In early January 2020, Hana Hakim, MD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, heard reports of a mysterious pneumonia that had sickened dozens of people. The outbreak was halfway around the world in Wuhan, China.
“At that point the news registered with me, but not as a threat to our patients or staff,” recalled Hakim, an infectious disease specialist, researcher and medical director of St. Jude Infection Prevention and Control. In that role, she works with colleagues to establish and manage strategies, policies and practices to protect patients, families and the rest of the St. Jude community.
But as reporting on the respiratory illness continued, her concern grew. The pneumonia was soon linked to a novel coronavirus. Cases were being identified in more communities.
“My concern rose to a high level when it appeared the virus could transmit efficiently from person to person,” she said. “Even more concerning was potential viral spreading from asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people. That brought home the pandemic potential of this virus.”
The threat took on new meaning January 21, when a person in Washington became the first U.S. case.
Each infection comes with its own challenges. That’s been particularly true for COVID-19. The evolving understanding of this virus and its spread has required learning and adapting as we go.
Just days later, St. Jude employees received an email from Hakim and Aditya Gaur, MD, St. Jude Occupational Health medical director, detailing what would soon be called the COVID-19 pandemic. A short time later, James R. Downing, MD, St. Jude president and CEO, began sending daily updates on the hospital’s COVID-19 response.
The St. Jude response has evolved with the pandemic.
“Each infection comes with its own challenges,” Gaur said. “That’s been particularly true for COVID-19. The evolving understanding of this virus and its spread has required learning and adapting as we go.”
For weeks, St. Jude has been awash with information and messages about COVID-19. There were updates on efforts to keep the virus off campus that emphasized prevention measures. The list included hand hygiene, not coming to work when ill, and physical distancing. As the pandemic intensified, so did the on-campus preparedness. Phone triage by Occupational Health became an increasingly important and often-used resource to address employee questions.
As more employees started working from home, daily symptom screening and related measures intensified for the on-campus workforce.
St. Jude values at work
Hakim cites such those efforts as an example of St. Jude values in action.
“We have to work together with purpose and urgency, and that is what we are doing,” she says. “Everyone at St. Jude is going the extra step in response to the virus. We are working together. That is powerful.”
Facilities employees teamed with Design and Construction staff to create a first-of-its-kind at St. Jude, an off-campus drive-through COVID-19 testing center for St. Jude employees. The team transformed a space in the St. Jude Garden in 72 hours.
Surrounded by heroes
Those are just some examples of how the hospital prepared and responded to the pandemic. The hours have been long for many St. Jude staff and the families who wait for them at home. The tasks to accomplish can seem overwhelming at times. There is much still to learn about the disease in immune-compromised children.
“Challenges like this can be physically draining,” Gaur said. “But if you believe in something and every day you come to work and are surrounded by people with the same passion to do everything it takes for the safety of patients, families and staff, one keeps going.
“All you have to do is stop and look around and there are the real unsung heroes all around you.”
The employee response gives Hakim hope that St. Jude can be spared the worst of the pandemic.
“I’m a glass-half-full person,” she said. “Seeing everyone pulling together and supporting each other makes me believe we can face all the challenges and seriousness of the situation.”