from hospice care are not always referred early enough to enable them to gain some benefit from it.

“In addition to nurses who provide pain relief, hospice also offers other services to make a person’s last days more comfortable,” she noted. “Home health aides, chaplains, social workers, even volunteers can all bring comfort to the patient.”

No matter what faith a person follows, she added, the chaplain’s role is part of providing comfort and pain relief. “During this time, many patients have emotional and spiritual pain. When the chaplain can reduce some of that emotional pain, it also eases some of the physical pain.”

Volunteers also play an important role. While COVID restrictions have curtailed in-person visits to patients, volunteers also make an important contribution in providing comfort.

“We try to match volunteers to the patient,” Ross said. “For example, if the patient is a veteran, our volunteer is a veteran.” By aligning interests, the volunteer becomes a welcome face and often develops a friendship with the patient.

Administering medicine is an important part of hospice, but there are often non-medical ways to ease a patient’s pain. Ross gave an example of how a patient with lung disease will regularly experience shortness of breath.

“While morphine is a good treatment, oxygen is too, so a fan blowing in the room can be very effective,” she said, adding that anxiety also contributes to difficulty in breathing. “Many patients feel they are burdening their family, so we work on lessening their stress and anxiety to help them understand they are not a burden on their family.”

According to Groden, family members often struggle and wonder if they’ve done the right thing in referring a loved one to hospice. She said Ross approaches that conversation by reassuring the family that, at this point in time, additional treatments would actually cause more harm than good, and that hospice is the most compassionate approach.

“It’s huge for the patient to be reassured they’ve done all they can do to fight their illness,” Groden said. “It’s also just as important for family members because they will remember this for the rest of their lives.”

While modern medicine can extend people’s lives, many still need hospice in their later years. Ross also pointed out that hospice is not just for the elderly. “We have a lot of illnesses that can affect relatively younger people, like Lou Gehrig’s disease, early-onset dementia, and, of course, cancer, which affects people at all ages.”

No matter the age, she noted, the goal of Hospice Life Care remains the same. “Our main purpose is to give patients comfort through the end of life, to make them as comfortable as possible, and treat their symptoms so they don’t suffer.”

After 50 years at Holyoke Medical Center, 30 of which were at Hospice Life Care, Ross has certainly seen many changes in healthcare. She listed electronic medical records and advancements in medication as two of the most significant.

While many physicians choose to retire rather than confront new technology, she took time to learn electronic medical records and embraced the advances in both technology and medicine. Her colleagues say she never misses a beat, one of the reasons she’s an effective leader and healthcare provider.

At the urging of her husband, Ross had planned to retire by 2015. But when he became ill in 2014 and passed away quickly, she decided to continue her work.

“I thought if I retired, I would only sit around the house and mourn, so a better choice was to keep working,” she said, adding that, with each life she impacts, she embraces that decision.

 

A True Leader

Martin observed that Holyoke VNA Hospice Life Care admits approximately 275 patients to hospice each year.

“When you multiply that number times 30 years, it gives you an idea of just how many lives Dr. Ross has touched,” she said, adding that her lasting impact is measured not in numbers, but in words, especially those used by family members of patients to describe the compassionate care they received.

Those words convey many things, including just how much of a pioneer she has been throughout her career, and how she has convinced so many that dying really is a part of living.

Mostly, though, they convey that she is a true Healthcare Hero.

 

Healthcare Heroes

Emerging Leader

Hospital Epidemiologist, Baystate Medical Center; Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, Department of Medicine, Baystate Health

Dr. Sarah Haessler

Dr. Sarah Haessler

She ‘Stands on a Wall Between the Community and Infectious Diseases’

Dr. Sarah Haessler has already been honored as a Healthcare Hero. Actually, a ‘Healthcare Superhero,’ to be more precise.

That was the unofficial title bestowed upon 76 fully vaccinated healthcare workers from across New England who attended the Super Bowl last February as guests of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The group flew down on the Patriots’ team plane and got to see Tom Brady win his seventh Super Bowl — and promote vaccination while they were at it.

Haessler, hospital epidemiologist at Baystate Medical Center and vice chair for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Medicine at Baystate Health, was one of three from this region to be so honored; she was joined by Baystate colleague Stephen Boyle Sr., senior director of Hospitality; and Cherie Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Mercy Medical Center.

Haessler has many memories from that day, with only some of them involving the action on the field.

“It was the quintessential American experience,” she recalled, noting that healthcare workers from across the country were recognized at the game. “It was big. Everything about it was big. The music was loud, there were fireworks for everything, there were military flyovers, the jumbo screens had the president on them … America doesn’t do anything small. This was very big and very American.”

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health. And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

Haessler said pairs of tickets to the game were made available to various hospitals, and she was chosen by officials at Baystate to attend; she’s not sure how or why.

Matters are a little more clear when it comes to her being chosen as the winner in the intensely competitive Emerging Leader category for BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes awards. She has been chosen in large part for her many efforts to prepare those at Baystate for what was coming in early 2020 and for her ongoing work throughout the pandemic to plan, educate, and help carry out all the operations of a hospital during extraordinary circumstances. But there is certainly more to the story. Indeed, COVID-19 wasn’t her first experience with a highly infectious disease, and she acknowledged, with some resignation born from experience in her voice, that it won’t be her last.

Meanwhile, she has taken on more leadership roles over the years, serving as interim chief medical officer at Baystate Noble Hospital and currently sitting on the board of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiologists of America.

Her work in her chosen field, and her status as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and beyond, is best summed up by Dr. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer, incident commander, COVID-19 Response, at Baystate Health, who nominated her for this honor.

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health,” he wrote. “And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

In a candid interview, Haessler talked about that harsh reality, her work at Baystate, her chosen career in epidemiology, and the many kinds of rewards that come with it.

 

At the Top of Her Game

When asked how she chose epidemiology as a specialty, Haessler started by saying that, during her residency at Dartmouth, she was interested — make that fascinated — by all aspects of medicine. It soon became clear to her that she needed to pick something broad that would cross all other specialties.

“When I sat down to pick one, I ultimately decided that the specialty where the cases that kept me up late or got me up early in the morning to learn more and read more and try to figure out what was wrong with this person — these puzzles — were the cases that were most interesting to me, and the most satisfying and challenging. And that was infectious disease,” she told BusinessWest.

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’ in attendance at last February’s Super Bowl in Tampa.

“I’ve never looked back — I’ve always loved it,” she went on, adding that, in this field, she does get to interact with specialists of all kinds. “It’s been an interesting career — I’ve never been bored. And the other thing about it is that it just keeps moving. I’m a high-energy person — I keep moving — so it suits me very well.”

Things were certainly moving in the latter days of 2019, said Haessler, noting that the information coming to her from hospital epidemiologists in China, and later the state of Washington, made it clear that something ominous was on the horizon.

“We saw the pandemic potential for it because it was so swift and had created a huge influx of patients in those hospitals in Wuhan,” she recalled. “It essentially overwhelmed those hospitals immediately, and the fact that China’s approach was to put the area in lockdown … that is the kind of organism, like SARS, that causes a pandemic.”

She said Baystate was ready, in large part because it had gone through this before with other infectious diseases and had learned many valuable lessons. And she was at the forefront of these efforts.

“We had been through H1N1, and then we had been through the Ebola epidemic,” she explained. “And this really created an impetus, and a framework, across the United States for preparedness for the world’s most contagious diseases.”

Because of Ebola, Baystate had created a Special Pathogens Unit to manage extremely contagious patients, said Haessler, who manages this unit and the team that operates it. And as part of that team’s work, it created protocols and procedures for how it would manage patients, took steps to ensure that there would be adequate supplies of PPE, put in place scenarios for how patients would be cared for and where, determined if, when, and under what circumstances elective surgeries would be halted, and much more.

In short, as Artenstein noted in his nomination, Haessler was the point person for preparing the medical center for what everyone could see was coming.

“Her work provided great comfort to all, knowing that we had such an expert in such a key role,” he wrote. “Her team’s magnificent work in collaboration with employee health services led to the earliest possible recognition of infectious contacts and allowed us to limit the risks for patients and staff during a time of great uncertainty and fear.”

While the past tense is being used for most of these comments, the work battling COVID is obviously ongoing, said Haessler, adding that the Delta variant brings a new and very dangerous thread to this story.

When asked about what the past 18 months has been like, personally and professionally, she said, in essence, that it’s been the culmination of all her training and hard work.

“It’s been one of biggest events that I’ve had to participate in, and while it’s been challenging, it’s also been very gratifying, because Baystate has been an incredible organization, rising to the occasion in this. I’m so proud of Baystate; I’ve never been more proud to work at this organization and to be part of the leadership team.

“The responsiveness, the focus on what was important and what remains important, has been incredible,” she went on. “It’s been a laser focus on the safety of the healthcare workers, and protecting our patients and our healthcare workers from getting and passing this disease, getting the resources we needed to enable safe management of these patients, and staying really, really focused on what’s important here has been a phenomenal experience and an opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.”

 

Passing Thoughts

Returning to Raymond James Stadium and Super Bowl LV, Haessler said she had the opportunity to meet with healthcare workers from across the country who had been, at that time, battling with COVID for roughly a year.

“It was an opportunity to meet with other people, commiserate, and just be among kindred spirits — people had been through so much,” she said, adding that, seven months later, the fight continues, and in some ways, it has escalated.

In the future, there will be other fights against infectious diseases, she said, adding that the best hospitals and healthcare systems can do is try to be prepared, because, as Artenstein noted, these threats never cease.

That, in a nutshell, is what her career has been all about. Her ability to exceed in that role and many others has made her a Healthcare Hero — and a ‘superhero’ — as well as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and her chosen field.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider

Doctor and Owner, DeCaro Total Foot Care Center

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro

This Specialist Has Helped Patients of All Ages Take Huge Strides

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro is firm of the opinion that no one actually has good feet.

Rather, experience tells him that everyone has one of 24 variations of bad feet.

“That includes high arches, low arches, no arches … people come in and they think flat feet are the only bad feet,” said DeCaro, owner of Hatfield-based DeCaro Total Foot Care Center, referencing a chart of what he calls the ‘24 Foot Structures.’ “But you can have an arch that causes not foot pain, but back pain. So often, high-arch people have back pain, but they don’t realize it’s coming from their feet.”

This chart, and DeCaro’s extensive use of it to explain problems people are having now — or might have later — is just one of many reasons why he was named the Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the always-competitive Provider category. Indeed, he has made pediatric podiatry his specific specialty, and throughout his career he has helped people of all ages, but especially children, make great strides, both figuratively and quite literally.

“To get a hug from a parent who tells me that their child is finally walking or is able to run or keep up with their friends … that’s really priceless.”

He has done this through everything from education to complex surgical procedures, to the development of new orthotic products, such as littleSTEPS, orthoses created specifically for young people and designed to improve coordination, balance, pain, posture, and strength, while aiding in the development of a more stable and functional gait.

He even makes an impact through his photography. DeCaro, who travels often with his family and through his work, photographs animals wherever he goes and winds up selling prints of some of his best shots, with the proceeds going to help families in need offset the cost of orthotics.

Thus, his work can be — and often is — described as life-changing, and that’s why he finds all facets of it, but especially his work with children, so rewarding.

Dr. Louis DeCaro, seen here with his children, Eliza and Lucas, and wife Jamie, says foot issues impact people of all ages, starting with the very young.

Dr. Louis DeCaro, seen here with his children, Eliza and Lucas, and wife Jamie, says foot issues impact people of all ages, starting with the very young.

“People often ask me why I do pediatrics,” he said. “And I tell them that one of the wonderful things I get to experience is when a child follows up who couldn’t walk, and I helped them walk; that’s got to be one of the most rewarding things in the world. To get a hug from a parent who tells me that their child is finally walking or is able to run or keep up with their friends … that’s really priceless.”

Over the years, DeCaro has received many hugs like that, and that just begins to explain why he is one of the Healthcare Heroes for 2021.

 

Positive Steps

Like many in healthcare, DeCaro said that, while he ultimately chose his specialty, in many ways, it chose him.

Relating the story of how he ventured into podiatry, he said he had just finished his junior year at Stony Brook University on Long Island and was on a path to a career in allopathic medicine when he got a letter from someone at Barry University, a podiatry school in Florida.

“I didn’t know anything about podiatry at all,” he recalled, adding that the school was impressed with his MCAT scores and offered to fly him down for a visit. He took them up on their offer and came away impressed with the school, the specialty, and the opportunities it presented.

“Podiatry seemed like a wonderful profession because I could specialize in whatever I wanted — I could do surgery if I wanted to, I could treat kids if I wanted,” he said, adding that he wound up skipping his final year at Stonybrook and getting on an airplane to attend Barry.

“It was the best decision I’ve ever made; getting into this specialty has been wonderful, “he went on. “It was an opportunity-knocks moment — and I opened the door to see what was behind it.”

Dr. Louis DeCaro photographed this bear while visiting Alaska. The image is one of many he has sold to help families pay for needed orthotics for their children.

Dr. Louis DeCaro photographed this bear while visiting Alaska. The image is one of many he has sold to help families pay for needed orthotics for their children.

To say that DeCaro has made the most of his opportunity and had a profound impact on patients and their families during his career in his chosen field would be a huge understatement. Indeed, as noted, he has been changing and improving lives in many ways — through education, treatment, and the development of new orthotic solutions, such as littleSTEPS.

DeCaro Total Foot Care Center now counts 30,000 active patients, with some of them coming from other states and the four corners of Massachusetts.

“Besides Boston Children’s, which is two hours away, there’s really no other pediatric specialist in this state for foot care,” he explained. “So we get patients all the time who travel two or three hours to see me, just because of the lack of pediatric specialists.”

He said podiatry is regarded by many as a specialty focused on the elderly and the diabetic, and while many of the practice’s patients are in those categories, foot issues impact people of all ages. And many problems of the foot develop when people are young.

DeCaro said he treats many children on the autism spectrum with sensory-processing disorders, others with neuromuscular diseases like cerebral palsy, children who are late walkers or delayed walkers with low muscle tone, athletes with injuries that start with their foot structure, kids with growing pains, and those with other ailments.

“Often, orthopedic issues, especially in the pediatric population, are caused by poor mechanics in the foot,” he explained. “And it starts with the minute we walk.”

He said he sees roughly 20 patients a day, fewer than many specialists, because he enjoys spending time not only with his younger patients, but their parents as well, because they often must be educated about their child’s condition.

Similarly, when he sees a child, he will often then examine the parents as well because, by looking at their respective foot structures, he can often gain some perspective on where that child might be headed when it comes to overall foot health. “Like hair color and eye color, foot structure is genetic,” he explained.

As noted earlier, treatment of his patients is just one of the reasons why DeCaro has become a standout in his field — he has been listed among the 150 Most Influential Podiatrists in America by Podiatry Management magazine — and why he will join seven others as Healthcare Heroes on Oct. 21 at the Log Cabin. He’s also an educator who lectures often; pens articles such as one called “Assessing the Role of Gait Analysis in Pediatric Patients with Flatfoot,” which appeared in Podiatry Today magazine; and teaches the ‘24 Foot Structures’ to many of his colleagues.

Within the 24 different foot structures there are six distinct foot types or categories — A to F — and given each names, like ‘John Wayne.’ “You actually turn your legs out and walk like a gunslinger,” he explained, adding that there are fun names for each category, and they are designed to help patients understand their feet and the treatment being given them.

He’s also an entrepreneur; in addition to littleSTEPS, he and business partner Roberta Nole have also developed the RX24 Quadrastep System, a state-of-the-art alternative to traditional custom orthotic management.

There’s also his photography — and philanthropy, by which he uses his hobby to help children and families in need.

The walls of the rooms in his office are covered with photos — his favorite is one of a puma he “met” in the rain forest of Costa Rica, although he’s also fond of a bear he photographed in Alaska — primarily his feet (paws), which are prominently on display.

When asked how he gets so close to his subjects, he quipped, “big lenses.”

 

Toeing the Line

In many ways, DeCaro has spent his career  helping patients, and especially the younger ones, understand the proverbial big picture when it comes to their feet and how they are never to be overlooked when it comes to one’s health, well-being, and quality of life.

Suffice it to say that he has made the most of that opportunity-knocks moment when he got on a plane bound for Florida and podiatry school. He found a profession that has been rewarding in every way imaginable.

But the real winners from that decision he made are his patients, who have benefited from his compassion, his desire to educate, and even his ingenuity and prowess as an entrepreneur.

His ability to change their lives has made him a Healthcare Hero.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Community Health

Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Program Director,
New North Citizens Council Inc.

Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson

He Has Made a Career of Being There for People Who Need Help, Direction

Richard Johnson has a simple and laudable philosophy when it comes to those seeking help. And it goes a long way to explaining why he’s a Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the always-competitive Community Health category.

“When people who are in need find the fortitude to step out of themselves and ask for assistance, there should be somebody to respond,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s because it takes a lot sometimes for many people to ask for help. And so, I like to make sure that, if I’m able, I can be that person to respond.”

For more than two decades now, during a lengthy career in public health, most recently as Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Program director for the New North Citizens Council Inc., Johnson has been able — and ready — to respond and provide that help, in the many forms it can take.

His title is a mouthful, and there is a lot that goes into it.

Indeed, from his office at the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center, Johnson helps those in the Mason Square area of Springfield and beyond cope with issues ranging from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases to opioid and other addictions; from sickle-cell anemia awareness to treatment for mental-health issues.

And with the arrival of COVID-19, that list has only grown, with new responsibilities including everything from securing PPE for those in need to educating residents about the importance of vaccination. In short, he and his team have been helping people live with everything else going on in their lives and COVID.

“When people who are in need find the fortitude to step out of themselves and ask for assistance, there should be somebody to respond. That’s because it takes a lot sometimes for many people to ask for help. And so, I like to make sure that, if I’m able, I can be that person to respond.”

“We wanted to provide an education for these individuals so they could limit or at least mitigate some of their risk factors for contracting COVID and other things,” he explained. “So 2020 became COVID-intense. Our focus changed; our priority was educating people on how communicable this disease was, and saying to them, ‘yes, I understand that you have addiction challenges and housing challenges, but you really need to pay attention to how to prevent contracting COVID, and then we can work on some of the other things.’”

A day in the life for Johnson takes him to the drop-in center, but also to the neighborhoods beyond for off-site presentations and testing at various facilities on subjects ranging from substance abuse to prevention of communicable diseases to overdose prevention and Narcan distribution. These sites include the Friends of the Homeless facility, Carlson Detox Center, Opportunity House, Bowen Center, and Valor Recovery Center.

Richard Johnson, center, with many of the team members staffing the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center

Richard Johnson, center, with many of the team members staffing the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center in Mason Square.

COVID has reduced the numbers of such visits, but the work goes on, he said, adding that it is highly rewarding in many respects, because through it, he is helping not only individuals but neighborhoods and the larger community become more resilient.

This has become his life’s work, and his devotion to that work, that mission, has made him a Healthcare Hero for 2021.

 

Source of Strength

As he talked with BusinessWest in the tiny lab set up in the drop-in center, near the Rebecca Johnson School, Johnson said the facility lives up to every word over the door.

It is, indeed, a drop-in center, where one can find testing, counseling, education, and help with prevention. There is a team of individuals working there, but Johnson is the leader, in every aspect of that word. Meaning, he sets a tone for the work there, one born from experience working with this constituency and trying to meet its many and diverse needs.

He first became involved in community health in 2002, when he volunteered for an agency called Northern Educational Services, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“There were a number of folks I knew who were impacted by substance use and HIV,” he explained. “So this provided an opportunity for me to be directly involved in trying to navigate them to some sort of care.”

After this stint as a volunteer, he joined Northern Educational Services as a relapse counselor, and from there, he went from relapse prevention to HIV case management, starting first as an assistant and then working his way up to senior case manager. Ultimately, he became the director of Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Services.

“Much of my work as a case manager centered on really just helping people to adjust to a new reality with regard to being diagnosed with HIV and confronting some of the stigmas associated with that,” he told BusinessWest. “I helped them understand that there are treatments that were effective, and helping them to communicate with their physican or medical provider as to what their concerns were and how their lives worked in terms of some of the stigmas associated with it and being able to talk to loved ones about their new status.

“That was really challenging for some,” he went on. “And so, case management at that time was a very hands-on thing; we made a great difference in the lives of those who were living with HIV, but equally so those who were unaware of how it was transmitted, and what prevention methods could be deployed by them, and that it was OK to have dinner with someone who was living with HIV, as opposed to some of the rumors, stories, or myths that they’d heard.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many, substance use and HIV went hand-in-hand, and efforts focused on helping people find recovery through detox and treatment facilities and helping these individuals understand that it was OK to live substance-free and face and confront some of their challenges involved with having a diagnosis that was highly stigmatized.

