The past year challenged and changed all of us at MD Anderson. It changed the way we work, the ways we connect and, in some cases, it even changed the work we do. What hasn’t changed is our drive to end cancer, and our commitment to our patients and their families, our community and each other.
Each of our 22,000 employees has a story about how their work changed this past year – sometimes, in a matter of weeks, days or even hours. Here are six of them.
Roy Chemaly, M.D. Chief Infection Control Officer
Infectious diseases and infection control specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D., had been sharing his expertise at MD Anderson for 17 years by the time the novel coronavirus emerged in late 2019.
As fate would have it, Chemaly — and MD Anderson — were uniquely positioned to deal with the threats this new virus posed.
“We had just finished revising our infection control processes barely two months earlier,” explains Chemaly. “Lessons learned from that experience had already taken us up to the next level of efficiency. So, MD Anderson was as ready as it could possibly be when the pandemic arrived.”
Chemaly, who serves as MD Anderson’s chief infection control officer, was immediately consulted by senior leaders for guidance on how to continue safeguarding the health of both our workforce and our patients when MD Anderson began planning our pandemic response in late January.
“All of us went the extra mile, and I think we should feel really proud of that,” Chemaly says. “We had to adapt our processes very quickly several times, but we always took the right actions based on science and common sense. Because it’s our duty to protect our patients and employees. Nothing else matters.”
Today, Chemaly strikes a balance between seeing patients, conducting research and completing administrative tasks associated with his job as chief infection control officer. About 90% of his time is still dedicated to providing expertise on coronavirus-related infection-control measures, most recently including COVID-19 vaccination.
In fact, after MD Anderson received our first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines for frontline health care workers in mid-December, Chemaly became the first employee to get vaccinated. “I strongly believe in the science that has gotten us to the point of having this vaccine, and I am so excited and very proud to be one of the first vaccinated,” he said at the time.
But even with the arrival of a vaccine, Chemaly refuses to let his guard down as he works to ensure the safety and health of MD Anderson’s patients and employees.
“Before coming to the U.S. in 1994, I lived through three different wars in Lebanon,” he says. “In two of them, I worked as a Red Cross volunteer, responding to emergencies and treating people who’d been injured by bombs. I almost died on many occasions during those seven years. And I was still in medical school, too. So, if I could make it through all of that, no virus was going to break me.”
Minh Hue Mosley Administrative Director, Institute for Cancer Care Innovation
As administrative director of MD Anderson’sInstitute for Cancer Care Innovation, Minh Hue Mosley is used to managing big projects with ambitious goals. She’s worked on a number of value-based care initiatives. One was the Enhanced Recovery Program, which shortened the amount of time patients needed to heal from surgery. Another solicits patient feedback to better incorporate their voices and desires in the decision-making processes.
When the pandemic arrived, it was only natural for Mosley’s team to be tapped for help.
“We immediately stopped everything else we were doing and pivoted our entire team to concentrate on COVID-19,” says Mosley. “It was ‘all hands on deck’ the first two months, and the coronavirus became our exclusive focus.”
For Mosley, that meant coordinating the round-the-clock work shifts needed to staff our screening stations at entry points around the Texas Medical Center Campus. It also meant thinking more broadly about operations, and predicting which supplies might be needed, whether it was 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer or updated signs explaining our visitor restrictions at each entrance.
“It was a little rough at first,” says Mosley. “But by May, we went from working 18-hour days to a more normal 9 or 10. And by July, we had handed off the staffing portion of it to Human Resources, so only about half of our workload was related to COVID-19.”
Today, Mosley feels grateful for the experience. It gave her a greater appreciation for her colleagues and MD Anderson’s culture of caring.
“People at MD Anderson have always been helpful,” she says. “But during this, the spirit of cooperation reached a whole new level. It was amazing how many people pulled together and how the whole organization pivoted to get the job done.”
Tennille Campbell Nurse Manager, MD Anderson The Woodlands
Tennille Campbell was still savoring her workspace at MD Anderson The Woodlands' new facility. Then, in early March, “The bottom dropped out,” says the nurse manager of clinics and ambulatory treatment centers.
Campbell and her staff had to adopt new protocols immediately to protect both themselves and our patients from the coronavirus. They also had to complete 22 hours of continuing education so that any nurse could fill in for any other in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“I could not be more proud of our team,” she says. “They are such an amazing representation of what makes the heart of a nurse. They all worked so hard. And they never complained. Not even when they lost loved ones themselves to the coronavirus. Instead, they’d ask, ‘What else can I do? How can I help?’ It was such a beautiful thing to witness.”
Campbell was also asked to collaborate on a project that would divert the bulk of outpatient cancer care away from MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center Campus and redistribute it among our other Houston locations. This massive undertaking would involve the reallocation of staff, equipment and supplies.
“The idea was to create a kind of 'moat' around the main hospital," says Campbell. “By reducing foot traffic and preserving our capacity for both a possible surge in COVID-19 cases and the cancer patients who really needed to be seen there, we could better protect our patients, our staff and our entire community.”
