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All about family: How one cardiac unit came together around COVID

When Curtis Jenkins joined Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center as a Certified Nursing Assistant in 2003, he wasn’t sure if nursing was for him. But he decided to give it a try, and that was all it took.

Today, Jenkins has found not only a career but a work family. As nurse manager of 5 West I, a cardiac post-procedural unit in Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, Jenkins, along with two assistant nurse managers, leads a team of 28 nurses, 10 CNAs, and three medical unit receptionists. The last several months, the unit has faced their greatest challenge yet: COVID-19.

As the pandemic first hit the community, the unit transitioned exclusively to a COVID unit. Over the past four months, the unit has seen several admissions of married couples because the virus can spread through close proximity.

“We tried to pair them up next door to each other,” Jenkins said. “They obviously couldn’t come out in the hall and communicate, but they at least knew that they were a wall apart. We wanted to create as much comfort for the patients, and knowing they were nearby their spouse helped.”

At times, Jenkins and his team of nurses have had to take emotional support steps further. Several months ago, a husband and wife of more than 60 years were both hospitalized. As the husband’s health deteriorated, the nurses worked together to ensure the wife was able to visit him before he passed.

When it came time for the funeral, the wife was not well enough to leave the medical center and attend. So, the nursing team — Quang Dang, RN, Holly Williams, RN, Hailey Hawks, CNA and Teleshia Chambers, CNA — worked with case manager Alisha Uribe to set up a video conference, so the wife could watch the service.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, though, she was going to be alone watching her husband’s funeral, so Chambers and Williams remained at her bedside to support her through her grief. When technical difficulties arose, another team member offered her personal cellphone and placed it inside a clear plastic bag to protect the patient while she watched.

Jenkins was proud of how the team came together to care for their patient. “That takes some emotional strength from team members to really pull off,” Jenkins said.

Over the last several weeks, the nurses have worked to take care of one another, too. When one nurse, along with several family members, tested positive for the virus, the unit rallied around her.

“Once we found out about her diagnosis, our group came together,” Jenkins said. “This support is just one of those phenomenal things that happens with close-knit nursing families on a unit. We ended up supplying her family with at least two weeks of groceries, toiletry products, even things as simple as Band-Aids and Q-tips. Little things like that are what keep us going because we know the small things matter,” Jenkins shared.

The Novant Health Foundation has been also doing its part to show support during the pandemic. Through the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund, team members experiencing hardship can request financial assistance. Jenkins said he is aware of team members who have benefited from the fund.

“The fund helped team members who were in a very dark time where they wondered, ‘How in the world am I going to make ends meet?’” Jenkins said. “As a nurse manager, knowing Novant Health was helping them also helped me tremendously because I felt like my hands were untied.”

Openness is a common thread on the unit. Jenkins works with a diverse team of nurses from many ethnic and religious backgrounds that embraces inclusion.

“I think we have handled situations and conversations here in the unit in a transparent and open way,” Jenkins said. “There are so many different types of folks on the unit and so many different patients who come through that we have to be socially adept to changes and work through those areas where we sometimes feel uncomfortable.”

Together, Novant Health is a place filled with opportunity in Jenkins’ view. He knows team members who have been with the organization for more than 25 years.

“I know people that were housekeepers who are now nurses,” Jenkins said. “If it’s where you want to be, Novant Health can help you get there, as long as you’re willing to work hard and try.” Jenkins and his team challenge one another to always think outside the box, be open-minded and think about next steps.

He credits president and chief executive officer Carl Armato with enabling him to become a leader and being accessible to the extent that Jenkins felt comfortable reaching out and sharing his unit’s hard work. He also credits his director, Linda Harris, for guidance and unending support.

“I think he’s helped us grow,” Jenkins said. “He’s certainly helped me grow as a person and in my leadership. The organization has helped me progress through stages of my career, starting out as a CNA to being enrolled in a Master of Health Administration program as a health leader.”

Jenkins said others who become part of the Novant Health family are bound to feel happy and supported, too.

“Folks stay when they come to this organization, and the reason why they stay is because there’s a sense of family,” Jenkins said. “There’s a sense of belonging. You’re a part of something greater than just a job.”

You now have the opportunity to support healthcare professionals in your area.

Through the Novant Health Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund), team members can access financial assistance during this unprecedented time. Make your gift today.

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Where the rubber meets the road

Meet the biker community fighting breast cancer

The Lucky Turn Around in China Grove, North Carolina, is a hot spot for motorcycle riders, family and friends. Patrons can grab an appetizer, play pool and throw darts. And the pink lemonade is extra special: Buy a glass and the proceeds go toward providing life-saving mammograms to women in need.

If it stopped there, this would just be another story about a local business giving back to the community it serves. But the Lucky Turn Around takes it one giant step further.

The bar is home to a special group of women who are motorcycle enthusiasts and healthcare advocates. They call themselves Riders Against Cancer (RAC), and, for the past three years, the group has raised money and awareness for breast cancer prevention. Together, RAC has raised more than $50,000 and helped more than 100 women receive mammograms.