In 2010, he assumed that same title — director of Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Services — with the New North Citizens Council, and has been continuing that challenging but needed work to counsel those in need and help with the medical and social aspects of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and substance abuse, while connecting people with healthcare providers.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have built relationships with medical providers that lend themselves to understanding that when we have an individual, that service, that treatment, needs to be provided, and they’re willing to provide it,” he said, listing Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, and the Caring Health Center among the providers he and his team work with.

Over the years, Johnson has become involved with a number of community groups, boards, and commissions, including the Mason Square C-3 Initiative, the Massachusetts Integrated Planning Prevention Committee, Baystate Health’s Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center Community Advisory Board, the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, and the Springfield Food Policy Committee.

As noted earlier, COVID has added new layers to the work and the mission for Johnson and his team. While helping individuals and families cope with what would be considered everyday matters, there is also a once-in-a-century pandemic to contend with.

Work to distribute PPE and other needed items, from masks to hand sanitizer, socks to toothpaste, goes on, said Johnson. “We still go about daily and provide PPE to people who are on the margins and often don’t have ready access to such items.”

Critical work on vaccination goes on as well, and comes in many forms, from education to dispel myths and misinformation to getting shots in arms. He mentioned a clinic at the drop-in center the day before he talked with BusinessWest, at which nine people received their second shot and two more got their first.

“Vaccination has been a challenge because there is a lot of information out there, and not all of it is accurate,” he explained. “There’s a significant amount of resistance based on information that individuals have received, so it’s really about re-educating people and helping them achieve a level of comfort receiving new information. As great and wonderful as the internet and social media are, sometimes it doesn’t provide both sides of a story.”

 

Bottom Line

Helping individuals and families achieve a needed level of comfort with many aspects of their lives — from living with HIV to battling substance abuse — has long been the best way to describe Johnson’s work and his commitment to the community.

As we noted that at the top, he fully understands just how hard it is to seek help. And that’s why it’s been his mission to be there for those who find the strength and fortitude to take that step.

His unwavering commitment to that mission has made him a Healthcare Hero.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

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Since BusinessWest and its sister publication, Healthcare News, launched the new recognition program known as Healthcare Heroes in 2017, the initiative has more than succeeded in its quest to identify true leaders — not to mention inspiring stories — within this region’s large and very important healthcare sector.

The award was created to recognize those whose contributions to the health and well-being of this region, while known to some, needed to become known to all. And this is certainly true in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several months ago, the decision makers at the two publications knew that, during this very difficult time, our healthcare community was challenged as perhaps never before, and had to summon its collective strength, imagination, and dedication to clear a seemingly endless list of hurdles and continue to provide needed services to the residents of this region.

We knew that a sector already heavily populated with heroes would have even more individuals worthy of that term. So we invited people to nominate these heroes for the award we created, and the judges tasked with scoring them were impressed and, in some ways, overwhelmed by the stories generated by these nominations.

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges, 10 of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2020 are:

The 2020 Healthcare Heroes

Meet the Judges

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay is president of Elms College in Chicopee. Prior to becoming the 11th president of Elms in 2017, Dumay was senior vice president for Finance and chief financial officer for Saint Anselm College from 2012 to 2017. He formerly served as chief financial officer and associate dean at Harvard University’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, associate dean at Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work, and director of Finance for Boston University’s School of Engineering.

 

Cristina Huebner Torres

Cristina Huebner Torres

Cristina Huebner Torres is director of Research and Wellness at Caring Health Center in Springfield and a winner of the Healthcare Heroes award in 2019 in the category ‘Innovation in Healthcare.’ With more than 15 years of experience in public-health research, her work is guided by theoretical frameworks from social epidemiology and medical anthropology focused primarily on social determinants of health, health disparities, and health equity as they shape chronic illness prevention and management among ethnically diverse, urban, low-income populations.

Kathy Wilson

Kathy Wilson

Kathy Wilson is the retired president and CEO of Behavioral Health Network (BHN) and winner of the Healthcare Heroes award in 2019 in the category of ‘Lifetime Achievement.’ She served in her role at BHN for more than 30 years, growing it into a $115 million network of behavioral-health programs with more than 2,000 locations and more than 40 locations, ranging from detox centers and step-down facilities to 24-hour crisis-intervention centers and developmental- and intellectual-disability services.

Healthcare Heroes

Amid the Crisis at the Soldiers’ Home, This Small Army Answered the Call

The Staff of Holyoke Medical Center

The Staff of Holyoke Medical Center

It was coming up to noon on Friday, April 4, and the staff at Holyoke Medical Center was frantically working to ready facilities there for the arrival of residents of the nearby Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, who needed to be relocated in the midst of a tragic COVID-19 disaster that would make headlines across the country.

Carl Cameron, HMC’s chief operating officer, who was overseeing that work, was on the phone with his boss, hospital President and CEO Spiros Hatiras, who was telling him that some promised National Guard personnel would likely soon be arriving from the Soldiers’ Home to help with the massive and complex undertaking.

Cameron’s response more than sets the tone for a truly inspiring story that most still haven’t heard, but certainly should.

“I told him that at that point not to bother,” he recalled. “Because we had our own army of people. And it was absolutely outstanding and amazing how that team came together and got this done.”

“We had our own army of people. And it was absolutely outstanding and amazing how that team came together and got this done.”

Indeed, HMC’s small army, which would grow in numbers in the coming days and weeks, as we’ll see, came together in every way imaginable to bring 39 residents of the home into a hospital that was in the early stages of the COVID-19 fight itself. An acute-care hospital, HMC was not in the business of providing long-term care. But, to borrow a phrase from hockey, it shifted on the fly, and essentially got into that business.

There was a learning curve — staff members were certainly not used to people in HMC’s beds making requests (better make that demands) for their favorite brand of beer — but they did learn, and they made the veterans/patients/residents feel at home at an extremely difficult time.

They decorated the hastily created living spaces with flags and red, white, and blue ornaments. They found the soldiers television sets. They provided much-needed information and comfort to those soldiers’ family members, many of whom had no idea where they were. They’ve helped a few of their guests celebrate 100th birthdays since their arrival. Outpatient physical therapists were taken off furlough to become veterans’ liaisons, helping the Soldiers’ Home residents with daily functions as well as helping them maintain connections with loved ones. Office assistants stepped in to assist with patient care.

Summing it all up, Hatiras said his staff came together, as perhaps never before, amid a crisis that tested the medical center on every level imaginvable — and earned the designation of Healthcare Hero for 2020 not only from BusinessWest, but from the Huron Studer Group, one of only four such awards that organization issued across the entire U.S.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“Everyone put their roles aside and said, ‘all hands on deck.”

“Everyone put their roles aside and said, ‘all hands on deck,’” Hatiras noted, summoning still more military language as he praised every department in the hospital, from Plant Operations to Communications to Environmental Services, for the specific roles they played. “And what we’ve learned, aside from all the bonding and being more comfortable in different roles, is that we’ve technically become much more astute. We’ve learned things from a technical standpoint that would allow us to respond to a second wave or other kind of pandemic, because now we’ve got it right; we know how to convert rooms under pressure, we know how to isolate people, we know how to shift things around, we know how to use alternative ways. We’ve learned so much by going through this.”

As several of those involved with this herculean effort talked with BusinessWest about it, much of the discussion focused on that first day and night — and for a reason.

The hard work of setting up spaces for the soldiers — an outpatient cardiac-services unit and a maternity unit that has seen declining volume for several years — had been completed by mid-afternoon — as noted, without the help of the National Guard.

As he talked about the mad dash to get the rooms ready, Angelo Martinez, a member of the Plant Operations team, spoke for everyone in the room when he spoke of those who be staying in those rooms.

“At end of the day, I was tired, but it was a good feeling,” he said. “Because these veterans did a lot for us, and we owe them for all they’ve done.”

Those units were ready by 3 p.m., the end of a shift for many of those involved. But just about everyone stayed until those soldiers finally started arriving by van in the early evening. And they stayed on until the last of them arrived around midnight. And still they stayed on until the soldiers were settled into their new quarters.

Kaitlyn Nadeau, a surgical technologist, was one of them. She told BusinessWest she was unaware that the hospital was taking on the veterans because it had been a busy day in the operating rooms. When she learned, around 3 in the afternoon, she and others went about setting out a welcome mat.

Korean War Veteran Richard Madura, seen here with recreational therapist Mary Argenio, is one of 39 veterans who found a new home at Holyoke Medical Center.

“We made hearts to put on the walls because … it’s a basement, and it’s white walls, and it’s kind of scary when you walk in,” she explained. “So we decorated it like we were going to stay there. Because if it were my grandparents coming in … most of these people are confused as is, and they’re coming to this facility they’ve never been to.

“So we decided we were going to stay there,” she went on. “Hours went by, and they still hadn’t arrived because it’s quite the process to get them here. Finally, I said, ‘let’s get more people down here.’ My boss just started grabbing people from everywhere; people from the command center showed up, and managers from other departments, and CNAs … everyone just came together, including people I’d never met before in my life, to welcome them here and get them settled in.”

This coming together as a team during that first 24 hours or so set the tone, but it was really only the first chapter in a story that, seven months later, is still being written.

Indeed, soon after the veterans arrived, some began showing signs of the virus, meaning more space would have to be readied for these guests, and single rooms would be needed to slow and hopefully stifle any spread.

Also, the hospital, and especially its nursing staff, had to pivot to providing long-term-care services.

“Being an acute-care hospital, we’re not normally planning things out for long-term-care residents,” Nurse Manager Christina Straney said. “But many of our nurses have worked in long-term care, so they stepped up and said, ‘let me take this, let me run with this, let me show you what we do in nursing homes and how we care for patients.’”

Meanwhile, some of the certified nursing assistants had worked at the Soldiers’ Home and recognized some of the patients, she went on, adding that this helped create a fluid, almost seamless transition for the veterans.

Likewise, the furloughed physical therapists stepped into their new roles as veterans’ liaisons, a role that came about out of necessity, Hatiras explained.

“We had the matter of individual preferences,” he said. “I would get on a Zoom call, and I would have family members say, ‘remember, Ed doesn’t eat eggs, and he doesn’t like mayo, and he takes his tuna fish this way, and he likes his newspaper every morning’ … and I’m like, ‘whoa, how am I going to remember all this stuff?’”

The solution was to assign liaisons to each of the veterans. Jeff Ferriss is one of them. He was furloughed on a Friday and called back to work the following Monday to serve in this unique role.

“My father was a veteran — he spent 20 years in the Air Force. My brother spent four. And I’m also a veteran — I was in the National Guard and the Air Force Reserves,” he said. “So this was the perfect transition for me; I was happy to come back and help out. Our job was to keep the family members informed, but being therapists, we tried to goad them into therapy too. Some of them may not have wanted to do that, but over time, they needed to — they were stuck in their rooms, and we were trying to keep their minds going and keep them going physically. It’s been an honor to serve these people.”

Veterans like Richard Madura. A Korean War vet, he will tell you (without much prodding, by the way) that, through his 85 years, he’s been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time — on most occasions.

Indeed, the long-time Chicopee resident arrived in Korea just as the truce between the warring factions was being signed. And when it looked like he was ticketed for taking up a gun and maintaining the peace along the DMZ, an officer who noticed on his résumé that he had musical experience and had been part of some polka bands, let him take up a clarinet in an Army band instead. To make a long story shorter, his band entered a string of talent contests, ultimately won first prize, and wound up on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Madura told BusinessWest that this habit of being in the right place extends to his current, but certainly not permanent, mailing address at Holyoke Medical Center.

“They take really good care of you here,” he said, not wanting to compare the facilities to those he left just up the hill at the Soldiers’ Home, although he did hint that the desserts are better — and larger — at HMC. “I’m fortunate to be here; we all are.”

Indeed they are. A small army answered the call last April, and it is still answering the call, making the staff at HMC a true Healthcare Hero in a year when there are many to celebrate.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

His Efforts to Coordinate the Region’s Pandemic Response Saved Lives

Mark Keroack

Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack doesn’t feel like a Healthcare Hero. But he’ll gratefully accept the honor on behalf of everyone who does deserve the award.

In his estimation, that’s a lot of people.

“Whenever some new challenge comes up, it’s been our tradition to step up and play a leadership role in Western Mass.,” said the president and CEO of Baystate Health. “I wish I could convert my award into an ‘unsung heroes award.’ So many things happened behind the scenes to enable us to step up.”

And so many people stepped up. Like Dr. Sarah Haessler, an epidemiologist who has long had a keen interest in emerging infections. “She got us to construct an ebola-treatment unit in 2014, and she put together a small team of people interested in unusual infections,” Keroack said. “That team reassembled this year, in early January, when they started issuing alerts looking out for anyone traveling from China.”

Or Dr. Lauren Westafer, an emergency medicine physician who helped determine, early on, that not rushing to place patients on ventilators actually decreased COVID-19’s mortality rate. “We were far ahead of the curve on that,” Keroack said.

Or Baystate Medical Center President Nancy Shendell-Falik, a former nurse who understands patient flow, he said, noting that Baystate, on an average day, has about 720 patients, but was able to open up hundreds more beds by postponing elective surgeries and finding other creative ways to open up space and redeploy staff.

Or Dr. Andrew Artenstein, the system’s chief physician executive — and, like Haessler, an infectious-disease expert — who led Baystate’s Incident Command Center. In addition to his day-to-day role coordinating the system’s pandemic response, he drew national attention after penning an account of a rendezvous at a small mid-Atlantic airport, where he and his team brought a $3 million check to purchase a large shipment of face masks and N95 respirators — and were temporarily accosted by the FBI.

“We realized we were on our own,” Keroack said of those early days, noting that the health system also received PPE donations from the construction trades and local manufacturers, who had shifted to making such equipment. It was a lesson to the region that local players could produce what they needed and not have to depend on a fractured global supply chain.

“I wish I could convert my award into an ‘unsung heroes award.’ So many things happened behind the scenes to enable us to step up.”

But he mostly applied the ‘hero’ designation to every frontline provider who continued to push past their health and safety anxieties and do their jobs. “They were able to do the right thing in spite of their fears, and are heroes in my book.”

That book includes story after story of collaborations Baystate forged in support of prompt community outreach, testing, education, and information, all with the goal of limiting the spread of COVID-19 and helping make Massachusetts — one of the hardest-hit states in the pandemic’s early days — an eventual model of how to control it.

On the local level, Keroack participated in Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s weekly COVID-19 press briefings, leading the mayor to note that “Dr. Mark Keroack’s leadership and medical insight has truly been a great benefit for our city of Springfield as we have worked together to defeat and mitigate the spread of this virus.” Baystate also tested the homeless population and expanded testing to key neighborhoods in the city at the request of the state and local officials.

Keroack also convened calls with Westfield Mayor Don Humason regarding clusters of positive cases in Westfield’s Russian community and possible spread beyond its borders. Meanwhile, he conducted weekly calls with the Western Mass. legislative delegation and other area hospital CEOs, while crafting a plan with state officials on how Baystate would provide surge beds for the region.

“I set up an independent command center, and every day at 7:30, we’d call a group of people who included hospital presidents, heads of medical groups, people from infection control, supply chain, finance, communications … 15 people got on the Zoom meeting every day,” he said, adding that information from those sessions would be distributed as a bulletin at 11 a.m. “It was the most widely read thing at Baystate. Everyone knew every day where we were.”

Mark Keroack (right) and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal take part in an outdoor roundtable on COVID-19 issues in the spring.

Keroack also served as the only Massachusetts hospital CEO appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to the state’s Reopening Advisory Board. “The Reopening Massachusetts plan needed to balance restarting commerce while avoiding a surge of virus cases,” said Mike Kennealy, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development. “Dr. Keroack’s medical expertise and healthcare-sector experience, and his perspective as a resident of Western Massachusetts, helped to ensure those dual objectives were addressed.”

For his part, Keroack praises the state’s phased approach, which has understandably been frustrating to business owners.

“We’re using data to move from one phase to another, and we’ve had good coordination between authorities and scientists, as opposed to some states, where they butted heads with each other,” he added. “In Massachusetts, there hasn’t been any daylight between what science is telling us and what local and state officials are saying.”

If there was an unseen ‘hero’ amid all the named ones, Keroack suggested it may have been a public that understood its role, and today still largely adheres to guidelines around social distancing, mask wearing, and other protocols.

“I’m proud of how we worked together and came together as a community,” he told BusinessWest. “Parts of the country were at loggerheads, fighting with each other about masks, getting their hackles up about personal liberties. I look at that craziness and think, thank God we didn’t have to go through that.”

On the other hand, the community’s responsibility was clear. “We had the advantage of knowing what happened in Italy and New York, so we didn’t have to twist people’s arms to take this seriously. The public understood the issue around shutting down.”

At the same time, he’s proud of Baystate’s role in working with local boards of health and the Department of Public Health around contact tracing. “In six months, from the announcement of the first case, we have gone from having to beg to get a person tested to being a regional testing center that does 1,000 tests a day,” he said, with the total tests approaching 100,000 toward the end of September.

About a third of those tests, he added, have not even been Baystate patients, but patients from other hospitals and folks living at nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and homeless shelters. “We got outside the walls of our own system into the community and really played a role in public health.”

While the pandemic is far from over, Keroack already recognizes some of the changes that might emerge from it, from an expanded role for telehealth to a better understanding of where society’s safety nets have proven inadequate.

“This has kind of exposed some of the shortcomings of our healthcare system and of our social support system, like the number of people in this country who don’t have paid sick time, and go to work even when they’re sick,” he said.

Some of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 are still emerging, he added, but Baystate — and the team of heroes with whom he insists on sharing his honor — will continue to, as he said, step up and play a leadership role.

“Every time a pandemic hits society, people who live through it are changed forever. That’s true of every pandemic throughout history,” Keroack said. “We’ll look at the world differently in terms of healthcare as a right, or childcare and sick leave — we’ll look at these issues very differently than we would have just a few years ago. At least, I hope we will.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

They Moved to the Front Lines at the Height of the Pandemic

Lydia Brisson was out for a hike with her young son on the mountain behind their home late last March. The objective was to get some exercise, but for Brisson, there was another purpose to this trek.

Indeed, while walking, she was also talking … and trying to prepare her son for the very real possibility that she might soon have to go on the road, if you will, and move from behind-the-scenes work as a clinical liaison for Berkshire Healthcare Systems (BHCS) to the front lines of an emerging pandemic.

And within minutes after returning to the house, her cell phone rang.

On the other end was Lisa Gaudet, vice president of Business Development & Marketing for BHCS, who was asking if she would be willing to pack up, travel across the state, and serve for an indeterminate amount of time as a floor nurse at BHCS’s long-term-care facility in Danvers, on the North Shore.

Lydia Brisson

Lydia Brisson

“Then, families are calling constantly because they want to know if their loved ones are OK; things were changing day to day and even moment to moment.”

Brisson didn’t hesitate in responding with a solid ‘of course,’ and that same response was also given by Christopher Savino and Emeline Bean, Western-Mass.-based BHCS clinical liaisons who got similar calls from Gaudet.

Soon, the three would be together in Danvers — out of their territory, away from their families, and smack in the middle of a crisis; there were nine active cases at the facility on the Saturday when those calls were made, several staff members had become ill, and many others had stepped away from their roles or refused to come to work.

As executive leaders at BHCS worked every possible lead and angle to find more nursing staff, Gaudet put out calls to these three members of her team who were nurses. They all said ‘yes,’ but admitted to having no real idea what they were getting themselves into.

So began a truly inspiring story, one that would bring these three closer together — or even closer, in the case of Savino and Bean, who went to high school together and worked side by side. Over the course of a dozen or so days in Danvers, they would get well-acquainted with Bagel World, become very tired of pizza, recall crying in the shower after watching one of their patients — a phrase that takes on special meaning, to be sure — die from COVID-19; vividly remember taking phone calls from family members desperate for information about a loved one, and come to really appreciate some rest at the Residence Inn in Peabody after 15- or even 18-hour shifts.

Christopher Savino

Christopher Savino

“Berkshire’s mission and values state that we’re here to serve the population that needs us, and that was a population that needed us. We’re clinical liaisons, but we’re also nurses; we went to nursing school for a reason.”

As the three talked about their experiences with BusinessWest at BHCS’s facilities in the Cubit Building in Holyoke, they all stressed that, for them, volunteering for this assignment was a no-brainer; saying ‘no’ wasn’t something that really entered their mind — although, as clinical liaisons, a role in which they focus on evaluating patients for placement at one of BHCS’s facilities, they are a long way from the front lines.

“I didn’t really give my husband much of an option,” said Bean, who has a young child herself, as she recalled that phone call from Gaudet. “The need was there, and this is why you take that oath.”

