Making a Healthy Difference
A cardiologist replaces a faulty valve in a woman’s heart, giving her a second chance at life. A radiologist aims a radioactive beam precisely to the site of a tumor in a young boy’s brain, saving him from a lifetime of blindness.
While we all marvel at the miracles of modern medicine and the physicians who perform them, not all heroes of health care hold MDs or wield scalpels. Many are not high-profile lifesavers, but people who work quietly behind the scenes. Their value may lie in their ability to make a frightened patient feel at ease, to raise funds for hospital expansion or to explain to a young woman who speaks little English the importance of prenatal care.
Some heroes simply have the ability to show up for work day after day – or, in many cases, night after night – with a smile and the determination to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
To learn more about these often unsung heroes of health care, Georgia Trend contacted hospitals around the state – from the 958-bed Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to small rural hospitals – and asked them to tell us about day-to-day heroes and heroism. Here are six of the people we met and their stories.
Director of Community Affairs
Grady Health System
As director of community affairs for the biggest and busiest health system in the state, Joyce Ojala’s work touches thousands of people through programs such as a speaker’s bureau, tour program and Board of Visitors (composed of business and organizational leaders), designed to educate people about Grady, as well helping to establish and now oversee Grady’s acclaimed in-service volunteer program.
“One of the differences between Grady’s volunteer program and other programs is that Grady volunteers work seven days a week – day and night,” Ojala says. “They rock babies in the special care nursery and work in the emergency care center after hours, and our rape crisis center has volunteers who spend the night in the hospital to be with rape victims who come in for medical care. We’ve broken the mold of who volunteers might be.”
Grady’s program, with more than 1,000 volunteers, is one of the largest and most diverse volunteer programs anywhere, she says.
Ojala’s department also coordinates Grady employees who want to volunteer in the community as well as arranging collaborative voluntary efforts such as a health fair Grady held in conjunction with Dia del Mujer Latina (Day of the Latin American Woman, an organization formed, in part, to promote culturally and linguistically competent health awareness to the underserved minority community) and corporate participation in events such as the March of Dimes’ WalkAmerica and the Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure.
Ojala began her career at Grady more than 35 years ago, working as a patient registrar for the Maternal and Infant Care project, encouraging new mothers to come back for follow-up care. Three years later, she moved into the position of director of volunteer services, which was later expanded to her current position. “At first it was difficult moving from the clinical to non-clinical environment, but my work has been exciting and ultimately I have been in a position where I could touch more people.”
Her goals, she says, have been to get the community involved at Grady and to educate the community about what Grady really is – and does. “People never know when they might need Grady,” Ojala says. “We’re a safety net. We’re also the hospital people will look to if there is a major disaster or bioterrorism attack. Grady is here for everybody.”
Barbara Lynn Johnson
Patient Access Team Leader
South Georgia Medical Center
If you go to the emergency room at night and your doctor admits you to the hospital, the last thing you might think to worry about may be whether the hospital has a bed ready and waiting for you. But at South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta, ensuring each patient has a bed is one of Barbara Lynn Johnson’s main concerns. Another is making sure patients are personally transported or escorted to those beds.
Johnson, who works the night shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekends), sees more patients than you might expect during the wee hours of the morning. In addition to those admitted through the emergency room, she also works with patients being admitted after midnight for surgery the following morning, and, of course, women in labor – who may show up at any time of the day or night.
When she’s not locating beds or personally transporting patients, Johnson helps train other employees, including registration clerks and admitting clerks, or assists nurses in the ER with patient charts. While Johnson’s coworkers say she is an invaluable source of help, her supervisor, Sally Walter, says what impresses her most about Johnson is the attention she pays to patients and the effort she takes to accommodate them and put them at ease.
Several months ago, a patient came to SGMC as a result of a workplace injury and was left stranded when he wasn’t admitted. “His wife had just had a baby and she couldn’t come for him,” Johnson says. “He wanted to get home, but he didn’t even have his wallet with him to pay cab fare.”
After exhausting other options, Johnson gave the man more than $80 of her own money to take a cab all the way back to Pavo, Fla. “That man was so happy. He kept thanking me and hugging me,” she says.
Johnson, who cared for her sick grandmother when she was a teenager and has worked in hospitals for half her life, says taking care of people is her life. “I strive to make patients comfortable, but I try to calm down their family members, too. When they come here, they’re often upset. You have to keep that smile and just go with it.”
Medical Center of Central Georgia
Collins Hanson is the first to admit he doesn’t have all of the answers. But sometimes, he has learned, the most important part of being a paramedic is being persistent with the questions. Never was this more true than when he responded to what he thought was a routine call about a woman with severe abdominal pain.
When Hanson got to the woman’s home, he knew something wasn’t right. “She was in the bathroom and the door was locked. She said she was not ready,” he recalls. “A few minutes later I knocked again. She stuck her head out the door and said she would be out in a minute.”
The woman didn’t respond to any of Hanson’s questions about possible causes of her pain, but Hanson didn’t stop asking. When she finally emerged from the bathroom, she walked across the hall with a shopping bag of what appeared to be laundry and left it in a bedroom.
Meanwhile, Hanson looked into the bathroom and saw that it was bloody. He asked the woman to bring the bag of laundry with her, suspecting it held clothing and towels that could help him evaluate the blood loss. But what he found packed among the dirty clothes and towels was something he hadn’t expected – a near-lifeless newborn. Hanson quickly began efforts to resuscitate the baby.