The year-round effort was sparked by a conversation Charlene Nolt, co-owner of the Lucky Turn Around, had with five women at the bar. Nolt was due to go in for a mammogram. None of the other women had insurance or had received one. Nolt and co-owner Kristina Hilton knew right away they wanted to do something to fix that, and their passion rubbed off on everyone else.

“Right after that, Charlene started telling all the regulars that came in there ‘We’ve got to do something,’” said Sally Rogers, a Lucky Turn Around customer and RAC committee member. “Before we knew it, we had 25 women.”

The group pulled together what would become their flagship event: Riding for Mammograms, an annual poker run, a growing craze in the biker community, at the Lucky Turn Around and other locations. Word spread quickly, starting with other patrons at the bar.

“We all know people who are motorcyclists,” Nolt said. “So when you reach out to one, you’re basically reaching to them at all, and they all know our cause.”

Riders from all over Rowan and Mecklenburg County got involved. The first year, about 60 motorcycles participated, and the group raised about $16,000.

Despite its fundraising success, the group struggled to find women willing to receive the mammograms. They realized they wanted to take their efforts to the next level. They reached out to Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Foundation, and a partnership was born. Committee members were thrilled when they spoke to Executive Director Rick Parker.

“He was on his vacation, but still took our phone call, and we all stood there and yelled how much money we had already raised,” Nolt said. “And that man was ecstatic.”

The next year, the group partnered with Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Foundation and raised $36,000, including more than $10,000 from an anonymous donor that brought tears to the eyes of the committee.

“It touched our hearts and made us want to push even harder,” Rogers said.

Novant Health was able to use the funds raised to provide dozens of mammograms to women the RAC didn’t know, and cancer was found in three of them.

“At the end of the day, we provided three mammograms for women who may not have had the means or the opportunity to do it,” Rogers said. “And it would have probably turned into a fatal cancer. That’s what makes it worth it for me.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, RAC postponed this year’s poker run indefinitely, but donations are still coming in through merchandise and sponsors. The group has also hosted events to educate women on early detection.

“It’s not all about the money,” said Stacey Thomas, another RAC committee member. “We try to get the word out as much as we can.”

All in all, the committee has been floored by the response from the community. 

“We never realized in our lifetimes that so many people would come together and help us with something like this,” Nolt said. “The community has really shocked me in so many ways on how they support us.”

Additionally, RAC has been grateful for the passionate support of Parker and the rest of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Foundation. The foundation has helped with everything from providing guidance on fundraising to sourcing ribbons at the eleventh hour, and the partnership has had its share of fun, as well.

“Rick is so excited,” Thomas said. “He just got a motorcycle earlier this year, and he wants to ride in our next run.”

Today, anyone interested in receiving a mammogram can contact Novant Health or RAC to receive one free of charge.

“You don’t have to do anything but walk in there and get a mammogram, and it’s going to be paid for,” Nolt said. “That’s how important it is that you go get one. You don’t need a doctor. You don’t need money. You don’t need insurance. Just go get a mammogram.”

In the course of their lifetime, about 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer.

You can help us continue to provide mammograms on the house. Join the fight and donate today.

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Courage in action

Novant Health’s chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer on what it takes to transform a culture

At a time when the social justice movement is gaining widespread attention and momentum, many organizations are asking themselves an important question: How do you embed diversity and inclusion as part of your business’s mission, vision, values and brand?

When Tanya Stewart Blackmon was faced with that question, her answer was simple: She listened.

Blackmon is Novant Health’s executive vice president and chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer. She accepted the role back in 2016 and immediately embarked on a listening tour across the Novant Health footprint. She heard from more than 700 team members across all levels of the organization over the course of that tour.

“That really served as the foundation for everything we’re seeing and doing today,” Blackmon said. “I was able to create a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategic plan for the system, and that is aligned with our strategic imperatives.”

Blackmon’s approach and leadership have yielded tangible results. Case in point: On the tour, Blackmon learned that the executive team at Novant Health did not reflect the workforce across the system. While the workforce was 82% female, there was only one woman serving on the executive team. Four years later, those numbers have transformed dramatically as the president and CEO wanted to ensure that he had multiple perspectives represented. Today, 40% of the executive team are women, and 40% are people of color.

Ann Caulkins, president of Novant Health Foundation and senior vice president of Novant Health, spoke with Blackmon recently about her lengthy career in healthcare, the challenges and opportunities of the new reality, and what she’s looking forward to for the remainder of 2020. Below are excerpts from their conversation.

Ann Caulkins: How long have you served in your current role? And how did the opportunity come about?

Tanya Blackmon: Five years ago, Carl [Armato, Novant Health CEO] told me he wanted me to take a system role and operationalize diversity and inclusion, one of our core values at Novant Health. I asked him why he wanted me to do this, and he said, “Because you understand the business and the people side of healthcare, and I believe that we need both to truly operationalize this in our organization.”

I asked him that question because, at first, I wasn’t sure I wanted the role. I thought people would assume I got the role because I am an African-American female. So I really wanted to know why Carl wanted me, and it was because of my knowledge of people from my background in social work and my knowledge of the business, from my MBA and from my time as president  of two of our Novant Health hospitals, Novant Health Charlotte Orthopedic Hospital and Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center.

Caulkins: You know the business side. You know the people side. How do we bridge the gap between those two areas and change a culture?

