By Matt Skoufalos
When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit Michigan in early 2020, the surgical suites at Henry Ford Hospital – like those in every other such facility across much of the country – were closed to all non-emergency procedures by governmental order.
The news came after what Dr. Lamont Jones, vice chair of Henry Ford’s department of otolaryngology and director of its cleft and craniofacial clinic, described as a typically busy season for surgeries there. Although “things were humming along like normal,” Jones’ department had begun to work out contingency plans in case its ventilator inventory needed to be reallocated to COVID-19 patients.
“We started getting our increased numbers, and it was obvious that we needed to make some adjustments to plan for our surge,” Jones said.
After an order to cancel elective cases took effect, Jones’ department pivoted to telemedicine consultations and patient screening. A translational researcher as well as a clinician, Jones took a lot of work home with him, and began to carry on remotely.
Meanwhile, at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, Zdenka Jonic, who manages environmental services (EVS) and patient transport, was making her own preparations for the impact of the pandemic. As the 191-bed hospital began to swell with more patients, many of whom required isolated rooms, Jonic returned to work after a bout of the flu to discover a full facility.
“It was new for everybody,” she said. “We were well prepared and didn’t really have to divert patients from coming here; it was the work of multiple teams together, but we had a really good plan.”
Jones continued working from home, where his immediate family had all been taken ill with the virus. As they quarantined, he pressed on with research and departmental administrative work, and began to notice that, as “the work sort of switched for the health system” amid its pivot from procedural to inpatient care, it meant a lot more was being asked of Jonic and her EVS team.
“It’s a process cleaning patient rooms – and I don’t think people realize how complex a process – of seeing patients, moving patients through the hospital, and repeating that process to allow for new patients to come through,” Jones said.
“On one of the [administrative] calls, it was mentioned that there was a lot of work for the environmental services department,” he said. “I thought it would be a simple and easy thing to do to volunteer, specifically at night and on the weekends, as a way of supplementing the traditional hours that the EVS was already doing. I wasn’t looking to draw a whole bunch of attention to myself.”
With his family recuperating and his departmental goals temporarily realigned, Jones found himself in a position to help. Meanwhile, several members of Jonic’s team, who were unaccustomed to being the front-line workers they’d become, fell ill or needed to quarantine. At one point, her staff was reduced by half, while patient volumes remained high.
“We were learning and getting new information every day,” she said. “It really fluctuated how we could operate.”
Recognizing the increased demand for EVS, Jones reached out to his chief medical officer, expressing a willingness to help. Jonic got his note, and set Jones up with a Xenex ultraviolet light decontamination robot, with which he began disinfecting patient rooms.
“It was a surprise that it came from one surgeon and the vice chair of a department, and then it made me feel really thankful and grateful that Dr. Jones recognized the need for our patients,” Jonic said. “That was another way of him doing the right thing for the patients; it also helped my department so that we could concentrate on different tasks while this very important step in providing a safe environment was completed.”
“We work as a team to provide care for patients, and what it really showed is that everybody’s job is important,” Jones said. “Everybody has an opportunity to contribute, and that’s what we did for the health system.”
Jones’ volunteerism proved contagious within his own department and the hospital itself. Other members of his department picked up emergency department shifts; some clinical staff were redeployed to help with EVS needs, and then, as the health system transitioned through the surge, other support staffers were reassigned, which helped limit surgical team furloughs.
“A lot of departments were doing things that they weren’t accustomed to doing,” Jones said. “Most people were looking for ways to contribute. We’re used to being busy; sometimes when you’re sitting being idle, a lot of people are not used to doing that.”
“It was very encouraging, the outpouring of support that we received,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised because I know the type of people we work with. People went over and beyond the call of duty to pitch in so that we could accomplish our number-one goal: to provide the best care that we could for patients in a rapidly changing environment.”
The extra detail lasted almost two months, until the hospitals could return to normal operations. In that time, Jones and his colleagues covered about 100 EVS shifts. More than that, they gave their peers some critical support when it was most needed, and helped eliminate a bottleneck in patient throughput at a time when making more space for the next hospitalized person helped to save lives.
“You could put a dollar amount to it, but it would not fully represent what everybody was able to do cleaning the rooms,” Jones said. “This highlighted the wonderful work that EVS does on a daily basis, and that they don’t always get the recognition that they should. Those were the backdrops that made it easy for people to step up and assist.”
“It meant a lot to me and my team to see that we are not left alone,” Jonic said. “Having that support from clinical staff, was very, very important.”
“For a lot of us, this hopefully will be the most challenging period in our lifetimes,” Jones said. “And I think that, to look back, to know that everybody banded together and did whatever it took to rise to the occasion, will be a memory and a feeling that I’ll cherish.”