Thousands of MD Anderson patients’ cases were analyzed to determine which ones would benefit the most from having their care transferred to another one of our locations. And while the changes were unnerving for some initially, patient feedback quickly turned positive.
“Humans are creatures of habit, so we knew there would be some challenges,” says Campbell. “But our patients are thrilled now to be able to get their lab work and infusions done so much closer to home. And when they recognize some of the nurses from our Texas Medical Center Campus at the other locations, that just gives them an added sense of security.”
Ramez Kouzy, M.D.
Research Assistant, Taniguchi Lab
When Ramez Kouzy, M.D., first heard that MD Anderson’s lab facilities might be shut down due to the coronavirus, the first order of business was prioritizing current research projects, so that resources could be reallocated and experiments could be preserved.
"It was important not just from our individual researchers’ viewpoints, but for the institution as a whole," says Kouzy. "We were trying to prevent terabytes worth of data from being lost and years of work from being compromised. It took a lot of collaboration and team effort, but I think we did a good job. We all transitioned to a work-primarily-from-home model fairly quickly, so we could shut things down safely until the restrictions were lifted."
MD Anderson’s research labs started reopening in May, through a carefully phased reopening plan that has limited the number of people allowed on campus at any given time. Clinical trials began ramping back up soon after that.
“COVID-19 is serious, but cancer doesn’t wait,” Kouzy explains. “We know how important our clinical trials are, especially to patients with difficult-to-treat cancers. Sometimes, clinical trials can be a literal lifeline. Our patients still need the largest amount of research we can do, so that we can continue to provide them with new interventions.”
Alberina Green Supervisor, Food Services
Before the pandemic, Food Services Supervisor Alberina Green oversaw cafeteria operations at one of our administrative buildings in the Texas Medical Center. But foot traffic there quickly dwindled in March, after almost a third of our employees began working remotely.
“In less than a week, we went from serving breakfast and lunch to hundreds of people a day to serving maybe a few dozen,” says Green.
She and other cafeteria managers began to significantly scale back operations, closing some specialty stations and discontinuing other offerings to reduce waste. Around the same time, MD Anderson implemented visitor restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on our campuses. Green's manager, Food Services Director Leisa Bryant, noticed a pressing patient need that Green and her staff could help fill.
The result was the Inpatient Personal Delivery Program, which launched on March 28. Here’s how it works: friends and family members drop off patients’ belongings or other items at the Aquarium entrance of MD Anderson'sTexas Medical Center Campus. Then, Green and her staff hand-deliver those items to patients, sometimes in a matter of minutes.
“We bridge the gap,” says Green. “Our goal is to take care of our patients when their family members can’t. We try to give them the love and support they’re accustomed to. Because people cope better with being in the hospital when they can receive the electronics, home-made comfort foods, or flowers and balloons their loved ones bring them.”
Green and her staff handle about 100 deliveries a day, while observing strict sanitation procedures to minimize the risk of infection to both patients and employees.
“The original plan was to serve only the patients who were staying overnight,” says Green. “But we quickly realized we needed to branch out. Sometimes day visitors need a change of clothing because they’ve had an accident. Other times, people forget their cell phones in their cars. And they need those, because that’s the main way they communicate with loved ones who can’t be with them.”
Green’s staff is very careful to ensure that all items dropped off are delivered in the same condition in which they arrived.
“When you leave,” she says, “we want you to feel secure, knowing that your loved ones will receive their belongings safely and in a timely manner.”
Senior Community Relations Specialist
For Senior Community Relations Specialist O’Neak Henigan, few things illustrate the importance of avoiding tobacco more effectively than two props she uses in her tobacco prevention presentations for kids.
One is Mr. Gross Mouth – a slightly oversized anatomical model that shows the negative effects of smoking on the oral cavity, including tooth loss, gum disease, and cancerous ulcers on the tongue and palate. The other is the Tar Jar – a clear container filled with the same amount of that sticky black substance generated by smoking 10 cigarettes a day for one year.
But when schools abruptly switched to virtual learning in the spring, both of these items lost a lot of their “oomph” in Henigan’s presentations.
“I can hear the children gasp and mutter to themselves when I hold up the Tar Jar or Mr. Gross Mouth in person,” she explains. “I love watching them wrinkle up their noses and say, ‘Ewwwww! I am NEVER doing that!’ But it was hard to get these objects close enough to my laptop’s camera that the kids could really appreciate them. And sometimes, teachers didn’t have their cameras on, so even though I knew the kids were there and listening, I couldn’t see them or hear them, so I felt like I was talking to myself.”
To resolve the issue, Henigan filmed a series of videos that would allow her audiences to see the props clearly, even during remote performances. She also recorded the “Too Cool to Smoke” puppet show with a colleague.
"It’s hard to keep puppeteers six feet apart when you’re doing a live show in front of the camera for Zoom," she says. "So we recorded the program to keep our staff from having to perform multiple times a day in close quarters."
Henigan first used the new videos a few weeks after coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions shut down her in-person presentations.
“It’s really important for kids to keep hearing these prevention messages, even during a pandemic,” she says. “We had been thinking about filming a few of our demonstrations for some time. COVID-19 just moved that project from the back-burner to front and center.”