Savino agreed. “Berkshire’s mission and values state that we’re here to serve the population that needs us, and that was a population that needed us. We’re clinical liaisons, but we’re also nurses; we went to nursing school for a reason.”

Those nearly two weeks on the road were learning and growing experiences on every level imaginable, they said, adding that they will never forget any of this, but especially what they encountered upon arriving.

“There were nurses who wanted to hug us — but couldn’t — because they were desperate for help,” Bean recalled. “And there were scared people; everyone was like, ‘what do we do?’ The state was changing guidelines every day.”

Emeline Bean“This was completely different from what we did every day. And it’s given me a new and different perspective on my job. Since we were on the outside in our day-to-day work, this experience reminded me of what those on the inside are challenged with on a day-to-day basis, when all the cards are stacked against you.”

Savino noted that he and Bean, who followed each other to Danvers, arrived a day ahead of Brisson. Their first assignment was the dementia unit.

“You take a dementia patient — they don’t really know already what’s going on,” he told BusinessWest. “Now you tack on a mask, goggles, and essentially you look like a Ghostbuster that’s coming at them with medications, oxygen … they were terrified. They had no idea what was happening, they couldn’t leave their rooms — it was a very difficult situation.”

And while tending to patients, the three were also trying to assist families, who were often desperate for information about their loved ones.

“We were going into an extremely sad situation — there were a lot of unknowns,” Brisson said. “And then, families are calling constantly because they want to know if their loved ones are OK; things were changing day to day and even moment to moment.”

Savino agreed. “Our first day on the dementia floor, I remember getting a call; a patient’s daughter called and said, ‘how’s mom?’ I said, ‘she’s still negative … I haven’t gone to see her yet, but I’ll get there.’ She ended up testing positive 24 hours later and dying a day after that. I remember just breaking down in the shower.”

The three went over as a team, and they recall supporting each other, and others they were working with, throughout their assignment away from home.

“Every night, the three of us would have dinner together,” Savino said. “Every single night, we would decompress. If one of us had an overnight shift, one of the others would get food and leave it outside that person’s door. We had each other, thankfully.”

When asked to put the experience in perspective and talk about how it impacted them and perhaps changed them, the answers were provocative.

“This experience fueled my fire,” said Brisson. “My real passion is direct-care nursing, and although my boss may not want to hear this, it did make me realize that that’s where I will make the greatest difference and help the most people.”

Added Savino, “we all became nurses for a reason — putting everyone else’s life before our own. This experience just reinforced why I became a nurse and why, no matter what, even if I’m in administration, I will always keep my nursing license.”

For Bean, the experience was somewhat different in that she had been at the bedside before. But those 12 days still had an impact on her, professionally and personally.

“It brought me back and made me miss that aspect of nursing,” she told BusinessWest. “This was completely different from what we did every day. And it’s given me a new and different perspective on my job. Since we were on the outside in our day-to-day work, this experience reminded me of what those on the inside are challenged with on a day-to-day basis, when all the cards are stacked against you.”

Returning to that day last March when she got that phone call, Brisson recalled a conversation afterward with her husband, who was naturally concerned and tried to convince her this was not her job and she didn’t have to go.

She recalled that she agreed — to the extent this wasn’t exactly within her job description at that specific moment in time. But as for not having to go … she respectfully disagreed. This was a big part of her job, a big reason why she chose this profession.

Her argument didn’t exactly persuade her husband, but it clearly explains why she, Bean, and Savino are all Healthcare Heroes.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

At a Time of Crisis, Collaboration Was Key to Meeting the Most Pressing Needs

Peter Reinhart, director of IALS.

Peter Reinhart, director of IALS.

In mid-March, when much of the U.S. was starting to hunker down, Peter Reinhart had a feeling he wouldn’t be — and neither would many of the people he works with.

“We didn’t want to be sitting at home watching this pandemic unfold without doing something,” said Reinhart, director of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) at UMass Amherst, a facility launched in 2013 with the goal of accelerating life-science research and advancing collaboration with industry to shorten the gap between scientific innovation and technological advancement.

COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity to do exactly that, under time constraints that truly meant something, because people were dying every day. Take, for example, the work at IALS to develop a low-cost face shield for rapid production.

“We are a platform organization that caters to all departments on campus — nursing, computer science, natural sciences, public health, engineering,” Reinhart said, naming just a few. “Because our institute creates an interface across all these different organizations that are usually siloed, it’s much easier for us to pull together nursing staff, molecular biologists, and engineers, and say, ‘we need to make face shields in the next seven days. How can we do it?’ And they did.”

It took a few tries to get the design right, but the team eventually partnered with K+K Thermoforming of Southbridge to fabricate and distribute 81,000 face shields throughout the region. About 50,000 more followed in a second batch, all able to be shipped flat, 300 to a box, and assembled in 20 seconds by the user. Partly because of the logistics of billing and partly because the need was so pressing, IALS essentially gave the shields away.

“The differentiator between UMass and every other organization I’ve ever worked at — in both industry and academia — is this spirit of collaboration,” Reinhart told BusinessWest. “I’ve been at organizations where it’s very hard to get collaborations working across departmental boundaries. It’s much more self-contained, focused on individual greatness as opposed to collective greatness. That’s the difference I see at UMass Amherst — people across organizational boundaries will jump in and help you.”

When the pandemic hit, IALS’ culture and understanding of interdisciplinary work was especially valuable, and eight or nine response teams began working on individual projects, he explained, “some with greater and some with lesser success, but all of them with the best of intentions: to make a difference with the problems that were facing us as a society, using whatever resources we could apply to them.”

“We didn’t want to be sitting at home watching this pandemic unfold without doing something.”

One early project took aim at a worldwide mask shortage. Not all face masks can be safely sterilized and reused, but Professor Richard Peltier’s team demonstrated that hydrogen-peroxide sterilization for N95 respirators does, in fact, work. Using state-of-the-art pollution instruments to measure whether microscopic particles can pass through the mask after it’s sterilized, the results showed no real difference in filtration between a new mask and a sterilized one.

In another project, Baystate Health resident physician Dr. Mat Goebel and respiratory specialist Kyle Walsh contacted the College of Engineering for help with ventilators. Regular, 10-foot ventilator cables were on extreme back order, and longer cables, which would provide added safety to staff by increasing distance and reducing the need for PPE, did not exist. UMass engineers were able to fabricate a 50-foot cable that was compatible with Baystate’s ventilators, and contacted Michigan-based Amphenol Sine Systems, who agreed to design and fabricate the longer cables.

“It’s a really intriguing model,” Reinhart said of the collaboration that went into each project. “It could be a model of the future, to allow interdisciplinary work to function on a campus that by necessity has these organizational boundaries.”

Another team set up local production of viral transport media (VTM) for COVID-19 clinical testing. As testing ramped up nationwide, the solution used to keep COVID-19 samples safe during transport was in short supply, and local hospitals contacted Reinhart for help.

Peter Reinhart with some of the equipment

Peter Reinhart with some of the equipment that can process thousands of COVID-19 tests every day on the UMass campus.

Within one week, IALS had produced, tested, and distributed enough VTM to test 600 patients, before scaling up production and delivery to meet the needs of frontline workers across the state. The campus has enlisted more than 60 volunteers who produce, test, package and distribute VTM, and have provided hundreds of thousands of vials to seven regional hospitals and healthcare facilities and the Massachusetts COVID-19 Response Command Center.

“That project has grown because the need was much larger than anticipated,” Reinhart said. “It was good to see we had so many people prepared to put in their time to help, and great to see that people who had run out of the ability to test were back doing testing. We ended up doing a good thing.”

The latest project is a high-throughput testing facility where IALS can generate up to 5,000 COVID-19 tests per day, enough to have all students, staff, and faculty tested at least once a week.

“We hope this becomes a regional resource that serves the community with rapid testing,” he said, noting that a regional testing bureau charges between $120 and $160 per test, or between $2 million and $3 million per week at the volume UMass can now conduct in-house.

“Imagine what that does to your campus finances,” he went on. “We can do it at 10 cents on the dollar if we do it ourselves. Obviously, you need a major investment in staff, space, and equipment, but once we’ve made that investment, we can do much less expensive tests, they’re completely under our control, the turnaround time is super fast, and we can quickly put people into quarantine and do contact tracing.”

“The differentiator between UMass and every other organization I’ve ever worked at — in both industry and academia — is this spirit of collaboration.”

As time goes on, Reinhart said, IALS — and all the departments at UMass with which it collaborates — will continue to look for places it can make a difference. One ongoing effort involves the development of a clinical testing lab that can identify individuals with antibodies that can neutralize the COVID-19 virus. “Students can donate a sample, and we’ll tell them whether we’re making antibodies or not.”

These efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis — and other projects yet to be determined — will continue, he added, because the pandemic is “far, far, far from over.”

While Western Mass. has been fortunate with its infection numbers, the virus is still spreading at the same rate it was in March, he went on, and a combination of the upcoming flu season and “PPE fatigue,” among other factors, may yield a second spike of some kind. “I think we’re in for a period of increasing difficulties.”

That said, it’s been an immensely gratifying seven months at IALS.

“Everything was gloom and doom, everyone was at home, and it seemed that every news item you picked up was another downer on how dire things were,” he recalled of the situation back in March. “Creating a few feel-good stories and giving our students and faculty a chance to contribute to something positive was very helpful to them. I know it was for me.”

But it’s not how these dozens of unsung individuals feel personally that makes them Healthcare Heroes. It’s the difference they’ve made in the fight against a virus that has proven a persistent, resilient foe.

“We weren’t good at logistics; we were engineers,” Reinhart said of efforts like distributing those tens of thousands of face shields. But that effort demonstrates collaboration, too. “It was exciting. People were excited about throwing their weight behind a project that had immediate impact.”

Impact that will only continue as a truly challenging 2020 turns an uncertain corner into 2021.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Healthcare Heroes

This Administrator Has Become a Calming Voice in the Midst of the Pandemic

Maggie Eboso

Maggie Eboso was in the grocery store when the first text message came in on the evening of March 26.

Soon, there were three more, and as her phone kept pinging, it became increasingly clear that her job as Infection Control coordinator at Mercy Medical Center was about to change substantially, and that she and the hospital were entering uncharted waters.

Indeed, the first suspected COVID-19 patients — two young women who had recently returned to the area from China — had arrived at Mercy, and there were questions that needed to be answered. Lots of them.

So began an ultra-intense period that has tested Eboso in all kinds of ways, but also taken her career to a new and different plane, one in which she has emerged as a Healthcare Hero.

Those frantic first days would set the tone for the weeks and months to come, during which Eboso would take on a number of responsibilities, many of them new — from coaching staff on the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to helping all those at the hospital navigate a rough sea of changing guidelines and constantly changing information; from advocating for adequate supplies of PPE and working with colleagues to be good stewards of that precious equipment to providing a much-needed sense of calm amid a crisis unlike anything Mercy had seen before.

Her work during the early stages of the pandemic took her to every corner of the hospital, and also far outside its walls. Indeed, she taught PPE donning and doffing, hand hygiene, and infection-control practices to staff at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow.

Summing it all up, she said this has been a learning experience — one that is very much ongoing, and one that has helped her personally and professionally in innumerable ways.

“I’m a better nurse, and I’ve grown my knowledge base,” she explained. “And I now have a closer working relationship with many of the people here. Initially, I was joking that, when COVID is done, I’m going to change my cell-phone number and disable Halo [a messaging system used in healthcare] on my phone, because of all those calls I was getting. But through all those conversations and close meetings, we’ve become closer and have stronger relationships.”

Turning back the clock several years, Eboso said she took a somewhat winding route to her role as Infection Control and Prevention coordinator.

She came to this country from Kenya with the intention of studying business, but quickly segued into healthcare at Springfield Technical Community College and soon landed a summer internship at Mercy. When it was over, she was asked if she wanted to stay on as a nurse’s aide, and replied with a strong ‘absolutely.’ In many ways, she’s never left.

She went from nurse’s aide to nurse to clinical nurse supervisor to administrative nursing supervisor on weekend nights, a position that was eventually eliminated in 2015, prompting her to leave the Mercy system for close to a year.

She was offered a chance to return, and remembers the vice president of Nursing offering her her pick of positions.

Eboso chose Infection Control, something she had never done before, but intrigued her. She recalls her husband noting she was a quick study and saying, “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say ‘yes’ —then learn how to do it later.” He also sent her an inspirational quote from Richard Branson to the same effect.

But no words, from her husband or Branson, could likely have prepared her for what her role became starting early this year, and especially after she started receiving those texts in the supermarket.

“The biggest thing that we saw with this whole thing was the fear. We were all thinking, ‘yes, we’ll take care of you, and we’ll treat you,’ but at the end of the day, we all had families and children that we were going home to. So while, yes, we all signed up for this, and this is what we do, people were still afraid — they wanted assurances that they could do their jobs and still go home and not bring this back to their families.”

They came from the Emergency Department director, the ED charge nurse, and the nurse tending to the patient directly. She put the shopping aside, was at the hospital in 10 minutes, and began addressing a situation that would become a microcosm of all that would come over the ensuing weeks and months.

“We had to call the Department of Public Health and get approval for testing because hospitals couldn’t do the testing themselves,” she explained. “So it was now calling the epidemiologist, waiting for a call back, talking to the physicians and nurse, looking at the patient, and waiting for DPH to call you back.”

Maggie Eboso’s work during the pandemic

Maggie Eboso’s work during the pandemic took her to every corner of Mercy Medical Center — and far beyond its walls.

“Information was changing almost every day,” she went on, while discussing what those first few weeks and months were like. “So as you’re building systems into your computer, you’re writing policies and going out in front of your staff to educate them on the new and updated information — and that was happening sometimes several times a week.”

One of her primary roles focused on educating staff on how to use PPE and become good stewards of that equipment, but also to help them separate fact from conjecture or assumption on what equipment was needed and, above all, how to keep themselves and their families safe from infection.

“The biggest thing that we saw with this whole thing was the fear,” she explained. “We were all thinking, ‘yes, we’ll take care of you, and we’ll treat you,’ but at the end of the day, we all had families and children that we were going home to. So while, yes, we all signed up for this, and this is what we do, people were still afraid — they wanted assurances that they could do their jobs and still go home and not bring this back to their families.”

And the onslaught of information coming from the media certainly didn’t help, she went on, because this information was often contradicting what she and others were telling staff members.

“When we told them, ‘all you need is a regular mask,’ they’d see people on TV wearing haz-mat suits, and they would ask, ‘why are they wearing haz-mat suits, and all you’re giving us is a mask?’ she recalled, adding that was this was just one of many “clashes and contradictions,” as she called them, that had to be dealt with.

“We had to call the Department of Public Health and get approval for testing because hospitals couldn’t do the testing themselves. So it was now calling the epidemiologist, waiting for a call back, talking to the physicians and nurse, looking at the patient, and waiting for DPH to call you back.”

While taking on this role of educator within the medical center, she also carried it out within the community as well, including several visits to the correctional facility in Ludlow, where she provided lessons in everything from how gloves provide a false sense of security — that’s why hand washing is still very important — to how to don and doff PPE.

Today, one of her concerns involves battling complacency and what she and many others are now calling “battle fatigue” — both inside the medical center and within the larger community.

She used the nurses’ lounges at Mercy as an example. “People are tired … people want to celebrate a birthday with a cake or share a pizza; they want to eat lunch with their friends,” she explained, adding that it’s part of her job to keep these employees diligent — and safe — by keeping the numbers down in those lounges and making sure there is adequate social distancing.

She joked that people are wary of even thinking about letting their guard down because, if and when they do, “Maggie will be walking in the door at just that moment.”

That mindset, real or not, is just one of many ways of explaining why she has become a Healthcare Hero during this very challenging year.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

She Became a Guiding Light at a Time of Pain and Darkness

Rabbi Devorah Jackson

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson came to JGS Lifecare as its director of Spiritual Life in 2001. And, for the first 19 years or so, she came to work each day knowing exactly what her job was and how it would be carried out.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic reached this facility last March … well, she still knew what her role was, but she had to continually revisit that question about how to carry it out, because the answer had the potential to change seemingly every day.

“Every day, I would ask, ‘what does it mean to be a chaplain in a long-term facility during this time?” she told BusinessWest. “In the midst of the pandemic, when many of our residents are sick, many are going to the hospital, and many are dying, and staff are being called upon to work long hours and do things they weren’t necessarily doing before, like post-mortems, and where they’re risking their own health and lives every day they walked into the building … I’m observing all this and asking myself, ‘what is my role as the spiritual leader of this institution?’”

To say she would find new — and impactful — ways to answer that question would be an understatement.

Indeed, over the course of the past seven months, Jacobson has been a source of comfort to a number of constituencies, including staff members, residents, and their families. And she has done this through a number of means, everything from donning PPE and visiting sick and dying residents with COVID to rallying community organizations to send staff members meals of gratitude; from enlisting crisis therapists and mental-health counselors to offer staff free confidential counseling to creating prayer and inspiration cards for spiritual support; from helping raise awareness and funds for JGS’s Employee Assistance Fund to moving furniture, on at least one occasion.

“I’m part of the team,” she explained. “And I made a pretty quick decision — to be truly part of the team, 365 days a year, we do what we’re called upon to do.”

It is sentiments like this that prompted Susan Halpern, vice president of Development and Communications for JGS, who nominated Jacobson, to write that “our heroes are people we look up to and admire for their extraordinary actions and achievements. They are people we wish to emulate. Devorah’s countless acts of caring and loving-kindness, her concern for others, her efforts seeking justice for all, make her a standout candidate for the prestigious Healthcare Heroes award.”

“I’m part of the team. And I made a pretty quick decision — to be truly part of the team, 365 days a year, we do what we’re called upon to do.”

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest at a small table outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home — a nod to the precautions being taken to keep all those inside the facility safe — Jacobson repeatedly pointed toward the building and said, “the real heroes are in there.”

She was referring to the frontline workers who confronted a ferocious outbreak of COVID-19 in the early spring that would ultimately claim 66 lives and leave staff members fearful of what might happen to them, but still committed to carrying out their jobs.

In many ways, she pivoted within her role, from spending the bulk of her time with residents and families — handling everything from Jewish programming to pastoral care, including one-on-one visits — to now devoting most of it to those staff members fighting the COVID battle but also confronting the many other issues of the day.

A plaque has been placed outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home

A plaque has been placed outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home to honor those residents of the facility who lost their lives to COVID-19.

“Yes, I was continuing to meet with residents, although they were very frail and very sick, and yes, I was continuing to be in touch with family members, because they were unable to come into the building — I was able to give them a sense of how their loved ones were doing,” she recalled. “But much of the focus shifted to the staff.”

And it has remained there, months after the height of the tragedy, because the need remains — and is significant.

“I was just involved in a conversation with a nurse,” she said while speaking with BusinessWest. “She took me aside and said, ‘now that COVID has passed, many of us are dealing with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I’m not sure what kind of help we need, but we need some help.’”

She has been providing such help, and in several ways, one of them being help in securing counseling for the many staff members impacted by the crisis.

“It was quite clear, as I was visiting the units and talking to staff, that there was a lot of trauma,” she recalled. “So what I wound up doing, with the help of a lot of great friends in the therapy world, was put together a therapy initiative for our staff. I had a list of about 30 mental-health counselors, trained in trauma and crisis counseling, who made themselves available for phone, Zoom, or otherwise, to be available for up to six hours, for free.

“I started making matches,” she went on, adding that maybe 20-25 staff members took advantage of the program. “Some of these people got sick, so for some of them, it was when they got back and had gone through all they had gone through with their own illness.”

Each day, she would arrive at the facility and ask herself how she could carry out her role, how she could help. And seemingly each day, there was a different answer.

It might be creating a new prayer and inspiration card — one of them says simply, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In response to George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement, she held an all-campus moment of silence and urged individuals and the organization as a whole to seek ways to defeat bigotry and racism. In response to an on-campus arson attempt, she spoke up against hate crimes and anti-Semitism. On more than a few occasions, she helped box up the belongings of residents who had died as a result of COVID-19.

While Jacobson’s recollections of the past seven months and thoughts about her work certainly resonate, comments from others about the comfort and support she provided speak volumes about her impact during this time of crisis.

“My only regret was that I could not hold my mother’s hand. Devorah held her hand for me. She let me say goodbye to my mother … she was there to bridge the gap. It is because of Devorah that my journey was so peaceful.”

Halpern forwarded this comment from a family member: “Devorah went in to see my parents every day and she called me every day to give me updates. My only regret was that I could not hold my mother’s hand. Devorah held her hand for me. She let me say goodbye to my mother … she was there to bridge the gap. It is because of Devorah that my journey was so peaceful.”