Blackmon: That was something I thought about, too: What does this mean? I told Carl I was not going to be a figurehead in this position. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to go big and implement in a way that truly added value.

From the start, I knew this could not be about a program because you put a program up on the wall one day, and when times get tough or funding decreases, you can all too easily take it off the wall. It had to be part of a strategic culture-change strategy. I created a fishbone diagram and divided it into three phases: The first was learning and engaging to build knowledge. The second was developing to influence practices and policies that would help us get where we wanted to go. The third was embedding and leveraging to ensure diversity, inclusion and equity can be sustained over time.

After outlining the approach, I set off on the listening tour. I listened across this organization because, in this work, you have to give people a voice, as well as have alignment with the strategic goals and the mission, vision and values of the organization. We had to gain agreement and alignment on the definitions of diversity and inclusion. We have that alignment now, and it has enabled the changing of mindsets and behaviors.

Caulkins: Our culture has come a long way in a short period of time. Describe some of the things you’ve done over the past four years.

Blackmon: I believe that this work starts at the top of an organization. You have to have a CEO who is open and committed to embedding diversity and inclusion into the culture, but there’s still education that has to be done.

So we started with Carl. I told him I would love for him to take part in a program from an organization called White Men As Full Diversity Partners, which conducts labs and other education related to diversity and inclusion. At first, the name was a serious deterrent. But I kept asking. I went back to him several times and said, “Carl, you really have to do this to help the organization move the dial. I’m learning, and I need you to learn as well.” Finally, he said, “If you bring the consultant here, I’ll get 15 other white male leaders, and we’ll do it together.” And we did just that. He got our executive team and senior vice presidents to go through a three-day residential White Men’s Caucus to understand their role in this space and to discuss the impact of white male privilege and what that looks like. Carl has stated that he learned a lot about gender bias, racial and ethnic bias, unconscious biases and also white male privilege.

From there, I was able to expand the work of transforming the culture of the organization. As part of the educational process, you have to look within yourself to see how all your experiences and knowledge have shaped who you are today and how you see other people. It helps you to really open up and to listen and understand the perspectives of others and how their experiences may be different from yours.

In addition, we have engaged team members at all levels of authority in the organization in a multitude of educational activities to continue our journey and growth. We have Leadership Inclusion Summits, required diversity and inclusion workshops, community programs such as the Leadership Development Initiative (LDI), etc. We have hosted podcasts and web chats that are safe spaces for team members to have facilitated dialogue on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion. In fact, we had one today where we talked about challenging topics, like systemic racism and the death of George Floyd and how that impacts our team members. We’ve even hosted a “blind spots” CEO Action for the organization so people could understand what their blind spots are. We also took the executive team on a bus tour of Charlotte, visiting areas where our most economically disadvantaged and at-risk community members live. There was no “aubergine” in those areas, and as a result of that tour, we have since opened physician clinics in those areas. Diversity, equity and inclusion are usually on the agenda for our Leader Retreats. In one retreat, we hosted the Pillsbury House Theatre group for a show titled Breaking Ice. This was a fun, customized, professional theater experience that helped our leaders better understand the world view of others and their own biases.

Caulkins: What does “remarkable” mean to you?

Blackmon: It’s patient-centered. So we listen to the voices of our patients. It’s affordable. So we take care of people who cannot afford to pay for their care. And it means you’re going to get the highest quality of care, no matter what. Health equity is about recognizing both the visible and less visible characteristics of diversity of people, understanding their unique needs and providing the best care for each of them.

Caulkins: Tell me about the people who have been impacted by the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund. What has struck a chord with you to illustrate the importance of that fund?

Blackmon: I remember one story about a critical care nurse manager whose unit was converted to one conducting testing and treatment of COVID-19. At the same time, she is also the mother of a son who has special needs. She wanted to continue caring for patients and doing her job, but she also wanted to protect her son. Through the fund, we were able to pay for her to stay in a hotel while she served in the COVID unit. As a result, she was able to continue doing the work that she loves while keeping her family safe. That’s why this fund is so important.

The need is real, and we have front-line team members who are still in great need. Our communities, our businesses have not fully recovered from COVID-19, and the same is true for our team members who are at the bedside taking care of our friends and loved ones every single day.

Caulkins: On top of COVID-19, we are now facing another crisis related to social injustice. We’ve seen lots of organizations respond and take action. Tell us about Novant Health’s response.

Blackmon: It takes courage to take a stand as an organization. When Novant Health published our position on Black Lives Matter, that was courageous. We said we exist to save lives, all lives. We said we believe that Black lives matter. We said if society isn’t healthy, no one is healthy. And we said we have zero tolerance for racism, and I think it was very bold and very appropriate that we did that.

Caulkins: What do you feel we can look forward to in 2020?

Blackmon: As hard and sad as all this systemic racism is, it feels like there’s a movement to push us forward, to do more as people. My prayer and my hope is that this movement doesn’t stop. That’s something that keeps me up at night — that we’ll become complacent. People have said to me, “We’re good now. Can we stop?” And I say, “Stop what? When do people stop changing? When does the world stop?” At Novant Health, I know we’re not going to stop, no matter what.