Today, that baby is a healthy 18-month-old in foster care. While the call that saved the baby is the most memorable one he has ever made, he says he considers all of his calls important. They run the gamut, he says, “from a person in cardiac arrest or with major trauma to an old lady who has fallen out of bed and needs help getting back in.”
Despite the circumstances or their severity, he thinks most people need the same thing – someone who cares. “A lot of it,” he says, “is just offering a hand of kindness or reassurance and showing that you genuinely care in a bad situation.”
Director of Respiratory Care
Tift Regional Medical Center
Jerry Ethridge has built a life around hard work and caring. When he’s not on duty at Tift Regional Medical Center, he’s usually studying or attending classes at Abraham Baldwin College, talking to local school children about lung health and the hazards of smoking, holding health fairs in the community or representing his colleagues from District 2 of the Georgia Society of Respiratory Care
hanks to Ethridge’s work ethic and concern for others, Tift Regional Medical Center is a safer place for patients requiring respiratory care. His department was recently awarded a perfect accreditation by the College of American Pathologists and was recognized by the Veterans Health Administration with a quality award for practically eliminating ventilator-acquired pneumonia, a common problem for people who require long-term use of ventilators.
“While many big hospitals see cases every month, we have been very fortunate to not have a single case since November 2002,” he says.
Ethridge also helped form Tift Regional’s Rapid Assessment (RAT) Team, consisting of an experienced respiratory therapist and intensive care nurse, which has dramatically reduced the number of “codes” (cardiac or respiratory arrests) at the hospital.
“Anyone in the hospital can activate the RAT team if they see a patient outside of ICU is deteriorating or if they just feel uncomfortable about the patient’s condition,” he says. “The average response time of the RAT team is two minutes.”
Ethridge, who once considered being a farmer or a politician, became interested in respiratory therapy as a career at 18, when his father was diagnosed with atypical tuberculosis. While his father didn’t survive, Ethridge made it a life mission to help ensure that others did. And he hasn’t stopped.
This spring, Etheridge will receive his associate’s degree in nursing, he says, to expand his horizons and to give him more flexibility at work. He plans perhaps to do some nursing part time on his off days, but not on Sundays when he has another important job – as preacher at New Hope International Christian Community Church.
Providing good health care is an expensive proposition. But the WellStar Health System, made up of five facilities in the Metro Atlanta area, is able to provide some of the highest quality care in the state, thanks in part to the efforts of Sandy White. A fixture at WellStar since 1981, White serves as director of the WellStar Foundation, the philanthropic, not-for-profit arm of the system.
“Our primary job is to be the clearinghouse for all philanthropic donations to the foundation and to be the system’s fund raising arm,” she says. The foundation raises money through a variety of events, including the WellStar Foundation’s Annual Golf Tournament, “Hearts Are Trumps” Bridge Benefit, Ports of Call Gala as well as through White’s personal recruitment of potential major donors. Individual and corporate gifts to the foundation range from a few dollars to $100,000 or more, she says. Forty-two percent of the System’s 10,000 employees are among the foundation’s donors.
Programs and projects supported by foundation gifts include cardiac services, prevention and wellness, the cancer program and the hospice program. (Donations paid for Tranquility, a residential hospice located on the campus of WellStar Cobb Hospital in Austell.) White is always looking for new ways to increase the community’s support.
“We have just identified naming opportunities across all five of the facilities and we’ll be developing a brand new CD-Rom that will enable prospective donors to go in and look at the floor plan and actually see if they would like to name a room, for instance. It’s really exciting.”
The foundation is currently in the midst of a five-year, $25 million campaign. Because White will be retiring this year, her yet-to-be-named successor will continue the effort. But colleagues say White’s cheerful dedication to the foundation will never been replaced.
While White is flattered that colleagues and donors might consider her a hero, she says the real heroes are those who support the foundation and those the foundation’s work serves – patients and their families; individual and corporate donors; employees and volunteers.
Labor and Delivery Nurse
South Georgia Medical Center
As a labor and delivery nurse, Nancy Rockenbach has the unique reward of seeing new babies enter the world. But some of the greatest rewards of her work come not in the delivery room or even within the hospital’s walls, but at a Hispanic clinic 25 miles away, where she regularly volunteers her time as an interpreter.
Rockenbach became fluent in Spanish while working as a medical missionary in Honduras; the skill has proven useful in South Georgia with its large Hispanic population, and particularly in her work with the clinic.
Rockenbach learned about the Georgia Farmworkers Clinic in neighboring Echols County from a young Hispanic woman who came to SGMC to have her baby. Shortly afterward Rockenbach began volunteering her Wednesday mornings performing pap smears and helping patients communicate with the clinic’s largely English-speaking medical staff.
When she learned that some patients were walking miles to get to the clinic and others were paying exorbitant amounts for rides, she began offering transportation services as well. “I go out and bring them into town. I have a big car so I can fit a lot of people,” she laughs. “And I don’t charge them.”
When Rockenbach tells coworkers about her work with the Hispanic community, many of them want to help as well. A few have volunteered at the clinic. Many give Rockenbach their used bedding and other items to take to the workers, who need just about everything. “They laugh that I am going to put the Salvation Army out of business,” she says.
What drives Rockenbach to spend so many hours helping the migrant farmworkers? “These people work hard,” she answers. “When you see the deplorable conditions they live in, you can’t help but want to help them.”
Serving as an interpreter as well as a nurse serves an important need in the Hispanic community. “Health care is a particular concern for people [in Georgia] who don’t speak English. Because of the language barrier, they don’t receive proper care all the time.” It’s Rockenbach’s goal to ensure they do.