Halpern also shared an e-mail from Lola White, an LPN and unit manager at the Leavitt Nursing Home, which was sent to her unsolicited. “Throughout this pandemic,” it read, “Devorah has always been there and ready to help in any way she could.

“One day, I was attending to a resident who lost the COVID battle,” it continued. “She immediately asked me, as she always did, if I was OK. Next thing I know, she was suited and booted, by my side, helping me. Before she helped me, I felt defeated. Her acts of compassion for me and every other staff member in the facility made it easier to cope … She set up meals, counselors, and even called and texted staff that were out sick or had a sick family member … I am looking for a way to thank her for everything.”

Needless to say, many people share that sentiment.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

This College Student Stepped Up and Passed an Important Test

Jennifer Graham

Jennifer Graham

Jennifer Graham enrolled in the pre-medical sciences program — with a minor in psychology — at Bay Path University with the long-range goal of becoming a doctor.

But the events of the past seven months have changed her outlook — and her career pursuit — in a very meaningful way.

“I now want to go into nursing school,” she told BusinessWest. “Dealing with COVID as a whole and seeing what we’re going through as a country, I just want to pursue nursing and help people more. Doctors don’t get that one-on-one all the time, that patient contact, as much as a nurse does. After working with COVID and seeing what people really go through with sickness and even death, I want to be there — I want to be there to support these patients, help them out, and make them feel better as an individual with what they’re going through.”

What prompted this change? Some time on the front lines of the pandemic as a home health aide working for O’Connell Care at Home, a part-time job that became far more than that when she returned from a cruise — yes, a cruise — during spring break in mid-March.

Upon coming back to Western Mass. from that voyage to the Mediterranean, her job with O’Connell changed in a number of ways — everything from how care was provided in the home during a pandemic to where.

Indeed, in addition to going into the homes of the clients assigned to her, she was one of the first (and one of the few) to volunteer to provide care to the homeless at an outdoor COVID-19 triage facility established to care for potential positive cases among the homeless.

When asked why she signed on for this risky, month-long assignment in the middle of a pandemic, she replied simply, “there was an obvious need, and I just thought I could help — I thought I could do my part.”

“After working with COVID and seeing what people really go through with sickness and even death, I want to be there — I want to be there to support these patients, help them out, and make them feel better as an individual with what they’re going through.”

These comments from Michael Hynek, an HR generalist at O’Connell who nominated her to be a Healthcare Hero, echo that sentiment and put her work during the pandemic in its proper perspective.

“Having an aide like her, who is willing to accept any challenge, is vital when servicing our at-risk members in the community,” he wrote. “She makes everyone feel welcome and safe when administering care. Jennifer also enjoys the opportunity to learn about healthcare in many unique settings. Working outside of a hospital or facility can be very challenging, but she has embraced every challenge that has come her way.”

Jennifer Graham says her experiences during the pandemic

Jennifer Graham says her experiences during the pandemic, especially her work with the homeless, has prompted her to change her career goals; her new ambition is to become a nurse.

COVID-19 has provided her the opportunity to learn on many levels, and about many things. And it has also given her a new perspective on everything from the homeless population to her own career aspirations.

To tell this story properly, we need to go back to end of that spring-break cruise, which started and ended in Gotham. Suffice it to say the world, and Graham’s world, were much different places.

“While we were in the Bahamas, my phone was going off like crazy, and I was thinking, ‘look what we’re going home to,’” she recalled. “When we docked, New York was a complete ghost town; they took our temperatures and asked us a series of questions; if you had a fever, you had to stay on the cruise ship for two weeks. But no one had a fever.”

As for Bay Path, the campus was now closed, and it would not reopen for the balance of the spring semester. “There were no labs, no nothing; everything was remote.”

Then there was her day job, as she called it.

Looking for something that would provide both a paycheck and some rewarding work in what was becoming her chosen field, she became intrigued by the comments of some friends who worked at O’Connell’s who told her it was a great place to work. She applied late last fall, and started in December.

By the following March, she had settled in; she had a few clients assigned to her and also filled in when a colleague was out.

When she came back from vacation, that world changed as well. She was still seeing many of the same clients she did before COVID struck, but now, the work was different. It now entailed social distancing, mask wearing, and being extra diligent when it came to keeping the client and family members — and herself — safe.

“It was quite challenging at first — having to wear a mask all day was … different, and it was a new environment,” she recalled. “But after a little bit, you got used to it. And for the clients, it was difficult for them, because it was hard for them to understand what you were saying. I was thinking, ‘now we have to think differently and respond to them differently. I have to be much louder and slow my words; clients don’t like the mask.’

“Having an aide like her, who is willing to accept any challenge, is vital when servicing our at-risk members in the community.”

“I’ve been double-gloving,” she went on, referring to the practice of wearing two sets of gloves in the homes of those clients she has to help physically. “In some cases, they tell you not to double-glove, because it’s easier for your gloves to rip, but double-gloving for me has been a life saver.”

The bigger, even more significant change came with her decision to volunteer for work at the triage center created to care for the homeless population, work that became almost full-time as the spring semester ended and her schedule opened up.

“Anyone who had the virus or felt they had the virus came into these two large tents — they were essentially living there,” she explained, adding that individuals were tested on site and placed in two categories: PUI (patients under investigation), and the “COVID side,” where residents were housed in designated quarters based on whether they tested positive or negative.

Elaborating, she said there was an intake process, testing, and then the aides would bring them into a tent, make up a bed for them, get them something to eat, and help in any way they could. “If they needed anything, we were there for them.”

While a few people volunteered for work at the triage center, Hynek told BusinessWest, Graham’s commitment stood out.

“She really stepped up the plate when it came to transitioning away from the elderly care and into the homeless care and serving that vulnerable population,” he noted. “She took on a brand-new challenge, and I don’t think a lot of people would step up to the plate in that situation.”

As noted earlier, this work was a learning experience on many levels, and it also changed her perspective on the homeless population.

“This experience changed my mind on how I look at them,” she explained. “Being younger, I would look at a homeless person and say, ‘why don’t you just get a job?’ Working with them completely changed how I felt; I got to understand what it’s like for them — how much of a struggle it is for them on a daily basis.

Graham is back in school now, taking classes remotely while returning to the Bay Path campus for labs. She still works at O’Connell at a part-time basis, taking care of a few clients and double-gloving as always. The COVID-19 fight is far from over, but she has already absorbed a number of lessons that have helped her grow personally and professionally and given her that new perspective on what she wants to do with her life.

If this was a test — and she would say it has been, on a number of levels — then she has certainly aced it, becoming, in the process, one of the many Healthcare Heroes of 2020.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Dedicated Team Rose to the Occasion and Took Care of Those in Need

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

Several areas at the Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc. facility on Industry Avenue in Springfield are still sporting St. Patrick’s Day decorations.

They were put up early last March, and they remain there … well, because those who put them up haven’t been back to take them down.

Indeed, as the pandemic closed in and the state-ordered shutdown went into effect just before that holiday, the vast majority of GSSSI’s 250 employees began working remotely — and they have remained off site. But for some, working at home simply wasn’t an option. That’s because it’s their job to essentially provide nutritious home-delivered meals, or HDMs, as they call them, each day.

This small team of 10 essential employees stayed on and weathered the storm, if you will, and devised and executed a comprehensive plan to ensure those who need these meals get them, even though the senior-dining sites that were in operation had to shut down due to restrictions on large gatherings, and all meals have to be delivered to the home or picked up at designated ‘grab-and-go’ sites.

The creation of that new grab-and-go program underscores just how quickly — and effectively — the Nutrition Department at GSSSI was able to respond to this crisis situation.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind. There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Indeed, the initiative involved everything from securing new caterers, including one that could prepare medically tailored meals, to establishing the sites; from partnering with the PVTA to deliver the meals to putting in place the protocols needed to ensure that meals were picked up safely.

Doing all that might normally take four to six weeks, said Heather Jolicoeur, community coordinator for GSSSI and a member of that team. Instead, they did it all in under two weeks.

All that sounds difficult enough, but remember, this was carried out in the middle of a pandemic, so there additional challenges and assignments on top of those one might expect:

• One of the food resources was shut down due to COVID-19, forcing those at GSSSI to track down a reliable and appropriate food source for Kosher meal recipients;

• A corps of volunteers had to be assembled, with CORI checks run on each individual due to the nature of the work;

• Temporary Meals on Wheels drivers had to be hired to fill in for regular drivers who had pre-existing conditions and couldn’t safely deliver meals every day;

• New policies for delivering meals with the least amount of contact from the drivers were put in place, further complicating the process; and

• As the crisis continued, new needs emerged, and HDM recipients were soon also receiving toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items, supplied by those in ‘chase cars’ following those delivering meals.

Jill Keough

Jill Keough

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another. So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

“Every day, there are emergencies; every day, the conditions change; every day, new policies and procedures are developed, implemented, and changed,” said Jolicoeur, putting the accent on the present tense. “Every day, all 10 of us work together calmly and focused on serving as many seniors as possible.”

As they talked about their experiences and what it meant to be part of this effort, those who are involved gave some unique perspective on all that has transpired over the past seven months, and underscored why this group is part of the Healthcare Heroes class of 2020.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind,” said Jill Keough, executive director of GSSSI, as she summed up the situation that unfolded in mid-March and the Nutrition Department’s detailed, and imaginative, response to the problem — or problems, to be precise. “There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Before getting to this plan, though, Mary Jenewin Caplin, the now-retired Area Agency on Aging director, set the stage. Before COVID-19, she explained, GSSSI served more than 900 clients who rely on HMDs each day. Prepared by caterers each day, the meals were delivered to some homes, but also to 14 senior-dining sites across the region, where clients could not only dine, but enjoy one another’s company and camaraderie.

When the pandemic struck, those dining sites had to close, for obvious reasons, but the need remained, and now, meals had to be delivered to the home, requiring the hiring of more volunteer drivers and new ways to get meals into the hands of those who needed them.

The plan that emerged came together very quickly, out of necessity, said Mike Young, an HMD supervisor, and it would have to incorporate a number of changes to how things had been done, but could no longer be done in the age of COVID.

“The biggest concern was that clients didn’t even want to open their doors anymore,” he explained. “We had to worry about how we would see them, how we would get them the meals, how would we keep the clients safe, how would we keep the drivers safe. Our drivers were used to going into someone’s house, putting the meal in the refrigerator, giving it to them on the couch, or putting it on the kitchen table. Now, we’re trying to get a driver to give them a meal, stay six feet apart, and maybe not even have the door open; there were a number of challenges to overcome.”

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car. We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space”

Tracy Landry, another HMD supervisor, agreed, noting that, to keep both drivers and clients safe, a series of new protocols were put in place, including single-use plastic bags for deliveries, masks, hand sanitizer, and other steps.

“We had more meetings than you can imagine when we first this started,” she recalled. “Every day was different, and each day it seemed that there was a new challenge.”

Indeed, and as new challenges emerged, this small but dedicated team found ways to meet them. At the top of the list of challenges was keeping everyone safe, and for this team of 10, that meant taking extraordinary measures themselves.

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another,” said Keough. “So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

As noted, one of the real concerns for the Nutrition Department team was keeping the drivers — most all of them older and in the high-risk category — out of harm’s way.

“My concern the whole time was the drivers — they’re all in that danger zone,” Young said. “Every day, they were asking, ‘what’s going on?’ You could tell they were concerned, and I was concerned for them. The last thing I wanted to see was someone catch something. To me, they’re the real heroes in this; they were out there every day doing it.”

At the height of the crisis, additional volunteer drivers had to be hired to handle what became larger deliveries, said Landry, noting that those at GSSSI were determined to help seniors stock up on frozen meals to make sure they had enough food in the home.

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car,” she explained, adding quickly that these efforts to help clients stock up were more than successful. “We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space.’”

And, as noted, the help being provided soon extended beyond food. Indeed, as calls came in from the public asking how they could volunteer and help serve the seniors, some were pressed into service following the food-delivery vehicles in so-called chase cars stockpiled with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items the client might need.

But food was the primary focus, said Kate Senn, Nutrition program director, adding that the creation of a grab-and-go program certainly helped GSSSI effectively meet that growing need. To put the matter in perspective, she noted that, in January, prior to COVID-19, GSSSI was providing 3,352 meals for congregate dining sites. In August, it was providing 4,581 meals via the grab-and-go program.

Those numbers help tell the story, but only a little. The tireless work and dedication to serving clients — while also keeping everyone safe at a time when similar programs in other states and other parts of this state had to shut down because of positive cases — are what really make this story happen.

The 10 that stayed behind have left the St. Patrick’s Day decorations up, perhaps thinking they will be appropriate in a few months again anyway. But more to the point, they just haven’t had any time.

They’ve been too busy getting HDMs to all those who need them. They’ve been too busy doing the work of true Healthcare Heroes.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

This Administrator Provided a Steady Hand in Rough Seas

Helen Gobeil

Helen Gobeil

Helen Gobeil had recently relocated to Western Mass. from the other side of the state, and was looking for work.

She remembers seeing the small, as in small — maybe two lines — ad in the paper for an administrative assistant at Visiting Angels in West Springfield, a home-care provider, and becoming intrigued enough to apply — and prevail in that search.

She would eventually grow into the position and became adept at handling the many responsibilities within the job description, said her boss, Michele Anstett, president and CEO of the company, adding quickly that this was a good thing because all those talents would be needed when COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

Indeed, every aspect of this job, from recruiting caregivers to consulting with new clients; from matching caregivers with these clients to scheduling regular care and coordinating care in emergency situations, would become more difficult. Much more difficult.

And there would be new responsibilities added to that already-long list, including the daunting task of providing PPE for those caregivers and providing a compassionate ear to family members coping with something they would struggle to get both hands around.

Anstett summed up Gobeil’s work during this ultra-challenging time by describing her as a “hidden hero of COVID-19.”

By that, she meant she worked mostly, but not exclusively, behind the scenes and not on the front lines. But her contributions to what is an ongoing fight to carry on business in the middle of a pandemic, while keeping both employees and clients as safe as possible, are worthy of that adjective ‘heroic.’

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience,” Anstett wrote in her nomination, “she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience, she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.”

“COVID-19 has not only presented physical challenges, but also mental ones, including severe anxiety and depression and exacerbating loneliness, isolation, and sleep problems, particularly in the senior population,” she went on. “To this end, Helen has not only served to protect the health of seniors across Western Massachusetts, but she has also given peace of mind to the families, seniors, and caregivers.”

To put these phrases ‘positive force’ and ‘peace of mind’ in their proper perspective, we turn back the clock to last March 23, when Gov. Charlie Baker imposed his lockdown. At Visiting Angels, staff members packed up and prepared to work remotely for what would be three months. But as they did that, Gobeil, in particular, had to develop detailed plans for providing care in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when people, and especially seniors, were wary about letting people into their homes.

For many, though, home care is an essential need, so they had to let people in. But before anyone went in, Gobeil and Anstett would conduct a risk assessment for both clients and caregivers within a given match.

“We would go down the list, and give each client a number — ‘1’ being the least at risk, and ‘3’ the highest,” Anstett noted, adding that there are more than 60 clients on average at any given time. “We would talk about each caregiver and each client and discuss how to keep them safe; if there was a facility that had COVID, we wouldn’t go into that facility.

“Helen stayed on top of all this,” she went on. “She would talk to every single caregiver and find out where they were going, where they had been, whether they had another job … and she would just cut it right down, every day.”

Helen Gobeil with Michele Anstett, president and CEO of Visiting Angels West Springfield.

Helen Gobeil with Michele Anstett, president and CEO of Visiting Angels West Springfield.

Meanwhile, there would be new protocols concerning cleaning within those homes and other steps to control the spread of the virus.

“These were things we did all the time,” Gobeil explained. “Caregivers just had to be extra, extra cautious about what they did.”

And she had to be extra cautious and extra diligent about who else was going into these homes. With that, she relayed a story that brings this element of her assignment into perspective.

“The daughter of one of our clients showed up from Florida — and that was an event,” she recalled. “She didn’t tell anyone she was coming, and went into the home to a bedbound client with our caregivers in the house. She didn’t quarantine — she went from the plane to this home.

“This was a 24/7 case, and we pulled out of that house immediately,” Gobeil went on. “I said, ‘it’s her or us; until she’s gone, we’re out!’ She went to a hotel that night and left the next morning. Another daughter went in and cleaned top to bottom.”

Beyond delivering some tough love in situations like that, she has also been providing some compassionate outreach to family members of clients, including one who had to cope with the death of a loved one at a time when the grieving process, like everything else, was made different by COVID-19.

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment,” she explained. “In this woman’s case, her mother was dying, and she was very anxious about the whole thing. I said to Michele one night, ‘I’m going to see the client, and I’m going to take some time with the daughter,’ and I did. And after her mom passed, she came here, stood in the doorway, said said, ‘please tell me I can come in — I just owe you a big hug.’”

There have been myriad other tasks and challenges as well, including the matter of simply securing needed PPE for her caregivers. It was very difficult to procure items such as masks and gowns in the beginning, and it’s still a challenge, she said, adding that Visiting Angels and other providers have certainly been helped by Gowns 4 Good, the national effort to collect graduation gowns.

“As we started to get them in, the stories that accompanied them … they were incredible,” said Gobeil. “Notes from high-school graduates, class of 2020, including some from West Springfield, who couldn’t have their own ceremonies — they were heartwarming. We were crying.”

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment.”

Meanwhile, another stern test, especially after the federal stimulus package was passed, was hiring caregivers. Indeed, many solid candidates for such jobs were in a position where they were making far more in employment than they could as a caregiver — so they stayed unemployed.

“In the beginning, we couldn’t get anyone to answer our ads,” she recalled. “But we made it through that rough patch, and now, a lot of people are eager to get back to work.”

One of her priorities now is to keep both her caregivers and their clients diligent as the pandemic enters its eighth month of impacting virtually all aspects of life as we know it.

Summing up what it was like — and is still like — she said, “it just multiplied the concern and the vigilance, and the stress was unbelievable, every day. And it is still like that. Every day.”

Coping with all this was certainly not in whatever job description was part of that tiny ad she saw more than a dozen years ago now. And it is certainly not what she signed up for.

But as this job changed with COVID, Gobeil rose to the occasion, accepting each new challenge with diligence and ample respect for her ultimate responsibility — the health and well-being of both her caregivers and clients.

Call her a ‘hidden’ hero if you like, but her hard work and dedication are certainly not lost on anyone she has been involved with during this pandemic.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

While This Shelter’s Protocols Changed, Its Mission Never Did

The metaphor is an easy one to draw.

“If COVID was the invading army, all of us here — every one of us — had to set the wall and hold the wall and make sure folks were going to be safe,” said Keith Rhone, Operations director at Friends of the Homeless in Springfield, a program of Clinical & Support Options (CSO).

The reality, however, was much more complex. In its dorms, its kitchen, and places where clients meet therapists, clinicians, and other staff one on one, FOH was tasked, back in March, with implementing social distancing and a host of other protocols aimed at keeping everyone safe — both those delivering a broad range of services and those receiving them — while never shutting those services down.

That they did so, and how, makes the entire team true Healthcare Heroes.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that.”

“In some ways, we can’t do anything differently,” Clinical Director Christy O’Brien told BusinessWest. “We’re never going to shut down; we’re never not going to be here. Despite the social distancing we had to do, we’re never not going to be close to our people — not necessarily physically, of course, but we still need to know how they’re doing, how we can help, all those things. Where other places were forced to move to telehealth, that’s never going to work for us. The needs are still the needs.”

Those needs encompass not only shelter, but clinical services, such as mental-health and substance-abuse recovery coaching and therapy; housing — FOH has a number of lease-holding tenants; three meals a day; clothing and toiletries as necessary; transportation and delivery services; prescription pickups; case management … as Rhone put it, “the job here is whatever it takes.”

COVID-19 didn’t arrive at an ideal time, said Bill Miller, vice president of Housing and Homeless Services — not that there’s ever a good time for a global pandemic.

“We were coming out of a winter where we served more people and were more full than we had ever been in our history,” he recalled. “So it was a tough winter, and what the pandemic required was a complete shift in our mindset because our inclination and our mission has always been the same: how do we serve as many people as possible? So we wanted to continue to serve in the same way, but we had to adopt a whole new style.”

Among the changes, picnic tables and tents were erected outdoors — spaced apart — to accommodate distanced meal lines. Volunteers, who are instrumental in the service of FOH meals and other activities, were temporarily suspended. In the dormitories, some beds were removed, with overflow space employed in the dining room. Partitions went up, and guests were arranged head to toe when sleeping.

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless, who had to quickly figure out new protocols in the spring while continuing to serve clients at the same level as before.

Additional temporary staff were hired to more regularly and thoroughly sanitize spaces, and hand-sanitizer stations were mounted throughout the campus. Dozens of donors and staffers designed and sewed homemade cloth masks so that each shelter guest would have reusable, washable masks.