If you’d like to support the work of Novant Health, consider a contribution today.

Your gifts play a role in all the lifesaving care we provide across our organization, during one of the most challenging times in recent history. People need us, and we need you.

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‘We’re all Americans, and this is a time to give grace’

Veteran leaders reflect on the meaning of Independence Day in today’s world

Freedom. Service. Sacrifice. These are just some of the themes America has come to embody since it began on this day 244 years ago, and they remain important in 2020, as we work to address the COVID-19 pandemic and create a more free and inclusive nation.

Although 2020 celebrations and ceremonies have changed because of social distancing, the Fourth of July remains a necessary time to reflect on what it means to be American. This year, we are honored to learn more from two Novant Health team members and military veterans, Chad Setliff and Lawrence R. Nycum, MD.

Setliff is president and chief operating officer of the greater Winston-Salem market. Prior to joining Novant Health, Setliff earned a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served six years as an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg and Sarajevo, Bosnia. He returned to civilian life with the rank of captain.

Nycum is senior vice president and chief clinical officer of the greater Winston-Salem market. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1992 as an ob-gyn resident in the Inactive Ready Reserve and transitioned to active duty in 1995. During his tenure, Nycum served as a fellow in gynecologic oncology at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and as section chief of gynecologic oncology and vice chairman of ob-gyn at David Grant USAF Medical Center in Travis Air Force Base, where he obtained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

We asked Setliff and Nycum to share their perspective on the Fourth of July and its significance for the Novant Health community.

Q: The Fourth of July feels a little different this year with everything going on. What does Independence Day mean to you?

Setliff: For me, it’s twofold. First and foremost, as a veteran who continues to lead in a service-oriented fashion, I love this country. I think it’s a noble country, and I always remember the original vision.

The Fourth of July was a stake in the ground where we decided that collectively and individually, we wanted a society that supported rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in particular – for everyone equally. Today, this holiday is a good time to pause and reflect on that original vision.

I think the second part is about sacrifice. For me, it’s time to remember on all the people that have served, shed blood and ultimately died for that cause.

This year in particular, I think it’s also a good time for us to pause and think about where we are along that journey and how we can continue to support and lead toward that dream in the areas that we know we need to improve.

Nycum: TheFourth of July is extra special for me and my family. We take it as a time to reflect on how we’re all part of the same country. No matter what seems to separate and divide us, whatever the issue is, we always adapt. We always overcome, and we always get back together in some form or fashion, and the stress makes us a better country because at the end of the day, we’re all Americans. It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to make sure people understand that. We get so focused on some of the chaos going on that we lose track of how, even on a bad day, the U.S. is a pretty good place to be. I’m very proud of that.

Secondly, as a veteran, I have an uncle that’s buried at Colleville-sur-Mer. He was killed July 5, 1944, and I’ve been privileged to visit his grave on occasion. It reminds me of the sacrifice people made about 244 years ago to give this country the opportunity for freedom. I don’t use that word superficially because it is freedom. We were under tyranny at the time, and people forget that. We continue to learn from how we treat each other and evolve. There’s a lot of opportunity to better our fellow man. For all of those reasons, it’s a big day for me.

Q: What are your plans to celebrate Independence Day this year?

Setliff: For most years, we just spend time with family and friends. That’s our tradition, and typically it includes fireworks, but this year we won’t have the opportunity to see any fireworks. Hopefully, we’ll see some on TV or remotely, virtually, if you will. But we’re just taking time to pause and spend time with family and friends.

I have family members who served in WWII, Korea and other foreign expeditions. It’s always great to share stories and reflect upon their sacrifice and service, honor them and remember what each of us has done and continues to do — as servicemen and women and as citizens — to reinforce the positive aspects of the people of our country.

Nycum: We’ll take a couple of days, go to the mountains and enjoy a little cooler climate. I’ll go hiking with my wife and my dogs. I’ll probably grill some sort of meat, and I may indulge in an adult beverage.

Q: This holiday often has a restorative effect on the community, and the community has been struggling hard these last few months. Given the current events that are on everybody’s mind, do you have a few words to share with the community?

Setliff: When I was in the military, when we put the uniform on, we were one team, one mission. We came from various socioeconomic backgrounds and different ethnicities. What united us was our love for each other, the desire for each other’s well-being and ultimately our unity torch, a common vision and common mission. I think if we could take those principles now and apply them to how we live on a daily basis, it will help us find unity in a pretty challenging environment.

Nycum: At Novant Health,we’re all part of the same family. We may have different roles and responsibilities and live in different places, but we’re still part of the same team with the same mission. And we as the Novant Health family support each other. When some of us struggle, all of us struggle. We need to work to better understand and communicate what that struggle is and how we can best support each other.

To Forsyth County and the other counties that make up the greater Winston-Salem market, I think it’s a similar refrain. At the end of the day, all of us live on the same Earth, and we sometimes tend to forget that we’re all human. So, it’s important for us to sometimes take a step back to reflect on that commonality and to expect the good in people. Also, just expect that they’re coming from a good place and try to give them grace. I think we all need to give each other more grace within the current environment.