Meanwhile, from the pandemic’s earliest days, before on-site testing became available, temperature screenings and interviews were conducted to alert the team to early signs, and as the situation progressed, Baystate and Mercy medical centers were quick to work with FOH on testing.

CSO also staffed and managed large tent facilities, which were erected in partnership with the city of Springfield and served as emergency accommodations in the event of positive cases (see the related story of another Healthcare Hero, page xx). When another shelter in the city needed to close due to guests testing positive, the CSO team was able to quarantine those who had been at risk and refer those who ended up testing positive to state-run MEMA isolation sites. FOH further assisted many of those individuals once their isolation periods were completed.

Why was all this critical? Simply put, while COVID-19 has swept through homeless populations in Boston, Worcester, and other cities, homeless individuals in the Greater Springfield region have been largely spared, thanks to the quick — dare we say heroic — work of the team at Friends of the Homeless.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that,” Miller said, adding that “there wasn’t one person who backed out, who wasn’t going to show up for work. We have a dedicated team who have been here for a long time. It was just incredible how everybody showed up.”

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people.”

It wasn’t lost on Miller that many people working at Friends of the Homeless fall into high-risk categories when it comes to COVID-19. “To have people come into work anyway is just striking.”

“Everyone came in and suited up and did the work,” added Delphine Ray, manager of Case Management Services. “They didn’t hesitate. This is our home away from home, and, by the grace of God, we managed to pull through.”

Dave Ware, men’s shelter manager, said he had many concerns about to manage the social-distancing aspect of the pandemic at FOH. “They really came together to figure out how to manage that in the dorms and kitchen. They came up with a good strategy to handle the social-distancing part.”

It wasn’t always a top-down strategy, Miller added. “There was a fad in business management some years ago — idea-driven organizations. That meant the ideas came from staff at all levels. That’s what we saw here. ‘What if we try this?’ ‘OK, let’s do that.’ Because this was something we’d never seen before, and we didn’t know what to do. And it ended up going well. Everybody was on high alert, and everyone had ideas.”

O’Brien also praised clients of Friends of the Homeless for taking the pandemic seriously and getting tested in the early days, before much was known about the virus and they were already preoccupied with some very real concerns, from mental health to lack of housing. “COVID wasn’t a primary concern for a lot of people. But they jumped on it when informed.”

He recalled warm moments, too, among upsetting ones — “incredible moments of humanity, seeing people come together in a time of crisis and fear. It was very genuine.”

That said, the need for the broad array of services provided by Friends of the Homeless to hundreds of people every day remains persistent, as does COVID-19 itself, as the cold weather approaches — not that those needs go away in the warmer months, Miller said.

“There may be peaks and valleys of needs; it’s not predicated only on cold weather. We used to see more of a lull in summer, but not so much anymore. And when times are hard economically…”

He didn’t have to finish that thought to register his point, which is, the tougher a community’s social and economic challenges, the more necessary FOH becomes.

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people,” Ware added. “When you look nationally and globally, you see so many people suffering, homeless, without food. We’re just a small place that takes care of those needs, but nationwide, so many people are suffering in this way. I’m proud to work in a place that takes care of people who need it. We’re one of the only places around here that does it on the level we do.”

As noted earlier, this is not an organization that can just shut its doors to the ‘invading army’ of COVID-19.

“We’re home for many people,” Miller said.

“And if we don’t do it,” O’Brien added, “who will?”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

healthcareheroeslogo021517-ping

Healthcare Heroes 2020 to Honor the Heroes of COVID-19

Since the phrase COVID-19 came into our lexicon, those working in the broad healthcare field have emerged as the true heroes during a pandemic that has changed every facet of life as we know it. And over the past several months, the world has paid tribute to these heroes, and in all kinds of ways — from applauding in unison from apartment-complex windows to bringing hot meals to hospital and nursing-home workers; from staging parades in front of these institutions to donating much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE).

BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, will pay tribute in their own way, by dedicating our annual Healthcare Heroes program in 2020 to those who are have emerged as true heroes during this crisis. We invite you to nominate one, or several, for what has become a very prestigious honor in Western Mass. — the Healthcare Heroes award.

Here are some examples of those heroes:

  • Doctors and nurses;
  • ER nurses, orderlies, techs, triage, reception;
  • EMTs;
  • Police and firefighters;
  • Nursing-home staff
  • Administrators leading the efforts to battle the pandemic;
  • End-of-life care providers;
  • Individuals and groups from our community who have stepped up to help healthcare workers with everything from hot meals to PPE;
  • Companies that have pivoted and commenced production of materials such as PPE to help those in healthcare confront the pandemic; and
  • Scientists working behind the scenes to develop a vaccine or new types of PPE.

These are just a few examples, and there are a myriad of others.

To assist those thinking of nominating someone for this honor, we are simplifying the process. All we desire is a 400-500-word essay, and/or video entry explaining why the group or individual stands out as an inspiration, and a truly bright star in a galaxy of healthcare heroes. These nominations will be carefully considered by a panel of independent judges, who will select the class of 2020.

Judging

The judging process will commence July 2020 and be completed by end of July 2020. Nominees cannot serve as awards judges. All eligible nominations received will be judged by a panel of health care industry experts whose evaluations will determine winners of the “Healthcare Heroes” Awards from among the nominees under consideration. 

Nominations

Nominations must be submitted via the designated online form. Mail-in nominations will not be accepted. Nominations may be submitted beginning December 2019 and must be received no later than 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on July 1, 2020. 

Notification and Recognition

BusinessWest plans to notify the winners of the “Healthcare Heroes” Awards by August, 2020 and will be profiled in the September 14 edition of BusinessWest and September issue of Healthcare News. Winners will be invited to attend the “Healthcare Heroes” Awards gala scheduled for Autumn 2020 at the Sheraton Springfield One Monarch Place Hotel. 

Eligibility

  • Nominees must work in either Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire county and organization nominees must have offices in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin or Berkshire county (may be for-profit or not-for-profit).
  • Nominations may be self-nominated or nominated by another person.
  • Nominees cannot be a member of the judges’ panel or member of the judges’ immediate family.

If using mobile device to submit nomination, please make sure your phone is in Portrait view mode.

Submitting multiple duplicate nominations does not enhance your chances of winning.

Healthcare Heroes Nomination Form

  • Nominee's Contact Information:

  • Nominated by (your information):

  • Essay Portion:

  • Video Uploads Portion:

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      Event Galleries Features Healthcare Heroes

      Scenes from the October 2019 Gala

      The 2019 Healthcare Heroes

      There were eight winners in this third class, with two in the category of Lifetime Achievement, because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2019 are:

      • Lifetime Achievement (tie): Katherine Wilson, president and CEO, Behavioral Health Network Inc.; and Frank Robinson, vice president, Public Health, Baystate Health;

      • Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Emily Uguccioni, executive director, Linda Manor Assisted Living;

      • Collaboration in Health/Wellness: Carol Constant, convener, Dementia Friendly Western Massachusetts; and director of Community Engagement, Loomis Communities;

      • Community Health: Amy Walker, certified nurse midwife, Cooley Dickinson Health Care;

      • Emerging Leader: Tara Ferrante, program director of the Holyoke Outpatient Clinic, ServiceNet;

      • Innovation in Health/Wellness: Cristina Huebner Torres, vice president, Research & Population Health, Caring Health Center Inc.; and

      • Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

      Photography by Dani Fine Photography

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      Cover Story Features Healthcare Heroes

      Healthcare Heroes Class of 2019 to Be Honored on Oct. 17

      When BusinessWest and Healthcare News launched Healthcare Heroes in 2017, there was no doubt this was a long-overdue award program in Western Mass. — in fact, we knew the challenge wouldn’t be finding quality nominations, but choosing just a handful to honor each year. Indeed, this year’s judges (see below) carefully studied about 100 different nominees in seven categories to choose the impressive group to be honored at this year’s gala in October.

      Collectively, they are innovators and game changers in the region’s rich and vibrant healthcare community, and their stories — told on the following pages — reveal large quantities of energy, imagination, compassion, entrepreneurship, forward thinking, and dedication to the community.

      There are eight winners in this third class, with two in the category of Lifetime Achievement, because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2019 are:

      • Lifetime Achievement (tie): Katherine Wilson, president and CEO, Behavioral Health Network Inc.; and Frank Robinson, vice president, Public Health, Baystate Health;

      • Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Emily Uguccioni, executive director, Linda Manor Assisted Living;

      • Collaboration in Health/Wellness: Carol Constant, convener, Dementia Friendly Western Massachusetts; and director of Community Engagement, Loomis Communities;

      • Community Health: Amy Walker, certified nurse midwife, Cooley Dickinson Health Care;

      • Emerging Leader: Tara Ferrante, program director of the Holyoke Outpatient Clinic, ServiceNet;

      • Innovation in Health/Wellness: Cristina Huebner Torres, vice president, Research & Population Health, Caring Health Center Inc.; and

      • Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

      3rd Annual Healthcare Heroes Gala
      Thursday, October 17, 2019
      5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
      Sheraton Springfield One Monarch Place Hotel
      $90/person; $900/table of 10

      PURCHASE TICKETS HERE

      Submit nominations for 2020 consideration HERE

      Deadline to submit nominations is July 10, 2020, 5 p.m. NO EXCEPTIONS.

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      Meet the Judges

      Bob Fazzi

      Bob Fazzi has spent a lifetime making a difference in healthcare, most notably with Fazzi Associates, the company he started 40 years ago and incorporated in 1995. Its stated mission is to make a real difference in healthcare by strengthening the quality, value, and impact of home care, hospice, and community-based services. Fazzi Associates has been a leader and a pioneer in this sector, developing products and services — including the industry’s first home-health patient-satisfaction services — as well as research to make agencies stronger and better able to serve their patients. For this work, Fazzi was honored as a Healthcare Hero in 2018 in the category of Lifetime Achievement.

      Mary Paquette

      Mary Paquette, director of Health Services at American International College, is another 2018 Healthcare Hero, in the category of Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider. AIC is only the latest stop in a 35-year career that has seen her take on a variety of roles, from director of Nursing at Ludlow Hospital to per-diem hospitalist at in the GI Department of the Eastern Connecticut Health Network, to assistant director of Health Services at Western New England University — the job that became the springboard to her post at AIC. Since arriving at AIC 2012, she has turned a moribund health-services facility that few students knew about or ventured to into a thriving, innovative, important campus service.

      Alan Popp

      Alan Popp joined the Mason Wright Foundation as its Chief Executive Officer in 2008. His previous experience includes head of school and CEO at White Mountain School, a college preparatory school; and chief operating officer at Pine River Institute, a residential treatment center. He has also served as a consultant to more than 200 New England nonprofits, many of them providers of services to seniors. He serves on the boards of LeadingAge Massachusetts, Salvation Army Citadel Corps, and OnBoard Inc., and on the Leadership Council of the Alzheimer’s Assoc. of Massachusetts/New Hampshire. He is also a trustee of Antioch University New England and previously served on the campaign cabinet for the United Way of Pioneer Valley.

      Healthcare Heroes

      This Public Health Leader Is a Visionary and Innovator

      Frank Robinson, Ph.D.

      “Dr. Frank Robinson is a true visionary. He sees partnerships and systems that most other people don’t see. He doesn’t stop there … and he doesn’t allow other people’s short-sightedness or lack of imagination to get in his way. He persists because he loves to see other people, particularly young people, grow and thrive and achieve their dreams.”

      Over the next few pages, you’ll read quite a bit of material that will help explain why Robinson, currently vice president of Public Health for Baystate Health, is one of two Healthcare Heroes in the Lifetime Achievement category for 2019. But none of the words to come can do that more effectively that those at the top.

      They’re from the nomination form submitted by Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Mass., a job Robinson once held himself, when the agency was known as Partners for a Healthier Community.

      And Greater Springfield has, indeed, become a healthier community because of Robinson, who, over the past 35 years or so, has conceived or been closely involved with initiatives in realms ranging from children’s oral health to asthma; from food insecurity to sexual health; from health education to overall population health.

      And who really knows if he would have been involved in any of that had it not been for … Hurricane Agnes.

      The storm barreled into Elmira, N.Y. in late June, 1972, flooding the recently opened Elmira Psychiatric Center, where Robinson was working as a psychiatric social worker. That’s was, because the storm put him out of work.

      He found new work essentially counseling youths displaced by the hurricane and relocated to nearby Elmira College.

      “Dr. Frank Robinson is a true visionary. He sees partnerships and systems that most other people don’t see. He doesn’t stop there … and he doesn’t allow other people’s short-sightedness or lack of imagination to get in his way.”

      “A call came out for help because these youngsters were running wild in the dorms unsupervised,” Robinson recalled, adding that he and a friend were dispatched to the scene because they were staff at a facility called the Elmira Neighborhood House — Robinson taught boxing there and knew most of the teens.

      In some ways, Hurricane Agnes blew Robinson onto a different, more community-focused career path that, early on, featured extensive work with young people. And, by and large, he has stayed on that path.

      Fast-forwarding through his résumé, he worked locally for the Mass. Department of Mental Health (at the same time as the other Lifetime Achievement hero for 2019, Katherine Wilson; see story on page 22); the W.W. Johnson Life Mental Health Center in Springfield; the Springfield Community Substance Abuse Partnership and Prevention Alliance, part of the Springfield Department of Health and Human Services; Partners for Community Health; and Baystate Health, first as director of Community Health Planning and now as vice president of Public Health.

      At each stop, he has been a visionary and an innovator, leading initiatives ranging from the BEST Oral Health program to Baystate Academy Charter School to the Baystate Springfield Educational Partnership.

      “Over the years, I have worked in positions that have advanced my specific interest in creating a healthier community and preventing health problems from occurring by giving people what they need,” he said while summing up his life’s work in a simple yet effective way, adding quickly that, while progress has been made, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

      And he’s still doing it.

      Indeed, Robinson, who turns 70 this month, acknowledged that he is working past what would be considered retirement age. He attributes this to both a passion for his work and the simple fact that he has some projects he’s still working on that he wants to see to conclusion.

      These include something called 413 Cares, an online community-resource database that provides resource and referral information to residents as well as healthcare and social-service agencies across the region, and also works to make Baystate an “anchor network” within the region.

      Explaining the latter, he said that, by adjusting and refocusing some of its spending — in such areas as goods and services, hiring, and real-estate facilities — an institution like Baystate can have an even more profound impact on the communities it serves.

      “Simply by changing our business practices in terms of how we spend money — spending it deliberately, intentionally, to benefit communities where there’s been substantial disinvestment or there are substantial disparities — we can change those community conditions,” he noted. “That’s the healthcare anchor institution mission and vision.”

      A lifelong desire to change community conditions for the better explains not only why Robinson is still working — and still innovating — but also why he’s a Healthcare Hero. Again.

      Background — Check

      Indeed, this will be Robinson’s second trip to the podium at the Healthcare Heroes gala.

      He was one of a large contingent on hand to accept the award in 2017 in the category called Collaboration in Healthcare. The name on the envelope, if you will, was the Healthy Hill Initiative, or HHI, a broad effort to change the health landscape in the Old Hill neighborhood of Springfield.

      Robinson, one of nearly a dozen players involved in the initiative who were gathered around a conference-room table at Way Finders to talk about it, described it as a program that existed at “the dynamic intersection of two social determinants of health — public safety and access to physical activity.”

      And he should certainly know. In many respects, he has spent his whole career working to address the many social determinants of health, including poverty, food insecurity, inadequate housing, lack of transportation, domestic abuse, and the stress that results from all of the above.

      Retracing his career steps, Robinson said there have been some pivots — such as the one forced by Hurricane Agnes — along the way, and also some pivotal moments.

      One of the latter was the consent decrees that eventually closed Northampton State Hospital and Belchertown State School and the creation of community-based programs to serve the residents of those facilities.

      Frank Robinson has been called a true visionary by those who have worked with him over the years, and a long list of accomplishments bears this out.

      Robinson was involved in this work during his time with the Department of Mental Health, and he remembers it leaving him inspired in many ways.

      “Both of those institutions were closed by forward-thinking insiders who worked with progressive outsiders, or advocates, and formed this sort of perfect union around change,” he told BusinessWest. “That was a pivotal event; I knew I could create large-scale community change if you got the formula right and if you got in front of problems, prevented problems, and worked to change the lives of individuals.”

      And over the past 40 years or so, he has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to create community change by getting in front of problems and using teamwork to address them.

      This has been the formula at each career stop, including a brief stint as deputy commissioner and superintendent of the Northeast Ohio Development Center in Cleveland in the early ’80s before returning to this area and working at the W.W. Johnson Life Mental Health Center, the community substance-abuse partnership, and especially at Partners for a Healthier Community, where Robinson spent nearly 20 years at the helm.

      During his tenure there, his ability to convene, create partnerships, and stare down difficult problems resulted in several new initiatives to improve the overall health of the Greater Springfield community.

      One such effort is the BEST Oral Health program, blueprinted to address the alarming problem that children with MassHealth had very limited access to oral-health preventive and comprehensive treatment services. Robinson secured state funding to launch a demonstration project in Springfield that became the BEST program; it created a local system of education, screening, and treatment for preschoolers to decrease oral-health disease.

      Another example of coalition building during his tenure at PFC is the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, which strives to improve asthma management and indoor air quality in Springfield and other area communities where substandard housing contributes to this ongoing health problem.

      The Big Picture

      Looking back over his career, Robinson said one of the goals — and one of the big challenges — has been to create change and generate solutions that would have an impact much longer than the typical three-year grant cycle.

      “What you really need are initiatives with lasting impact where you can see change occur at a level where you improve the conditions of a whole population — where you can say, ‘we’ve changed community conditions,’” he explained.

      With that thought in mind, he said there are two programs that “rise to the top,” as he put it, when he talks about career accomplishments.

      One is the Baystate/Springfield Educational Partnership, an initiative that brings hundreds of students into the Baystate system to learn about careers in healthcare and places many of them in internships.

      “Over the past 20 years, there have been substantial gains from our ability to work together across sectors and across organizations. And that’s new; there’s that essential element of trust across organizations that didn’t exist 15 years ago or 20 years ago, to be sure. And in spite of the competitive nature of social-service organizations in healthcare, there tends to be more agreement today that there is a public space where we can all come together and make a difference.”

      These internships often lead to careers in healthcare, he went on, adding that, over the first 10 years of the program, there are many examples of this.

      “Some of them are physicians, some of them are nurses — it’s across the whole spectrum,” he explained. “I know there are youngsters who are now physicians because of this program.”

      The other program is the Baystate Academy Charter School, a 6-12 grade school based in Springfield and focused on healthcare careers.

      The school graduated its first class of students, 45 of them, in June, said Robinson, adding that there was a 100% graduation rate and each graduating student was accepted at a two- or four-year college.

      “The social determinant of health solution there is education,” Robinson explained. “The idea is that, if you graduate from Baystate Academy Charter School, you are college-ready.

      “These two programs will be around long after I’m gone, producing change on a large scale and at a population level for our community,” he went on. “I’m very proud of both of them.”

      Looking at the proverbial big picture from his unique vantage point, Robinson told BusinessWest there have been significant gains in many areas and many respects, especially when it comes to agencies and providers of healthcare working collaboratively, but significant challenges remain.

      “Over the past 20 years, there have been substantial gains from our ability to work together across sectors and across organizations,” he explained. “And that’s new; there’s that essential element of trust across organizations that didn’t exist 15 years ago or 20 years ago, to be sure. And in spite of the competitive nature of social-service organizations in healthcare, there tends to be more agreement today that there is a public space where we can all come together and make a difference.

      “This is especially true with matters of equity,” he went on. “We understand that there are significant challenges for large segments of our community, and the only way you’re to change those conditions is if people work together collaboratively and pool resources. There’s a clear recognition that this is the way to go.”

      Elaborating, Robinson said there have always been coalitions, but today there is greater strength and “sophistication” to such partnerships, which has generated progress in a number of areas.

      But when asked if Springfield is a much healthier community than it was 20 or 30 years ago, Robinson paused for several seconds and said ‘no.’

      He based that answer on standard health measures and still-apparent gaps, or disparities, in overall care as viewed through what he called a “racial-equity lens.”

      “If I compare poor people to the average, and black or brown people to the average, there are huge health-disparity gaps,” he noted. “The infant-mortality rate is still three times higher for black women than it is for white women; although the rate for black women has improved over time, the gap still exists.

      “We find that same gap in issues such as low birth rate,” he went on. “These are measures not necessarily of the quality of healthcare, but measures of the conditions under which people live. Those gaps still exist, and so this city is still not healthy.