I’m very proud to work at Novant Health. We’re a beacon to others around diversity, inclusion and equity, and that gives me a lot of pride. I think we just can’t lose context of that.

Q: One way we’ve seen grace practiced within Novant Health has been through the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund). In your view, why is supporting this fund important?

Setliff: I think everyone in this environment has been impacted. Our team’s call of duty, if you will, is here at Novant Health. This fund is a way to give back and honor their service in a time of need and also sustain them as a valued member of our community.

Nycum: When I think of the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund, this is a physical manifestation of the compassion, diversity, inclusion, teamwork, personal excellence and courage in helping our fellow Novant Health teammates. When we support the fund, we’re supporting our team, and we’re supporting our family.

Today, you can reinforce the hard work of Novant Health team members.

With a gift to the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine fund, you can provide vital assistance to Novant Health team members in need, so they can continue keeping us safe. Donate today.

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‘When I come to work at Novant Health, they see a nurse. They don’t see a Black nurse’

Angela Davis faced her share of discrimination — until she came to Novant Health

When Angela Davis was 18 years old, she met a nurse who changed her life.

She was living in Sumter, South Carolina, and had just given birth to her first child.

“As a young and new parent with a premature baby, I had no idea what to do,” she said. “I remember being in the nursery, and the nurse there, Ms. Elaine, took the time to show me what to do and how to do it. She took the time to explain all these big fancy words they were using. She really started something in me, and I remember wanting to make people feel the way she made me feel.”

Davis made it through those first few uncertain months and all the years of motherhood that followed, recently celebrating her son’s 19th birthday. Davis’ career grew, too, over the years, and she is now a clinical supervisor at Novant Health Huntersville Pediatrics & Internal Medicine. She’s a nurse and a clinical leader, during one of the most challenging times in healthcare. She’s also Black, and as the national movement for social justice and racial equality has gained unprecedented momentum, she’s found herself in a whole new reality.

“Before I came to Novant Health, I had patients who literally told me to my face that I’m not as smart. I’ve had a patient yelling up the hallway saying he didn’t want the ‘n-word’ nurse taking care of him,” Davis said. “It’s hard enough dealing with the demands of a changing healthcare system and making sure that you care for patients from different cultures and backgrounds, and then for people to say things like that just because of the color of your skin, it just blows my mind.”

Although those behaviors defined her past as a Black nurse, they do not define her present.

A few weeks ago, Davis and her team members took part in a peaceful protest that is part of a broader movement across healthcare institutions called White Coats for Black Lives. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, Davis knelt outside Novant Health Huntersville Pediatrics & Internal Medicine. Next to her was a colleague — a white physician named William Flannery.

“As I’m kneeling there, I saw him praying, and it just brought tears to my eyes,” Davis said. “I just imagine that his prayers are for this world to be a better place for me and my children and people who look like me and for our patients. It was just a really eye-opening moment: It’s not just people who look like me who want change and equality; it’s everybody.”

In truth, that has been her experience since she joined Novant Health.

“I had no idea when I started with Novant Health how big they were with diversity and inclusion. It’s not just saying it for show. We really do this,” Davis said. “I look at people who are way higher up than me, and I see women, Black women, Black men, Asians and Hispanics. And it really means a lot because, for me, it shows me that I can go as far as I want to with this organization. My race, my gender — they don’t limit me at all.”

But gender and ethnicity are increasingly a subject of conversation as longstanding, systemic issues about race and discrimination grip the nation. As a result, Davis has instituted a policy of transparency within her team.

“I told my team there is nothing off limits for me if they need me or they want to talk to me,” Davis said. “We’re here to help heal people, and we don’t realize that our words can be a lot more healing than our actions. I tell my team to try to be understanding. And if you don’t understand, we’re here to help each other understand.”

As a mother, Davis encourages that technique among her children, as well. In addition to her 19-year-old son, she has two daughters, ages 15 and 13. And she tells them to treat people the way they want to be treated, no matter what.

“You never treat people the way they treat you because, when you fight fire with fire, you’re no better than them,” Davis said. “My daughter and I had that conversation. I asked her, ‘When you fight fire with fire, what happens to the fire?’ She said, ‘It gets bigger.’ And I said, ‘You have to start fighting fire with what’s going to put that fire out: water.’”

On the day Davis and Flannery knelt to recognize the White Coats for Black Lives movement, a colleague took a photo of them. His head is bowed as he holds a sign that reads “White Coats for Black Lives.” Davis’s head is lowered, too, and her fist is held high in the air.

Davis posted the photo on social media in the hours after the silent protest. In that post, she wrote: “Today, I got to kneel with this doctor who believes my voice and life matter. I watched him turn his hands to God and pray for a better world for me, his clinical supervisor and his patients. It gave me the strength to raise a fist to be proud of the Black woman and nurse God made me and called me to be. I am proud to say I work for an organization that prides itself on diversity and inclusion and has gone above and beyond to help me and others that look like me know that we matter!”

Davis recognizes the social justice work is not done. At the same time, she takes pride in the fact that her organization is taking a stand, in public and powerful ways.

“At Novant Health, they see a patient. They don’t see a Black patient. When I come to work at Novant Health, they see a nurse. They don’t see a Black nurse. They embrace that part of me, and it makes me really happy to be part of this team,” Davis said.

Support the work of Davis and other front-line workers like her.

A donation to the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation allows us to support vital patient care, as well as to support workers who spend every day fighting to ensure those patients lead long, healthy lives. Join us and make your gift today.

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The legacy of Caroline Comly

How one family turned a tragic loss into a mission to support physicians and families at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center

John and Ginny Comly met in Romare Bearden Park, back when it was a gravel parking lot.

John was leaving work late. Ginny had just gone for a swim at the gym and couldn’t start her car.

“I wasn’t exactly a knight in shining armor, but I was someone with jumper cables,” John recalled with a laugh.

In the years since that chance encounter, John and Ginny have built a life together. They got married, moved to Washington, D.C., and then back to Charlotte and started a family. Their son, Robert, will be 11 in September. Their daughter, Katherine, turns 9 that same month. And this fall, they will honor the memory and legacy of their daughter, Caroline, with the opening of Caroline’s Corner within Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

“One of the important things for me, and the reason I want it to be called Caroline’s Corner, is that, in 20 years, people will still be saying her name. To me that’s an important thing,” John said. “I also hope it will take little things off people’s plate, both the caregivers and their families. I hope it will make their experience less trying than it already is.”

Unfortunately, it’s an experience the Comly family knows well.

Baby Caroline was born four weeks early, in January of 2018. Despite arriving sooner than expected, she was happy and healthy. Two days after she was born, the new baby was home with her brother and sister.  

“We have some awesome videos of them coming home — Katherine being so over the moon about being a big sister, some really special pictures of the kids holding her,” John said. 

Then, on Super Bowl Sunday, Caroline slept through a meal. That alone seemed strange. Then, Ginny had trouble waking Caroline to feed. John hoped it was normal. Ginny felt strongly it wasn’t. She drove Caroline to the Novant Health Hemby Children’s Emergency Department.

From the emergency room, Caroline was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). Ginny and John didn’t know what was happening, why their daughter was sick. Eventually, a spinal tap confirmed it was bacterial meningitis — an extremely rare condition — that had found its way into Caroline’s central nervous system.

“We were so thrown off by the diagnosis,” Ginny said. “There were so many unknowns, and the medical team would be hopeful at one point that she would come out of it. And then she’d seize again.”

Caroline was put into a medically induced coma as the medical team tried to figure out a way to fight her illness. But a CT scan revealed the situation was far worse than they thought. Caroline had lost all neurological function. She was breathing only with the help of machines. Five days after she came to the hospital, Caroline passed away.

In the wake of tragedy, it can be hard to find meaning. But the Comlys have found it, in part in serving those who served them during the toughest time of their lives.

“You have so much time together with the caretakers who have now become friends and supporters, and we realized they didn’t really have a space to go to talk, to get any sort of peace, to recharge,” Ginny said. “I know they’ve been on call for 24 hours, but where have they slept? It was pretty obvious that these caretakers are so vital in your experience in the PICU, and yet they don’t have a place to go to recharge.”

So John and Ginny built one within the pediatric intensive care unit. There’s a couch and a TV, a coffee maker and a computer. It’s a simple, dedicated space for the people who do so much for the patients and families in the PICU.

“I think for all the positive stories they get to experience, there’s so much heartbreak,” John said. “Their job is as much of a calling as anything else. You think about people who run into harm’s way. These people aren’t running into battlefields with bullets, but they’re running into the most painful emotional environment every day with the hope of fixing a few of them, and that’s pretty special.”

But helping the caregivers wasn’t enough. The Comlys’ experience in the PICU showed them all the issues that families face when medical crises hit.

“We were blessed that we had family here so we had people bringing us clothes and food. The nurses would let us sneak in and use the shower in rooms that were being turned over. But you’re sort of cobbling all this together, and we thought, ‘There’s got to be another way,’” John said. 

To that end, the Comlys have spearheaded the construction of Caroline’s Corner, a dedicated space within Presbyterian Medical Center for families with loved ones in the PICU. When it opens this fall, it will feature soft seating, TVs, work stations, food service, a shower, laundry — everything families need when they can’t go home because their loved ones are fighting for their lives. Through a partnership with the Ronald McDonald House, there will also be volunteers on hand to help families with whatever they need.

“What we really wanted was just a peaceful place that had peaceful colors — to make it warm, comfortable, as much like home as possible,” Ginny said. “I was thinking about a way to make it not feel like a hospital but to make it feel like a place where your mind could take you somewhere peaceful.”

That mission is reflected in the tagline for the space: “Care, comfort and hope.”

“That’s what we view as the ultimate goal because having a child in the PICU is a life experience where there is little, if any, comfort and hope,” John said. “When Caroline died, it became more of a mission that we wanted to do this and to do it in her name. And this can hopefully be part of a number of legacies that she’s able to leave even though she’s not with us.”

Those legacies are taking shape at home, too.

“We always celebrate her birthday. She’s interned at our church, and we’ll go there as a family on Sundays and holidays,” John said. “Her room is no longer a nursery, but it’s a bedroom and sometimes the kids sleep there at night. There’s a garden outside the window of her room that we put together in her honor, and we hang her stocking at Christmas.”