      “We’re great as a community, and as a health system, when it comes to dealing with stuff that occurs inside the skin,” he continued, referring to the care provided at Baystate and other area facilities. “But if you think of health as things outside the skin that actually determine one’s health, we haven’t really improved there; poor people are sicker.”

      These problems are not unique to Springfield, obviously, said Robinson, adding that most large urban centers continue to have these inequities in overall health based on income and opportunity. Progress has come, slowly, and the hope is that, by continuing to build coalitions and get in front of problems, more progress can be achieved.

      This is what Robinson has spent a career doing, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

      View to the Future

      “Dr. Frank Robinson has worked tirelessly over the past 30 years to address public health and health inequities in our city and beyond. He is a recognized leader and a visionary in creating systems that make it easier for people to access needed healthcare services and creating systems in our neighborhoods that make it easier for people to make the healthier choice.”

      There’s that word ‘visionary’ again. This time, it was put to use by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, in that same nomination submission, as he went on about trying to put Robinson’s career, and his contributions, in perspective.

      And visionary certainly fits. He’s been able to look at the community he serves, identify needs, and most importantly, create solutions for meeting those needs.

      He’s spent a lifetime doing that, and that’s why he’s a Healthcare Hero.

      George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

      Healthcare Heroes

      While She Manages People and Programs, Her Job Is About Changing Lives

      Katherine Wilson

      It’s probably fair to say that the discussions had at the dining room table when Katherine Wilson was in high school were not like those going on in most households in the mid’-60s.

      Indeed, Wilson’s father was a physician, specializing in family medicine. Beyond the work at his practice, he was one of the pioneers of a sort when it came to the broad subject of healthcare management.

      “From having a solo private practice, he got into the development of systems of delivery of healthcare,” she recalled. “He started an HMO, he was the first medical director of Community Health Center … my father was a big part of the systems that are now in place.

      “We had discussions around the kitchen table about healthcare,” she went on. “His interest was in healthcare management, and he was progressive in his thinking at a time when they didn’t have community health centers and they didn’t have HMOs; he did a lot of work with the community physicians and community hospitals.”

      One might say that Wilson, certainly inspired by not only those dinnertime talks, but later work at her father’s practice and in one of the first community health centers, has a made a career — a long and very successful career — of working innovatively and in partnership with others to find new and better ways to manage healthcare, and especially mental and behavioral healthcare, in this region and across the Commonwealth.

      She’s done this in a variety of settings, most notably, for the past 30 years, as president and CEO of Behavioral Health Network Inc.

      Created in 1992 through the merger of four entities — the Child Guidance Clinic of Springfield, Agawam Counseling Center, Community Care Mental Health Center, and the Hampden District Mental Health Clinic — BHN now serves more than 40,000 individuals annually in a service area that stretches across the four western counties.

      There are 40 locations in all and more than 2,000 employees. Together, they provide and manage services that come in a variety of forms, from detox centers and ‘step-down’ facilities to a wide variety of counseling services for adults, youth, children, couples, and families; from a 24-hour crisis-intervention service to a host of developmental and intellectual disability services.

      “In a society where, even today, stigma may still surround mental illness and those it affects, Kathy not only keenly understands, but goes to every length to help others understand as well. Kathy Wilson has changed innumerable lives for the better, and she’d be the first to say her work is far from finished.”

      Wilson has spent the past three decades building and shaping BHN into a $115 million network that continues to expand and find new ways to provide care and a support network to those in need. In recent years, she has been at the forefront of efforts to better integrate general healthcare with behavioral healthcare, particularly in the Medicaid population, with the goal of driving down the ballooning cost of care nationally (more on that later).

      And certainly this work to build and manage BHN goes a long way toward explaining why Wilson was chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2019 in the Lifetime Achievement category. Actually, she is one of two who tied for the high score. The other winner is Frank Robinson, vice president of Public Health at Baystate Health (see story, page 19). Suffice it to say, these two won’t have to introduce themselves when they meet at the Healthcare Heroes gala on Oct. 17. They both worked for the Department of Mental Health in the late ’70s, and both worked to create community programs for residents of Northampton State Hospital and Belchertown State School after those institutions were ordered closed. And they’ve been working in concert on many initiatives ever since.

      But there is more to this honor than the vast portfolio of programs and initiatives that is today’s BHN. Indeed, it’s also about a lifetime spent advocating for those with mental illness, substance-abuse issues, or developmental disabilities, anticipating and then meeting their needs, and then asking the difficult but necessary question, ‘what else can be done?’

      It’s a philosophy, or mindset, perhaps best summed up with these words from her nomination form, submitted by her daughter, Amy Greeley, formerly a nurse manager at BHN:

      “Kathy exemplifies a unique combination of innate compassion and fervent determination that’s led to the helm of a regionally renowned institution. It’s from a position from which she never stops working for greater, more advanced, and even more accessible services for all who need them.”

      “In a society where, even today, stigma may still surround mental illness and those it affects, Kathy not only keenly understands, but goes to every length to help others understand as well. Kathy Wilson has changed innumerable lives for the better, and she’d be the first to say her work is far from finished.”

      Care Package

      It’s called the ‘Living Room.’

      As that name suggests, this is a warm, home-like place where anyone age 18 or older can come to “regroup and get help,” said Wilson.

      Elaborating, she said the facility, one of many that BHN has carved out of old, mostly unused or underutilized manufacturing buildings in the Liberty Street area, is one of the latest additions to the agency’s portfolio. It was designed for people in a developing crisis, a current crisis, or a post-crisis situation, and is a place where people “can find help from others who have had similar experiences and who can provide support, encouragement, and guidance,” according to a brochure on the facility.

      The Living Room, as noted, is just one of dozens of facilities under the BHN umbrella, and its creation speaks to Wilson’s ongoing work — and mission — to continually find new and different ways to meet unmet needs and build support networks for those who desperately need them.

      And, as mentioned, this has been her career’s work — going all the way back, in some ways, to those discussions at the dining-room table.

      Retracing her route to the corner office at BHN, Wilson said that, after working at her father’s practice and other health settings while in high school and college, she eventually decided that psychology, not healthcare, would be her chosen field; she earned a bachelor’s degree in that field at Denison University and a master’s in clinical psychology at SUNY Plattsburgh.

      After a very short stint as a psychotherapist, she applied for a job with the Department of Mental Health, and was hired as a planner during that critical time when Northampton State Hospital and Belchertown State School were ordered to close.

      “It was my responsibility to identify individuals from both institutions, look at what their needs were, and see what we could create in the community,” she recalled, adding that she worked to develop some of the group homes that are in use today. “I also worked with agencies that began to adopt the agenda of creating community programs to support people, such as the Community Care Mental Health Center in Springfield, which created day programs so individuals could get some of their rehabilitation in a clinical setting.”

      The consent decrees that shuttered the institutions in Northampton and Belchertown coincided with national initiatives imbedded within the Community Mental Health Act, established by President John F. Kennedy. It made federal funds available to create more community systems of care, said Wilson, adding that, locally, a consortium of agencies was created to administer this flow of federal money.

      “We got together and said, ‘survival means you have to get bigger, you need to have a stronger base at the bottom to support what we do, and this will give us a platform for growth.”

      Called the Springfield Community Mental Health Consortium, it administered a number of initiatives, including hospital supports, group-living environments, outpatient systems of care, emergency services, and more, said Wilson, who transitioned from working for the state to being employed with the consortium as a planner.

      “It was my responsibility to help establish the Community Mental Health Center range of services,” she explained. “Now that we had more people in the community living with mental illness, we needed to create the system of healthcare support.”

      When the Reagan administration closed the tap on federal money for these services, with funding to be secured through state-administered block grants instead, the agencies that were part of the consortium broke apart and continued to do their own work, said Wilson, who then went to work with Child Guidance Clinic of Springfield, first as Business and Finance director and then executive director of the Child Guidance Clinic of Springfield.

      As funding for mental-health programs became more scarce, Wilson said, she and the directors of three other agencies — Agawam Counseling Center, Community Care Mental Health Center, and the Hampden District Mental Health Clinic — decided that the best strategy was to merge those entities into one corporation.

      “We got together and said, ‘survival means you have to get bigger, you need to have a stronger base at the bottom to support what we do, and this will give us a platform for growth,’” she recalled, adding that this new entity would become BHN.

      And over the years, it would continue to get bigger and widen that base of support, as those administrators knew it had to, through additional mergers and the addition of many new programs.

      Room to Grow

      As president and CEO of BHN, Wilson wears a number of hats and logs tens of thousands of miles each year traveling back and forth to Boston for meetings on a range of topics and with a host of groups and individuals.

      As for those hats, Wilson said she is the face of BHN and, for many, a first point of contact. She also considers herself a problem solver and a “convener,” a strategist, a mentor for many, and even an interior designer.

      “I’m often the one that picks the colors for the walls,” she said, referring to the seemingly constant work to open and renovate new facilities, not only at what has become a ‘BHN campus’ off Liberty Street in Springfield, but across the region, while also noting that much goes into to picking those colors.

      All those skills have been put to use over the past 30 years, an intriguing time of growth and evolution for BHN as it responds to emerging needs within the community, said Wilson, who cited, as one example, profound expansion into addiction services.

      “One of the areas we identified maybe 10 years ago is that we were seeing many more of the parents of the children we were seeing at the Child Guidance Clinic, and many more adults coming in to adult outpatient clinics having mental-health issues co-occurring with substance use,” she explained. “And we said, ‘we can’t just treat mental-health problems without acknowledging the fact that there is a substance-use disorder concurrently, and that we really need to think about building a system of care that serves that population.’”

      As a result, BHN collaborated with Baystate Health, which had a community-based system of care that included a detox and some community group-living environments for post-detox care, said Wilson, adding that Baystate asked BHN to manage those facilities and eventually transfer them into its system of care.

      “We inherited Baystate’s system of community services for those with addiction,” she said. “And once we did that, we got established with the Department of Public Health and its Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, and we became known as an agency that could handle co-occurring treatments as well as individuals whose primary diagnosis was addiction, and from there, they helped us grow a system of treatment for people with substance-abuse disorder, and that really took off because the state was making significant investments in that world.”

      That system now includes two detox operations, two step-down facilities, and a number of beds in what are called ‘residential recovery,’ or group-living facilities, she told BusinessWest, adding that this is just one example of how BHN continues to grow and evolve.

      And it’s also just one example of how Wilson has led efforts to improve access to a wide array of care at a time when more people need access. The creation of the Northern Hope Center and Recovery Services in Greenfield, blueprinted in response to needs created by the opioid crisis in Franklin County, is still another case in point.

      And these initiatives provide ample evidence of the additional emphasis placed on integrated healthcare and behavioral healthcare with the twin goals of improving population health and bringing down the cost of care, said Wilson, adding that BHN has been at the forefront of these efforts.

      “This is what the federal government wants its funding to support, particularly for the Medicaid population,” she explained. “This is the population whose behavioral health — addictions or mental health — really interfere with their managing health.

      “You have this small group of people that is driving high costs to Medicaid and both commercial and private insurance,” she went on. “So the move these days is for physicians and healthcare systems to work with behavioral-health systems of care and provide wrap-around services for individuals to see if you can manage the behavioral health, because that will help bring the cost of healthcare down.”

      BHN adopted this rather profound operational shift several years ago, said Wilson, adding that, overall, it is part of her job description to keep the agency on the cutting edge of trends and developments in healthcare, while also making sure it remains viable and able to function properly in the years to decades to come.

      That means continuing to find more ways to grow the network (the ‘N’ in BHN), building upon its base of support, and developing new methods for providing all-important access to care.

      When asked about her most significant accomplishment, she quickly changed the subject of that question to ‘we,’ meaning BHN, but in doing so still managed to sum up her career’s work.

      “I think we’ve created excellent, value-based, top-of-the-line service delivery for people who need access, sometimes very quickly, to good treatment,” she noted. “I have excellent medical leadership on both the addiction and behavioral healthcare side, and we hire really good, skilled, competent people. So I think people who are not used to getting good access to care now get it.

      “Also, we’ve hired so many people that we have helped come from an addiction to sobriety, reunification, and now they’re BHN employees,” she went on. “To me, that warms my heart to know that people have been able to turn their lives around with the help of BHN.”

      Change Agent

      Which brings us back to that passage from Wilson’s nomination form. There are a number of key phrases within it that explain why she will be at the podium on Oct. 17 to receive her Lifetime Achievement award.

      There’s the part about battling the stigma attached to mental illness, something she’s been doing for more than four decades. There’s also that point about how she would be the first to acknowledge that her work isn’t finished — because it never is.

      But perhaps the words to remember most are those concerning ‘changing thousands of lives for the better.’

      Indeed, while Wilson manages people, programs, and facilities for BHN, changing lives is what she does for a living.

      And that’s why she’s a Healthcare Hero.

      George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

      Healthcare Heroes

      ‘There’s a Magic Here,’ Built on Dedication, Innovation, and Culture

      H. Lee Kirk Jr. was speaking at a public event recently, when a woman stood up to tell him about her 3-year-old grandson’s experience at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

      “She said, ‘when we take him to the doctor’s office or another healthcare provider, he cries going in, and he’s sprinting out the door to get back home. When he comes to Shriners, he’s sprinting on the way in and happy to be coming, and he’s kicking and screaming when he has to leave,’” he related. “There’s a magic here that’s really hard to get your arms around.”

      But Kirk, administrator of the 94-year-old facility on Carew Street in Springfield, tried to explain it the best he could over the course of a conversation with BusinessWest after the hospital was chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2019 in the Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider category.

      “This is a special healthcare organization because of the mission,” he said. “The culture is unlike any other I’ve been involved in. We want to be the best at transforming the lives of kids. And we get the privilege of seeing that every day here.”

      It’s a culture that employees find attractive, said George Gorton, the hospital’s director of Research, Planning, and Business Development, adding that consulting physicians from other hospitals say, after visiting, that it’s the happiest place they’ve ever worked.

      “It’s a palpable difference,” he went on. “As employees, we love that caring, family feeling of being employed by an organization that aligns with our own personal mission. That’s just not seen anywhere else.”

      Last year, the hospital produced some short videos with employees to celebrate the opening of its inpatient pediatric rehab unit. In one of them, a nurse hired specifically for that unit talked about how she’s wanted to be a nurse at Shriners since being treated there for a rheumatology issue when she was a child.

      “She was in tears, expressing the joy and positivity she had, to be able to take that experience of receiving care and become the person who provides that care to other people,” Gorton said. “It was a really touching moment to hear her express that.”

      Then there’s the boy Gorton — who’s been with Shriners for more than a quarter-century — examined decades ago in the motion-analysis center; he’s now a physician assistant at the hospital.

      Gorton said it’s impossible to single out any individual person responsible for creating the generational success stories and culture that makes Shriners what it is. The judges for this year’s Healthcare Heroes program agreed, making a perhaps outside-the-box choice in a category that has previously honored individuals, not entire organizations.

      Yet, the choice makes sense, said Jennifer Tross, who came on board two years ago as Marketing and Communications manager, because of that unique culture that draws people back to provide care decades after receiving it, and that has kids shedding tears when they have to leave, not when they show up.

      “The day I arrived,” Tross said, “I went home and said, ‘I knew this place would change my life, and it has.’”

      Countless families agree, which is why Shriners is deserving of the title Healthcare Hero.

      Step by Step

      When a boy named Bertram, from Augusta, Maine, made the trek with his family to Springfield in February 1925, he probably wasn’t thinking about making history. But he did just that, as the hospital’s very first patient. The Shriners organization opened its first hospitals primarily to take care of kids with polio, but Bertram had club feet — a condition that became one of the facility’s core services.

      After the first Shriners Hospitals for Children site opened in 1922 in Shreveport, La., 10 other facilities followed in 1925 (there are now 22 facilities, all in the U.S. except for Mexico City and Montreal). Four of those hospitals, including one in Boston, focus on acute burn care, while the rest focus primarily on a mix of orthopedics and other types of pediatric care.

      As an orthopedic specialty hospital, the Springfield facility has long focused on conditions ranging from scoliosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida to club foot, chest-wall deformities, cleft lip and palate, and a host of other conditions afflicting the limbs, joints, bones, and extremities — and much more.

      While many of the hospitals overlap in services, each has tended to adapt to the needs of its own community. In Springfield’s case that includes pediatric specialties like rheumatology, urology, and fracture care, as well as a sports health and medicine program that includes three athletic trainers and a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with training in sports medicine.

      H. Lee Kirk (left, with Jennifer Tross and George Gorton) says Shriners is a special healthcare organization because of its mission.

      The latter, Kirk said, includes services to kids without medical problems, as the hospital works with schools, clubs, and leagues help provide more preventive and conditioning services and follow up when injuries occur.

      Meanwhile, the BFit exercise program targets kids with neuromuscular problems who normally don’t participate in physical activity, sports, or even gym class. The program aims to improve the physical activity of this group, and does it by involving students from area colleges who are studying fields like physical and occupational therapy, exercise science, sports medicine, and kinesiology.

      “They volunteer as personal coaches,” Gorton said. “The child learns to adapt their environment and become physically active, and those students learn what it’s like to care for children. Many have gone into pediatric healthcare to do that kind of training because of their experience here. They see it here, and it spreads like a good virus through the population.”

      Then there was the 2013 community assessment determining that an inpatient pediatric rehabilitation clinic would fill a persistent need. That 20-bed clinic opened last year following a $1.25 million capital campaign that wound up raising slightly more — reflective of the community support the hospital has always received, allowing it to provide free care to families without the ability to pay (more on that later).

      Still, more than 90% of the care provided in Springfield is outpatient — in fact, the facility saw 12,173 visits last year, a more than 40% expansion over the past several years.

      The care itself, the clinical component, is only one of three prongs in the Shriners mission, Kirk said. The second part is education; over the past 30 years, thousands of physicians have undertaken residency education or postgraduate fellowships at the various children’s hospitals. In Springfield, residents in a variety of healthcare disciplines — from orthopedics to nursing, PT, and OT — have arrived for 10- to 12-week rotations.

      The third component of the mission is research, specifically clinical research in terms of how to improve the processes of delivering care to children. That often takes the shape of new technology, from computerized 3D modeling for cleft-palate surgery to the hospital’s motion-analysis laboratory, where an array of infrared cameras examine how a child walks and converts that data to a 3D model that gives doctors all they need to know about a child’s progress.

      More recently, a capital campaign raised just under $1 million to install the EOS Imaging System, Nobel Prize-winning X-ray technology that exists nowhere else in Western Mass. or the Hartford area, which enhances imaging while reducing the patient’s exposure to radiation. That’s important, Kirk said, particularly for children who have had scoliosis or other orthopedic conditions, and start having X-rays early on their lives and continue them throughout adolescence.

      Averting Disaster

      It’s an impressive array of services and technology, and collectively, it meets a clear need — and not just locally. While about 60% of patients hail from a 20-mile radius, the hospital sees young people from across New England, New York, more than 20 other states, and more than 20 countries as well.

      Yet, only a decade ago, the hospital was in danger of closing. At the height of the Great Recession, the national Shriners organization announced it was considering shuttering six of its 22 children’s hospitals across the country — including the one on Carew Street.

      In the end, after a deluge of very vocal outrage and support by families of patients and community leaders, the Shriners board decided against closing any of its specialty children’s hospitals, even though the organization had been struggling, during those tough economic times, to provide its traditionally free care given rising costs and a shrinking endowment.

      To make it possible to keep the facilities open, in 2011, Shriners — for the first time in its nearly century-long history — started accepting third-party payments from private insurance and government payers such as Medicaid when possible, although free care is still provided to all patients without the means to pay, and the hospital continues to accommodate families who can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles that are now required by many insurance plans.

      “It was a wise decision to accept insurance — but it was a controversial decision,” Kirk said. Yet, it makes sense, too. A very small percentage of patients in Massachusetts don’t have some kind of coverage, yet 63% of care at Shriners is paid for by donors — a disconnect explained by the fact that Medicaid doesn’t pay for care there, and gaps exist in other insurance as well.

      So, if a family can’t pay, the hospital does not chase the money, relying on an assistance resource funded by Shriners and their families nationwide.

      “Donor support allows us to provide free care,” Kirk said. “We don’t send families to collections and contribute to the number-one cause of personal bankruptcy in America, which is medical care. It’s a very unique model, and a unique healthcare-delivery system.”

      And one that, as Kirk noted, treats a patient population that can be underserved otherwise. For instance, the cleft lip and palate program — a multi-disciplinary program integrated with providers from other hospitals in the region and serving about 30 partients at any given time — begins assessing some patients prenatally, and most need care throughout adolescence and even into young adulthood.

      Those consulting relationships are critical to the success of Shriners, which doesn’t seek to compete with other providers in the region, but supplement them while striving to be, in many cases, the best place for young people to receive specialized treatment, whether for orthopedic conditions or a host of other issues.