All of that helps keep Caroline’s memory alive and well, just as Caroline’s Corner will when it opens this fall.

“It really has been part of our grief process,” Ginny said. “There is an outlet there that takes a little bit of the tragedy away and helps us create something beautiful and hopeful and comforting.”

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‘We are committed to people’

Steven Limentani, MD, on how Novant Health is changing the face of cancer care

Imagine a visit to the doctor without a stop in the waiting room.

The concept is almost unheard of as waiting has become almost a standard at clinics and healthcare facilities across the U.S. But Steven Limentani, MD, believes there can be a better way — a healthcare experience without that uncomfortable and lengthy stop on the way to receiving care.

“The length of time you’re kept waiting is directly proportional to the size of the waiting room, so one of my pet peeves is big waiting rooms,” said Limentani, the chief scientific officer for Novant Health and the leader of all cancer services across the Novant Health system. “We were having a planning meeting a couple of years ago, and I looked at the group and said, ‘Why do we need waiting rooms? Why don’t we do away with them and figure out how to have patients arrive for a visit and immediately go to their first site of care?’”

Now, he’s watching that vision come to life in the building that will house the Novant Health John M. and Claudia W. Belk Heart & Vascular Institute, as well as the Novant Health Edward I. and Agnes B. Weisiger Cancer Institute. When it opens this fall, there be no waiting room. Instead, patients will spend their time receiving care, treatments, integrative therapies, screenings and consultations.

“The reason I continue to do what I do is because I want to be involved in changing the face of cancer care and making it better for patients,” Limentani said.

The new Novant Health Weisiger Cancer Institute is a perfect case in point: In addition to the no-wait policy, the institute has strategically placed infusion on the top floor of the building, surrounded by glass walls that offer a view of Charlotte’s skyline. Also available will be on-site integrative treatments such as acupuncture, massage and other therapies that help patients fight cancer, all offered at the SherryStrong Integrative Medicine Oncology Clinic. A developmental therapeutics unit will conduct research on novel agents to help identify new treatments and breakthrough therapies.

”We’ve created an environment that will be warm, while at the same time being technically competent. When you develop a cancer center, the high quality of care must be a given, but the other components of what we do are the secret sauce,” Limentani said.

That work isn’t just happening in Charlotte. The Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center provides top-quality care in Winston-Salem, and the Novant Health Wallace Cancer Institute in Salisbury, North Carolina, is nearly complete and slated to open in August.

“We strive to have full-service clinics in places other than center city Charlotte. For some highly specialized services, people may need to go downtown, but generally, we will do as much of the care as possible close to the patient’s home. Most systems would not go to that length, but we are,” Limentani said. 

It’s a philosophy that embodies the kind of servant leadership Limentani has applied throughout his career, including most recently during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 was truly a profound challenge in the sense that we were, in very short order, faced with a situation where our patients who are often immunocompromised were at increased risk to develop a viral infection that was poorly understood,” Limentani said.

“At the same time, we had patients who were in the middle of treatment for whom we needed to continue to provide care. We also knew there was the risk that if a provider or a nurse got infected, we might have to shut down a clinic and not have the opportunity to provide care in that location,” he said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we created an environment where the people doing the care would not be exposed to a whole team of other people — where, if one team went down, we would have a whole other team to provide care.”

In addition, Limentani took to hosting transparent and honest daily meetings with his team.  

“Very early on, you saw everyone saying, ‘We must’ and then they would fill in the blank as if they knew the answers. I took a different approach,” he said. “I said, ‘This is what we think. This is the best data we have available. I may be coming back to you tomorrow to say that what we have decided today has changed, but here’s what we think the best approach is. Let’s get feedback and see if it makes sense.’ As a result, our patients continued to be treated, and the feedback we got was that they felt safe.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways unprecedented, it was not unfamiliar territory for Limentani. As a young doctor in the 1980s, he worked at the largest HIV hospital in Boston.

“There are many things about COVID-19 that are similar to what, at the time, we didn’t even call HIV. We didn’t understand transmission. We thought that if you got it, you were dead. So in the early days of COVID-19, to me, it was almost like déjà vu,” he said. “When you’re in an environment like this, the good news is, if you have high-quality individuals, most of them step up.”

That’s what happened across the cancer centers in the Novant Health system, Limentani said.

“Our commitment to the patient is that, when they walk through the door, they’re going to get the best, most advanced treatment,” Limentani said. “But that’s only a portion of the equation. What we always have to remember is that we’re taking care of people. A patient is not their diagnosis. If Jane Doe has a cancer diagnosis, that doesn’t make Jane Doe the cancer. She has a cancer that we need to help her beat.”

Limentani has found that kind of patient focus comes naturally within the walls of Novant Health. 

“This is a place where we actually value all the people within the system. When we use ‘team member’ or ‘teammates,’ we really mean it. When we use the word ‘remarkable,’ we really mean it, and we’re committed to it,” he said. “What I think I’ve been most impressed by within Novant Health overall is that, from the top down, we are committed to people.”