      When Kirk arrived in 2015, the hospital underwent a comprehensive self-assessment process that made two things clear, he said: that there’s a real need for what it does, and that it needs to reinvest in its core.

      “And that’s what we did. And that’s about people, not bricks and mortar,” he went on, noting that the facility has added about 70 positions since that time.

      “We’re a completely different place today than we were in 2009,” Gorton added, noting that the hospital is stronger in leadership, internal communication, and external connections. Among the 22 Shriners specialty hospitals, Springfield ranks second in the proportion of the budget offset by donations. “Why? Because we have a great relationship with the community. We’ve become more outward-facing, and we’re integrated everywhere in the community.”

      The Next Century

      Getting back to that 3-year-old who doesn’t want to leave when he visits Shriners, surely the hospital’s child-friendly playscapes and colorful, kid-oriented sculptures and artwork help create a welcoming environment, but those wouldn’t make much difference if the people providing care didn’t put him at ease.

      That environment begins with employees who love what they do, Kirk said, and this Healthcare Hero award in the Provider category is definitely shared by all of them. Other families feel the same way, as the facility regularly ranks in the 99th percentile on surveys that gauge the patient and family experience.

      “We have happy employees who love being here, who love working with kids, who love delivering the mission — and the patients and families sense that and respond to that,” Gorton said.

      That’s why the hospital’s leaders continue to examine the evolving needs of the pediatric community and how they can continue to deepen its clinical relationships and expanding services most in demand — always with the philosophy of “mission over model,” Kirk said.

      “We are always thinking about the future,” he added, “so we can sustain this healthcare system for the next 100 years.”

      Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

      Healthcare Heroes

      This Leader Is Focused on Dismantling the Barriers That Limit One’s Ability to Thrive

      Cristina Huebner Torres, Ph.D.

      Dr. Cristina Huebner Torres was moving into a new home a little while back, and during the unpacking process happened to come across the essay she wrote while applying for entry to New York University for her master’s degree.

      Re-reading it gave her the feeling that, career-wise, she really was doing exactly what she knew she always wanted to do. Well, sort of.

      “I have always had a goal of creating a multi-cultural wellness center where people explore their health, bodies, creativity, minds and their holistic self through integrating movement, art, nutrition and other forms of … biomedical and traditional medicine,” she said, quoting from the essay, adding that at the time her work was largely focused on women and women’s reproductive health.

      As things worked out, as vice president of Research & Population Health for the Caring Health Center (CHC) in Springfield, she’s working with a much larger constituency — and a much broader range of health matters. And rather than just ‘having a career’ at this facility, she has assumed a pivotal leadership role in efforts to not only study the many and persistent social determinants of health — such things as poverty, food insecurity, inadequate housing, crime, lack of transportation, and more — but doing something about them.

      Her ongoing work has earned her the 2019 Healthcare Heroes award in the highly competitive category called ‘Innovation in Healthcare and Wellness.’

      Huebner Torres has helped develop and administer a number of initiatives designed to improve the overall health and well-being of the generally underserved population that comes to the Caring Health Center, including creation of its Wellness Center.

      Opened a decade ago — a significant milestone, to be sure — this facility lives up to its name and is a unique, innovative addition to a federally qualified community health center. It includes both a fitness center and a full kitchen, where individuals (generally referred to as patients, but also clients) can learn about general nutrition and how to prepare healthy meals for their families.

      “After conducting a year and half of focus groups with community and patients, we found that the community was asking for a place where they could engage in group-based exercise, that was cost-free, culturally tailored, taught by someone who was licensed or trained in the area, and located within primary care,” she said, adding that the Wellness Center was developed to meet these community-identified needs.

      “She is steadfast in her belief that services that are respectful of gender and sexual identity, widely accessible, culturally tailored, and based on the individual strengths and interests of the patient stand the best chance of bringing about long-lasting health.”

      Huebner Torres said there are many ways to qualify and quantify the impact of the many facets of her work, and especially the wellness center, on the overall health and well-being of those served by the CHC. And she’s currently working to attain grants to help with this measuring process. But she believes there is already ample evidence that the center and other initiatives are helping to support patients actively engaged in their wellness.

      And all of this is embodied — figuratively, but also quite literally — in an individual who asked to be identified only as ‘Lamont.’

      He started coming to the wellness center the first day it opened, not long after his cancer surgery and when Huebner Torres was leading the fitness classes. Today, he leads several classes himself, helping a wide range of individuals with stretching, cardio exercises, and more.

      He said these classes are doing what they did for him back when he first started.

      “I had lost quite a bit of weight and wasn’t in very good shape,” he said, referring to the impact of the cancer medication. “I told my doctor, ‘I don’t want to stay home, I don’t want to deteriorate, I want to do everything possible that I can to get healthy.”

      Many of those he’s now instructing arrive with a similar attitude, and this is exactly what Huebner Torres had in mind when she conceptualized the facility.

      Her work, and her approach to it, is best summed up in this summation in the nomination submitted by CHC’s president and CEO, Tania Barber:

      “Cristina’s core values and goals are informed by her belief that people are healthier when they feel safe and respected, eat nutritious foods, have opportunities for regular exercise, are knowledgeable about health and well-being, openly celebrate their cultural traditions, and receive services in their own language,” she wrote. “Her work is focused on dismantling the barriers that limit each person’s ability to thrive, both in the community at large as well as the healthcare setting, increasing access to community and social support, addressing structural bias, and promoting peer-led models are important aspects of her approach. She is steadfast in her belief that services that are respectful of gender and sexual identity, widely accessible, culturally tailored, and based on the individual strengths and interests of the patient stand the best chance of bringing about long-lasting health.”

      Stress Test

      As she talked about her work at the Caring Health Center, especially in the broad realm of the social determinants of health, Huebner Torres honed in on the subject of stress.

      More specifically, she talked about how those who come to the CHC combat what would have to be considered a different, more virulent strain of stress.

      “We’re not talking about a morning being stressful because you had some extra traffic on your daily commute,” she explained. “We’re talking about not having sufficient food every day for you and your family, and not having sufficient housing for you and your family, or many of those things co-occurring, and the effects of that over time.”

      One might say researching this higher level of stress — resulting from those aforementioned social determinants of health — and doing something about it have become Huebner Torres’s life’s work.

      As she noted, it was essentially her life’s ambition and she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Medical Anthropology from Mount Holyoke College, while also focusing on modern dance. She earned a master’s degree in somatic studies from New York University, and her doctorate in Epidemiology at the UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences.

      Cristina Huebner Torres stands in the kitchen in the Wellness Center at the CHC, which hosts many popular classes in cooking and nutrition.

      Building on her undergraduate and master’s studies, she focused her doctorate in social epidemiology on the social determinants of chronic disease management. Her work considers the role of food insecurity and social stressors on the ability to prevent or manage diseases like diabetes and hypertension within community health center settings. She started her career at the Hispanic Health Council in Hartford, where she also interned while in college.

      “This was an applied-research environment in a community-based setting, and it really set the stage for my career,” she told BusinessWest, “because I’ve been a community-based investigator, meaning that I find ways to create and partner in opportunities for conducting research within a public health practice and applied framework.

      “It’s research driven by emerging trends within the community,” she went on, “and we use that research to inform opportunities for intervention that are culturally and community informed and making sure those interventions are actionable and integrated and sustainable.”

      This explanation sums up her job description at the CHC, which she came to in 2007 as director of Research and Wellness. Since opening in 1995, the CHC has become the preferred health provider in Springfield serving a population that is diverse and challenged in many ways. Indeed, 70% of the more than 21,000 are Medicaid beneficiaries and the majority have one or more chronic illnesses. Nearly half of the patients speak languages other than English, and most live with medically complex conditions, often comprised of two or more chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, emphysema, heart disease, viral hepatitis, and chronic pain. And many patients also navigate behavioral-health conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or engage in opioid, alcohol, or other substance abuse.

      The culturally diverse population served by CHC has many strengths as well as complex needs, and in her time at the CHC, Huebner Torres has collaboratively led the development of a number of services and programs to address them. These include an award-winning community health worker program that addresses the social determinants of health, as well as writing the grant to integrate the behavioral-health department with staffing and innovative programming to meet the culturally and linguistically diverse needs of refugee and immigrant individuals and families, and to support patients navigating multiple chronic co-morbidities.

      Each of these innovations has been supported by leadership at CHC, she went on, and are sustained by a “tremendous collaborative team of dedicated and talented staff at CHC.”

      The Shape of Things to Come

      As she led BusinessWest on a tour of the Wellness Center, Huebner Torres started in the Wellness Center teaching kitchen.

      There, she said, the center provides both nutrition education and cooking demonstrations, such as the very popular “Ask and Cook with the Dietitian!” sessions staged every Thursday by CHC’s registered dietician Vela Nicasio.

      The kitchen-focused programs are designed to support patients as they look to follow primary-care treatment plans and recommendations for dietary improvements. The same is true of the workout facilities, which feature a number of cardio machines, weights, and large spaces for group classes in ‘stretching and restoring,’ cardio fitness, and open wellness (including one for women only).

      ‘Lamont,’ who first came to the Wellness Center the day it opened as a participant recovering from cancer surgery, is now an instructor.

      The foundation of all that takes place in the center is the acronym CLAS, which stands for culturally and linguistically appropriate services, said Huebner Torres.

      “It’s in the mission of what we do; it’s the heart of what the Caring Health Center does,” she explained, adding that the underlying goal behind creation of the center was to create a place where everyone could exercise and feel comfortable, including populations that just didn’t have such a space.

      As an example, Huebner Torres listed Muslim women.

      “They didn’t have a place to go because that place couldn’t include men, and it needed to not include music,” she explained. “And if you walk into any gym environment, there’s men and music. So early on, we created a Muslim-women-only exercise class, and it’s the first and only one in this area that we’re aware of.”

      That class eventually became simply a women-only class because the Muslim women decided to open it to all women, she went on, adding that, overall, these classes and other programs are designed to help patients deal with health issues, but also the enormous amounts of stress they face in their lives — and do so in a group setting where they can interface with others facing similar challenges.

      “A huge part of what people said they wanted in a center like this was for it to be group-based, and I think the concept of social support and social engagement, for many patients, becomes the number-one driving factor in why to attend,” she explained. “It’s not about ‘did I lose a pound or 10 pounds in so much time’; instead, it’s about ‘I was able to join in with other people like me and with some leadership that cares. And it was fun, I learned something, and I was engaging with people.’”

      In short, the center and its programs are designed to educate and inspire commitment to getting healthy and staying healthy.

      Which brings us back to Lamont.

      “I started going to the wellness center once or twice a week, and I could really see myself making changes in my health,” he recalled, returning to the days and weeks after his cancer surgery. “I started to regain some strength and stamina, and from there I took it to another level; I started getting out to the park and running three or four miles a day, every other day. And I started working out at the wellness center four times a week.”

      As he continued to grow stronger health-wise and become a role model, Lamont was advised by his doctor to become involved with a movement known as MOCHA — Men of Color Health Awareness, a name that goes a long way toward explaining what it is and does.

      “Men of color have issues with going to the doctor and talking to the doctor, and that’s why a lot of us are dying today,” he said, adding that, as part of his participation in MOCHA, he gave a speech on this subject on the steps of Springfield City Hall.

      He credits the Caring Health Center with saving his life when he had cancer, and now he gives back to the center through his role as a certified group exercise instructor and overall work to help others become actively engaged in their health and wellness.

      “When it comes to stress, nutrition, getting off the couch and working out two or three times a week … all these things I learned from here,” he said, referring to the CHC and its wellness center. “I learned how to be proactive in talking to my doctor when things are going on and having a conversation.”

      From a big-picture, community-health perspective, this is exactly what Huebner Torres had in mind when she blueprinted the Wellness Center a decade ago based on community and patient input.

      Practicing Patience

      In nominating Huebner Torres as a Healthcare Hero for innovation, Barber listed a number of attributes, all quite necessary for this kind of work.

      For example, “Cristina demonstrates respect, consistency, and graciousness toward everyone she encounters. She listens well, speaks directly and honestly, and displays a quiet, well-timed sense of humor … she is intelligent, patient, and calm under pressure, and widely admired by those around her.”

      When asked which of these is perhaps her strongest trait, Huebner Torres didn’t hesitate in saying ‘patience,’ adding that it’s more than a virtue when dealing with the complex issues she addresses every day — it’s a necessity.

      “The other key factor — and perhaps most important of all — is partnership,” she said. “All of these initiatives are innovative and successful because of the team at CHC, the community, the patients, partner organizations and investigators, and the funders who have supported our efforts.”

      “Nothing happens overnight — you have to be able to stick with it over time,” she went on.

      Throughout her career, she has shown an ability to do just that, and the nutrition classes and group workout sessions at the Wellness Center are evidence that, when you do stick with it, you can bring about positive change in the lives of individuals — and in a community.

      George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

      Healthcare Heroes

      This Nurse Midwife Gave Birth to an Intriguing Concept in Care

      Amy Walker

      ‘Accountability.’

      After pausing to give the matter some thought, this was the word a woman who chose to be identified only by her initials — S.M. — summoned when asked about what the New Beginnings program at Cooley Dickinson Health Care has given her.

      There were other things on that list, to be sure, she said, listing camaraderie, friends, ongoing education, and even role models of a sort. But accountability, on many levels, was what was missing most from her life, and New Beginnings, which supports pregnant women with an opioid-use disorder with education, skills development, peer support, and goal setting, helped her develop some at a time when she needed it most.

      “I wanted to come even though I was struggling to stay sober,” she said, referring to the regular group meetings attended by mothers facing similar challenges. “I didn’t have to come, but I wanted to; it’s hard to explain, but it was the beginning of me being responsible and accepting the fact that I was pregnant and here with the other women in the same situation.”

      These sentiments speak volumes about why Amy Walker, a certified nurse midwife at Cooley Dickinson Hospital (CDH), created the program in 2018, and also about its overall mission.

      “We want to empower women to be successful mothers,” said Walker, whose efforts to create New Beginnings have not only filled a critical need within CDH’s broad service area but earned her the Healthcare Heroes award in the ultra-competitive Community Health category.

      She said the foundation of the program is a group approach, which is nothing new when it comes to expectant mothers, but it is new when it comes to this specific at-risk population, which makes New Beginnings somewhat unique and innovative.

      “I wanted to come even though I was struggling to stay sober. I didn’t have to come, but I wanted to; it’s hard to explain, but it was the beginning of me being responsible and accepting the fact that I was pregnant and here with the other women in the same situation.”

      “There are a couple of other places in the country that are doing this,” she explained. “There’s not a lot of studies on this yet, but it made sense, because it works so well in general and has these added benefits of providing community and more education, that it seemed like the way to go.”

      While the program is still in its relative infancy (pun intended), it is already providing some rather dramatic, and measurable, results. Indeed, since the initiative was launched, 10 women with substance-abuse disorders who have participated in the program have delivered at the Childbirth Center at CDH, and nine of the 10 babies went home with their mothers. Walker believes that number would have been much lower had it not been for New Beginnings.

      To send more mothers suffering from opioid-abuse disorder home with their babies, New Beginnings provides the many things these women need at this critical, and vulnerable, time in their lives. That list includes what amounts to a support network at a time when family and friends may be unable or unwilling to fill that role.

      Indeed, S.M. told BusinessWest that, while her mother was quite supportive during her pregnancy and the period to follow, her friends were still using drugs, and thus, she didn’t want to be around them.

      Support is provided in the months and weeks prior to delivery, during delivery, and then during the post-partum period, said Walker, adding that, while post-delivery is a challenging time for most all mothers, it is especially so for those suffering from opioid-abuse disorder.

      “The riskiest time for relapse is in the post-partum period,” she explained. “We find that many women are able to maintain sobriety during pregnancy, but of course, the stresses of parenting, and sometimes parenting with limited resources, can be a triggering factor when it comes to relapse.”

      The program also provides education and help to mothers with babies diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), the incidence of which is growing as the opioid crisis continues, said Walker.

      Such babies are fussy, cry a lot, and are hard to soothe, she went on, adding that many remain in the hospital for several weeks. New Beginnings addresses these needs through something called the ‘eat/sleep/console’ method of evaluating and treating newborns with NAS, an initiative that results in shorter hospital stays and less opioid use for the newborn.

      Above all else, New Beginnings provides a judgment-free zone that offers both compassion and quality care, said Walker, adding that all three ingredients are needed to properly provide for both mother and baby.

      Pregnant Pause

      Flashing back to her first New Beginnings group session roughly 16 months ago, S.M. remembers feeling relatively calm, but also a little uneasy about what she was getting herself into.

      “I think was kind of numb and a little nervous,” she recalled, adding that she was struggling with sobriety at that time, when she was on methadone. “But at the same time, it felt comforting knowing what it was for; it was for women with addiction problems who were having babies. It was exactly what I needed at that time.”

      S.M. said she was referred to New Beginnings several weeks earlier, about three months into her pregnancy and while she was still using heroin, which she described as her “drug of choice.” She said she was experiencing a number of emotions, but mostly anger — directed at herself.

      “I was going through a really tough time accepting that I was pregnant,” she told BusinessWest while sitting in the same small room where the group sessions are held. “I couldn’t face the fact that I was using while I was pregnant, because I was really mad at myself. I came here because I wanted to do everything I could to try to do my best and get my life in order.”

      Amy Walker says the New Beginnings program provides a critical judgment-free zone for pregnant women and new mothers battling opioid addiction.

      In most every case, these emotions, these sentiments, and this particular drug of choice make S.M. typical of a growing number of women who are going through pregnancy while still using opioids or struggling with sobriety, usually through medication-assisted treatment such as methadone or Subutex, said Walker. She added that this growing demographic is an intriguing and sometimes overlooked aspect of the opioid epidemic — one that has now become a focal point of her work as a certified midwife.

      And in many ways, this work reflects the values and passions (that’s a word you’ll read often) that brought her to the rewarding profession of midwifery — and will her bring to the podium at the Healthcare Heroes gala on Oct. 17 to accept the award in Community Health.

      Our story begins during her undergraduate work when Walker took a job with Planned Parenthood in Gainesville, Fla. She worked at the front desk, selling birth-control pills and checking people in for their appointments.

      “I was really inspired to grow in women’s health,” she explained. “I met nurse midwives and nurse practitioners who worked there, and started working in the Health Education department there, doing sex education, HIV-prevention outreach, and more, and from there I decided I wanted to go to midwifery school.”

      She would earn her degree at Columbia University and, while doing so, see her career ambitions crystalize.

      “My roots were really in gynecological care, but then I developed a love for caring for women and families during pregnancy and birth,” she explained. “I found that I love that intimate connection that you make with families.

      “Meanwhile, one of my biggest passions was caring for underserved populations — people who maybe didn’t have access to all the care options,” she went on. “I wanted to provide them with the same type of care as someone who was more able to select what kind of care they wanted; that was really important to me.”

      These twin passions have come together in a powerful way with New Beginnings, which Walker conceptualized several years after coming to CDH in 2014 after stints at Leominster Hospital and in St. Croix.

      Tracing the origins of the program, she said it was one of many strategic initiatives that sprang from the work of an opioid task force created by CDH in 2016. That group’s work revealed that there were many unmet needs and, overall, that services needed to be better-organized and better-focused.

      “I really wanted to be involved with that task force because I felt that the care we were giving to patients with substance-abuse disorders wasn’t really poor care, but it was all over the map,” she told BusinessWest. “There was no consistency in the messages that patients were getting and the education they were getting, and I knew that we could do better.”

      One of those many efforts to do better is New Beginnings.

      Delivering Results

      At the heart of the program and its group sessions is the belief that women going through pregnancy while using opioids or trying to stay sober can benefit from being in the same room together, talking about their experiences, their emotions, their fears, and their hopes for the future.

      And S.M.’s story, and her recollections of her year in the program, provide ample evidence that these beliefs are well-founded.

      “It was really helpful coming here and knowing that there were other pregnant women who were either going through the same thing or had been there,” she said. “There were other women I’d met through New Beginnings who had kids and had them taken away. That made me feel … I don’t want to say better. It made me feel … well, not as mad at myself, knowing that someone else had been through this and had struggled with being able to have their kids in their life because of their addiction.

      “I also came to know the risks of actually having her taken away,” she went on, referring to her daughter, who was playing with other children in the middle of the room as S.M. talked. “And knowing how mad I was just for using, that made me want to just do everything I could.”

      These sentiments speak to that goal of empowering women to become successful mothers, said Walker, adding that empowerment comes through accountability and being responsible, but also through education.

      And from the start, education has been one of the main focal points for New Beginnings, said Walker, who cited neonatal abstinence syndrome as an example.

      “We expect it, and it’s treatable, but it can be challenging, because that baby may need a lot of soothing care, and sometimes needs to be held or soothed or rocked 100% of the time,” she explained. “All this could be challenging for anyone, but if you are someone with your own chronic illness who may not have a lot of support … all those things add up to make it really challenging.

      “So if someone was coming into that without having any knowledge of how to care for their baby or what to expect from their hospital stay, that can be really shocking,” she went on. “I felt that we could do a better job of providing that educational prenatally, and there needed to be an avenue for that.”

      Elaborating, she said that, typically, most pre-natal visits (for all women) run only about 15 minutes or so. This isn’t much time for women to learn or be supported. In response to this, she created two-hour group prenatal sessions for those involved with New Beginnings. The first hour would be the physical exam, she noted, while the other 90 minutes would be spent providing education and support in a group setting.

      “We can cover so many more topics in that amount of time, as opposed to the 15-minute sessions, and you’re also speaking to many patients at a time,” Walker said. “And one of the great things about group prenatal care is that patients are able to hear from other patients and get their perspective.”

      As noted earlier, the group sessions can extend to the post-partum period, which, as Walker said, is an extremely vulnerable time for those trying to stay sober.

      “What we’re finding statistically is that the biggest risk for relapse is in the six- to 12-months post-partum time,” she noted. “Initially, in the first six months, there’s still a lot of that new-baby glow — even though it’s a hard time, there can still be sweetness. As they get older, it can get more draining; as one patient, who framed it in a good way, told me, ‘the newness wears off.’”

      Only a year or so since working with its first participants, New Beginnings is generating measurable results.

      Changing Room

      S.M. told BusinessWest that the post-partum period was, indeed, a difficult time for her as she worked to keep sober amid the many changes and challenges that came into her life with motherhood.

      She said she kept coming to group sessions staged by New Beginnings not because she had to, but because she wanted to — and needed to.

      “I was having a hard time, but I just kept holding myself accountable,” she said. “There were days when I wanted to stay home and watch TV, but I made myself come to those meetings.”

      She still struggles with being a mother — and with staying sober — but she knows she doesn’t have to face these challenges alone.

      And that’s what New Beginnings is all about.

      George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

      Healthcare Heroes

      This Assisted-living Facility Manager Leads by Example

      Emily Uguccioni

      It’s safe to say that, at the age of 13, most people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.

      But Emily Uguccioni thought she had it all figured out; she wanted to be an attorney or judge — a figure in the courtroom. At the very least, she knew what she did not want to do — work with the elderly.

      But a volunteer position at the Alzheimer’s Resource Center in Connecticut changed her perspective. The facility, right across the street from her middle school, became the foundation for what would become a career she completely fell in love with.

      “I wanted an assignment anywhere not near an old person,” noted Uguccioni when explaining her decision to volunteer at a nursing home, but not work with or near those living there.

      All her friends read to residents or took them to activities, but she wanted no part of that; instead she got a job in the library organizing all the books. One day, she was instructed to bring a paper to a nurse on one of the units, and upon her arrival, she ran into an old woman.

      “This lady said, ‘I’ve been here for four days, and no one has come to pick me up,’” Uguccioni recalled, adding that she did not realize at the time that people with dementia have a disassociation from time. This women had actually been living at the facility for several years.

      Feeling bad for the confused woman, Uguccioni said she would try to resolve her issue and offered to get her a drink from the juice cart. Together, they sat and talked for a while until a nurse came by.

      “I pride myself in knowing all the residents and all the family members here by name. I pride myself in knowing all the staff by name. I think I know a lot about the residents themselves in terms of what they like, what they dislike, and what might be a concern for them or their family, which is sometimes very different things.”

      “She said, ‘you’re the only person in a week that has been able to get her away from that door,’” Uguccioni recalled, adding that, when word got back to the activities director that she was able to do that, she was promptly transferred from her library job and to a position as a resident volunteer.

      Fast-forward to today, as Uguccioni sits as executive director at Linda Manor Assisted Living in Northampton, a facility she has put on the fast track when it comes to growth, vibrancy, and recognition.

      Indeed, since arriving in 2015, she has doubled occupancy from 40 to more than 80, and there is now a waiting list.

      Meanwhile, Linda Manor has been named the best assisted-living facility in Northampton by both the Daily Hampshire Gazette and SeniorAdvisor.com. Under Uguccioni’s direction, the facility has twice won the Silver Honor Affiliate Excellence Award through Berkshire Healthcare Services.

      But it’s not so much what she’s accomplished as how that has earned her the Healthcare Heroes award in the category called Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration.

      The ‘how’ boils down to a lead-by-example style and an ability to make each and every team member feel not only valued but a key contributor to the health and well-being of all the residents at Linda Manor.

      Nicole Kapise-Perkins, Human Resources manager at Linda Manor, summed this up effectively and poignantly in nominating Uguccioni for the award.

      “Emily’s fairness and open, engaging manner has had a huge impact on employee morale, and as a result, the services we provide to our residents and families is rated the best in the Northampton area,” Kapise-Perkins wrote. “She lets her staff members know they are appreciated, and they give 110% on the job.”

      Manor of Speaking

      One of the first things Uguccioni did when she came to Linda Manor was relocate her office.

      She moved it out of the administration “suite,” as she called it, and into an office that any person can see the moment they walk into the lobby. This seemingly innocuous change is an effective representation of one of Uguccioni’s biggest personal goals as both a manager and a leader: visibility.

      On any given day at Linda Manor, one could find her chatting with residents at breakfast, meeting with staff members to get updates about how they are doing, or attending a check-in meeting with residents and their families, an important time for both constituencies.

      “I pride myself in knowing all the residents and all the family members here by name. I pride myself in knowing all the staff by name,” said Uguccioni, noting that there are more than 80 people working with her (not for her). “I think I know a lot about the residents themselves in terms of what they like, what they dislike, and what might be a concern for them or their family, which is sometimes very different things.”

      This doesn’t sound like the 13-year-old who took a job in the library because she didn’t want to work around old people.

      And it’s not.

      As noted earlier, that chance encounter with the woman looking for someone to pick her up changed the course of Uguccioni’s career — and her life.

      Emily Uguccioni’s goal is to make every team member know they are valued and a key contributor to Linda Manor’s success.

      The volunteer experience she embarked upon after transferring out of library lasted three years until she was hired to be an activities assistant, where she worked at night and on weekends.

      “When I was there, I got to see the operations of a nursing home, and I got to see what nurses do and how you interact with the residents and how important a long-term care facility is,” said Uguccioni, adding that this prompted her to explore options in healthcare degrees for her college education.

      She graduated from Springfield College in 2006 with a degree in health services administration, knowing she wanted to end up at a higher-level administration or perhaps an executive-director position.

      After graduation, she served as a therapeutic recreation director and managed the activities department in various assisted-living homes in Connecticut. Most recently, she worked as director of Operations and Services at Seabury Active Life Community in Bloomfield, Conn., a position she was offered when her previous boss left.

      She came to Linda Manor just a year after it opened in 2014, and immediately commenced changing its fortunes.

      The facility sits next to Linda Manor Extended Care Facility, also affiliated with Berkshire Healthcare Services, which opened in 1989, and Uguccioni immediately recognized opportunities to create synergies and potential growth for both facilities.

      “My vision was to create community and to build a campus concept with the extended-care facility so that the community as a whole saw this campus as a place where housing meets healthcare, a unique concept without a buy-in fee that many of the competitors have,” she said. “Because we are not a ‘life-care community,’ the referral flow and process were not already built into the campus of care with a blink of an eye.”

      Elaborating, she said that, while a strong, mutually beneficial relationship between the two facilities seemed like a natural outcome, it took time, patience, and diligence to make it work.

      This meant months of working with Mark Ailinger, administrator at the extended-care facility, and his team to build a solid relationship.

      “That [relationship] was missing, and I could see that right when I got here,” said Uguccioni, adding that was a problem that could have affected several facets of both facilities had it continued. In order for facilities like Linda Manor to be financially stable, Uguccioni told BusinessWest, maintaining a consistent resident census at or above the target, as well as managing controllable operating expenses, are crucial. But, in order to accomplish this, facilities need solid referral sources, and wellness programs and models for the residents. All this comes much easier when you can utilize the resources at the extended-care facility right next door.

      So Uguccioni and Ailinger worked together to build trust between the two buildings so that the extended-care facility could become a consistent referral source at the assisted-living facility, and vice versa.

      “It is one of my proudest accomplishments since my tenure here,” she said.

      At Home with the Idea

      But there have been many accomplishments since Uguccioni’s arrival, including those ‘best-of’ awards.

      They are generally a measure of customer service, and Uguccioni said she believes quality in this realm is a function of having a staff that knows it is valued and appreciated.

      Indeed, it takes a village to run a successful assisted-living facility that leaves residents and their families happy, and Linda Manor does that well by putting an emphasis on relationships.

      To help staff members accomplish this, Uguccioni helps them realize the impact they have on residents, and the value they have in affecting their lives.

      For example, she said a certified nursing assistant providing daily services to a resident, like giving medication or offering assistance in the bathroom, translates into much more than completing a simple task.

      “You’re really here to be an integral part of that person’s day,” Uguccioni said. “You’re the first person that they see in the morning, and, therefore, their interaction with you really shapes how their day might be.”

      This, she says, is the key to running a successful assisted-living community.

      “If you don’t have a staff that’s committed and engaged, you don’t have anything,” she said. “I think that it’s really important that you have people and staff in general that are invested in their role and they realize the value that they have in assisted living, and what they mean to the people that live here.”

      But building a strong, caring team is not an easy task in this employment environment. Uguccioni says one of the biggest challenges in running an assisted-living facility is that not many people seem to want to be aides.

      “There’s a lot of open positions in healthcare for certified nursing assistants, and we don’t find as many people seeking that out as a desired level of employment,” she said, adding that she puts staff satisfaction high on her list in order to reduce turnover.

      “I don’t ever want someone here to feel like ‘oh, I just work in housekeeping,’ or ‘I’m just the server in the dining room; what do I know?’ Everybody here knows a tremendous amount,” Uguccioni added. “It’s not just me that runs the building, it’s all of us. If one person could do it, I wouldn’t have everybody else that works here.”

      This attitude has helped Linda Manor to continue to be recognized as one of the best assisted-living facilities in the area, and Uguccioni is always thinking about ways to improve.

      “I’m always looking at how we can positively affect someone’s life through the residents and the families,” she noted, adding that she has positive experiences every day that remind her why she does what she does.

      She recalls one instance from a few years ago, while she was covering for someone in the Admissions department while they were on vacation. A woman walked in looking for a place for her mom to live. The minute she sat down in Uguccioni’s office, she began to cry.

      “This woman was in a terrible predicament. Her mother lived in a totally different part of the country, and she didn’t know how to talk to her to tell her she couldn’t live alone anymore,” she said.

      In this instance, Uguccioni advised the woman not to tell her mom why she couldn’t live alone, but explain how living in an assisted-living facility would help her live an easier, happier life.

      The next week, the woman got her mom on a plane and moved her into Linda Manor.

      “Being able to help her, I really do feel like I have a pivotal piece to that,” Uguccioni said. “Every time I see her when she comes in, she says, ‘I thank you every day.’”

      Live and Learn

      When she reflects back to that experience she had at the Alzheimer’s Resource Center as a 13-year-old girl, Uguccioni is grateful that the nurse sent her to deliver that paper, because it put her on a path to a career she loves every day.

      “If I hadn’t had that volunteer experience doing something that was completely out of my comfort zone, I would never have what I have today,” she said. “I would never be in this field at all.”

      But she did go down that path, and doing so started her on her journey to be a Healthcare Hero.

      Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

      Healthcare Heroes

      She’s Forging Pathways to Help People Overcome OCD and Hoarding Disorder

      Tara Ferrante

      To illustrate one of the many ways obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, can manifest itself, Tara Ferrante said everyone has stood at a rail atop a high building, looked down, and thought, what if I jumped? It’s a little scary, and basically harmless.

      “But with OCD,” she continued, “you actually evaluate that thought and think it could happen, and then, ‘I must be a terrible person to have that thought.’ Or it creates anxiety because that thought means something, and you have to do something to feel better.”

      OCD often begins as an intrusive thought, she explained, and everyone has intrusive thoughts. What sets OCD sufferers apart, though, is their response to those thoughts. “Sometimes it’s a compulsion, sometimes avoidance — ‘I can’t be in tall places,’ or ‘I can’t be around knives, because I imagined myself stabbing someone once, so I must be a dangerous person. What person must think something like that? I must be a horrible person. People shouldn’t be around me.’”

      But while avoidance — or whatever compulsive, repetitive action helps to mitigate that intrusive thought — might bring temporary relief, it also reinforces the initial evaluation of that thought, she went on, “so the next time that thought comes up, you’re stuck in that same cycle where you have to do something to feel better.”

      Then there’s the behavior known as hoarding, which buries people, both psychologically and literally, in their own possessions because they’re unable to get rid of anything — presenting a wide variety of dangers.

      “It can be a fire risk, or it can be a fall risk, especially as people get older, or someone may have other health issues and the path’s not wide enough for a gurney to get into their house for emergency support,” Ferrante said.

      “It also causes people to isolate more — they’re afraid to have people in the home, or to reach out to people,” she went on. “There’s a thing called clutter blindness, where they might not see all the clutter, but when another person is there, it’s striking. There’s the shame and the guilt and everything else that comes up around that, so a lot of people do isolate more because of the clutter.”

      Ferrante is program director of the Holyoke Outpatient Clinic at ServiceNet, one of the region’s largest behavioral-health agencies, and treats patients with a wide range of behavioral-health conditions. But it’s her work leading ServiceNet’s OCD and Hoarding Disorder Program that earned her recognition as a Healthcare Hero in the category of Emerging Leader.

      To be sure, Ferrante doesn’t see herself as a hero — just someone passionate about helping people overcome behaviors that range, depending on the patient, from mildly annoying to completely debilitating.

      “It feels so good to see people thriving in their lives who wanted to die at points,” she told BusinessWest. “While their lives may not be perfect by any means, they’re able to live their lives the way they want to, with much more ease.”

      Starting the Journey

      Ferrante’s journey in this specialized field began while working with a client who was experiencing extreme distress from OCD symptoms. She had read about emerging OCD treatments, learning that the most effective approach seemed to include a mix of structured clinical treatment and home-based and peer support.

      So, two years ago, when ServiceNet’s senior leadership proposed the launch of an OCD program in Western Mass., she jumped at the opportunity to lead the program.

      “They saw this area as a kind of desert in terms of people who can really specialize and are able to provide good care to people with OCD and hoarding disorder,” she explained. “I was super interested, and I expressed interest in overseeing it.”

      “It feels so good to see people thriving in their lives who wanted to die at points. While their lives may not be perfect by any means, they’re able to live their lives the way they want to, with much more ease.”

      Before launching the program, Ferrante and fellow clinicians first completed four days of training in OCD and hoarding disorder, then conducted a series of consultations with two nationally recognized experts on these conditions: Dr. Randy Frost, a professor of Psychology at Smith College, and Denise Egan Stack, a behavioral therapist who launched the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital in Belmont, a Boston suburb.

      “We’ve been so lucky,” Ferrante said. “People have invested so much time and energy in our program to get it off the ground and get it going and helping me as a leader. It’s been really great.”

      Currently, six ServiceNet clinicians provide specialized OCD and hoarding-disorder treatment at the agency’s Holyoke, Greenfield, and Northampton clinics. The program’s model continues to evolve, but several facets have crystalized, including the use of Smith College students as interns in the program. Frost trains the students for adjunct work in the community, such as conducting ‘exposures’ with clients battling OCD, Ferrante explained.

      “They’ll give emotional support to people [with hoarding disorder] as they are sorting and discarding, or as they go out and practice non-acquiring — going to a store where they like buying things, and then not getting anything, sort of building up the tolerance of resisting that urge.”

      Tara Ferrante says people with OCD and hoarding disorder span all ages and demographics.

      The student collaboration has been valuable and productive, she noted. “We’re limited in how much we can get out into the community or into the home between sessions. The introduction of the interns has helped create steady progress.”

      The term ‘hoarder’ is actually out of fashion, she noted, having taken on a stigma in recent years, thanks partly to TV shows that often vilify those who struggle with the condition. Frost has written extensively about the reasons people hoard; some call themselves ‘collectors’ or ‘finders-keepers’ because they see value in every item in their cluttered homes.

      “That’s a strength, to be able to see value where other people don’t, or to see beauty where other people don’t,” Ferrante said. “But it’s a strength that’s gone too far, and that can make a hindrance in being able to get rid of things. Also, people don’t want to be wasteful, they don’t want things to go into landfills, and again, that’s really a wonderful quality — but it then impedes their quality of life.”

      Hoarding is also a form of perfectionism, at least in the eyes of collectors, she went on. “You want to use something to its full ability, or it needs to go to the just right place. Or, if it’s going to be given away, it needs to be given to just the right person who’s going to love it fully, and if you can’t find that person, then you’re just going to keep it, and that can stall progress sometimes.”

      As for OCD, like many mental-health conditions, it can differ in severity from one person to another, Ferrante said.

      “Sometimes people can function pretty well, but even for those people who aren’t seeking treatment, it can affect their ability to have relationships, to get to work on time, even to leave their house,” she explained. “There are so many ways it can make people’s lives difficult. And even if they can function sometimes, they’re living in this constant state of anxiety and panic, which is really unpleasant.”

      Then there are the more severe cases — stories of people unable to touch their children or their partners for years, or unable to leave their home, hold a job, or participate in life in any way.

      The standard treatment in Ferrante’s program is known as exposure and response prevention, a form of cognitive behavior therapy.

      “We form a relationship and create situations where they get exposed to the anxiety, the intrusive thought, and we don’t do the compulsion,” she explained. “We do it in a supported way at first, in session, and then we have the interns who can do that out in the community, and eventually we want people to do it on their own. We make exposure part of life — this idea of, ‘let’s turn toward anxiety rather than away from anxiety.’ It takes the power out of it, and they’re able to really start living their lives the way they want to be living.”

      Many patients are treated with a combination of therapy and medications, often anti-depressants. “But not everyone needs meds,” she said. “I see a lot of positive outcomes with just exposure and response prevention on its own.”

      Breaking Through

      The ServiceNet program runs a series of support groups called Buried in Treasures, named after a book Frost co-authored. Ferrante also sits on the board of the Western Massachusetts Hoarding Disorder Resource Network, which puts on conferences that focus on what resources are available in the community for those who struggle with the condition. ServiceNet also brings in experts for lectures where mental-health professionals can earn CEUs for learning more about hoarding and OCD.

      All this training is aimed at broadening resources for a patient population that cuts across all socioeconomic barriers and cultures around the world. Hoarding, in particular, is often seen as an older person’s condition, but that may be because they’ve had more time to accumulate, so the signs are more readily apparent.

      Progress in overcoming a compulsion to hoard can be slow, Ferrante added. “That stuff didn’t get in the home overnight, and it’s not going to get out overnight. I mean, it can get out of the house overnight, but that generally is going to make things worse — it creates a trauma, it makes the person treatment-resistant, and doesn’t actually address how it all happened.

      “It’s almost a guarantee, if someone has a forced cleanup, they’re going to fill their space up again,” she went on. “So we take a slower approach that looks at what got someone there and creates the skills they need to declutter on their own, and not have it return.”

      While people who hoard often struggle with stigma, OCD sufferers are plagued with the opposite: the many Americans who think they have OCD because they have certain routines, and proclaim it with an odd sense of pride.

      “They say, ‘oh, I’m so OCD,’ and it really minimizes it for people who are suffering,” Ferrante explained. “It’s not just being really clean or wanting things in a certain order. If those things are torturing you and you can’t function, sure, but people can have certain obsessions or compulsions and not have OCD. The ‘D’ part of OCD is that it’s impairing your ability to function, and most people who say, ‘I’m a little OCD’ … well, they’re not.”

      On the other hand, it’s also frustrating for someone with OCD to be misdiagnosed, she added.

      “I get calls from people saying, ‘I’ve been looking for help forever; no one knows what I’m talking about.’ Sometimes, when people think they’re dangerous because of an intrusive thought, then a therapist buys into that because they’re not sure what this is, and it reinforces that belief. But even suicidal thoughts can be OCD. People can get hospitalized when that’s not the right intervention. You want an expert making sure you’re making the right call there.”

      Outside of her OCD and hoarding work, Ferrante continues to manage all the clinicians at the Holyoke clinic, and handles a caseload of about 15 patients at a time, dealing with a wide range of mental-health concerns, from substance-use disorders to trauma, anxiety, and depression. In that sense, she and her team were already doing heroic work before launching the OCD and Hoarding Disorder Program.

      But since that launch, she’s been able to help a patient population that often f