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His mom made him do it

Gary Niess, MD, on the origins of his cardiology career and what the future holds for cardiac patients in Charlotte

Somewhere in the recesses of the internet is a video of Gary Niess, MD, giving an interview as part of a promotional campaign for Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.

In the video, the interviewer asks Niess, now the senior vice president of the Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute, why he decided to become a doctor. In a moment of levity, Niess offers a simple answer.

“My mom told me to.”

The remark was intended to be a joke, but as with all jokes, it contains a kernel of truth. Growing up, Niess had a younger brother who was born with a congenital heart defect. Doctors told their family he wouldn’t live to be 8. But in the years after his birth, researchers developed a heart operation that gave him years of life. Age 8 came and went, and his brother lived well into his 40s, eventually passing away due to causes unrelated to a bad heart.

Niess remembers those doctors’ visits, especially how his mother would push him into the room to watch the physicians in action. It made an impact, and when Niess returned to Charlotte after medical school, he joined Presbyterian Medical Center. He has been “a loyal Presby doctor” ever since.

“It turns out, our mothers have an inordinate influence on our lives,” Niess said with a laugh.

In his time at Presbyterian Medical Center, Niess has been part of some significant milestones. He performed the second heart catheterization ever done at the hospital. He has treated and counseled patients and families across the community. And in time, as his physician colleagues saw it, he became “a suit” — part of the Novant Health administration — which took him out of regular practice and put him into opportunities that allow him to transform care at a broader level.

The new building that will house the John M. and Claudia W. Belk Heart & Vascular Institute, as well as the Edward I. and Agnes B. Weisiger Cancer Institute, will be a perfect example when it opens later this year.

“We’re going to have cardiac rehab there, dietary services, cooking classes, recovery — all of it bright and shiny and new and high-tech,” Niess said. “It’s just invigorating to go into a new space full of new opportunities.”

The new building will also create more opportunities for direct collaboration with Novant Health’s cancer specialists, Niess said.

“Cancer creates a whole collage of potential problems for the cardiovascular system, either from the cancer itself or the treatment of it,” Niess said. “So having patients jointly managed by cardiology and cancer is very important.”

The efficiency of a shared location also plays an important role in the patient journey, Niess said. 

“Regina Hartung, my previous business partner, once tracked a patient’s journey with a pedometer for the full process of all of their treatments, between cancer and getting heart studies. The total was something like 10,000 steps. That’s a worthy goal on a daily basis — unless you have cancer. Then, it’s a nightmare,” Niess said. “The beauty of this center is that there won’t have to be this long, complicated journey because we’ll be cohabitating. As a result, the facilities and the synergies will be much better for patients.”

While the new institute will create opportunities for better care, Niess knows healthcare providers are facing unprecedented challenges. Although the country has begun to reopen, the COVID-19 pandemic has come with a dangerous side effect: Many people are reluctant to receive the lifesaving care they need.

“We want patients to know you’re safe. You are much safer at Novant Health than you are at your grocery store. However, patients know that COVID-positive people go to the hospital. We isolate those areas completely, and that message is out there. But it is changing how people perceive healthcare,” Niess said. “People aren’t coming to us. We are wide open for business, and yet we aren’t seeing many of the sick patients who only get worse at home without care.”

Statistics across the country show that people with a variety of non-COVID-related ailments are avoiding care in the current healthcare environment. Some of them are waiting too long to visit the emergency room, delaying critical medical interventions for issues such as strokes and heart attacks. Some are dying at home.

“The number of people coming in with heart attacks has dropped significantly, and it’s not like stress is less. The things that make you have a heart attack haven’t gone away, but people are coming in less and less. And that’s because they’re either dying at home or toughing it out at home,” Niess said. “If they’re willing to tough out a heart attack at home, you can understand why they wouldn’t come in for other acute and serious problems.”

Niess also understands that fear may not be the only factor at play. The pandemic is stripping many people of their jobs, and without jobs, there is no health insurance or ability to pay for lifesaving medical care.

“People are having to make choices now that they’re out of work. They’re in this terrible dilemma of, ‘Do I lose my healthcare or my mortgage?’” he said.

That’s part of the reason why Niess has been so loyal to Novant Health for so long: It’s a not-for-profit health system with a commitment to providing remarkable care to everyone, regardless of an ability to pay.

“Our dedication to continually keeping an eye on the underserved is another huge piece that is even more important in the COVID world. They are not getting the same level of care as the insured,” Niess said. “At Novant Health, we’ve been testing those patients free of charge. That’s a reason to be proud of Novant Health. It’s not cheap providing free care, and at a time when revenues to hospitals are plummeting and the red ink is just flowing, maintaining that dedication to serving everyone equally is so important.”

You can do your part to support those efforts.

With a gift to the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation, your contributions allow us to continue providing remarkable care throughout our community, regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. And, as Dr. Niess explains, that’s more important now than ever before.

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The power of food in a time of need

How one gift is pulling double duty, providing meals for front-line workers while supporting hard-hit local businesses

Good food brings people together. So does the mission of saving lives. Wallace & Graham PA has found an innovative way to combine the two while supporting local Salisbury restaurants. 

Since April 1, the Salisbury-based law practice has provided lunches for about 25 team members at the respiratory assessment center at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, where drive-by COVID-19 testing is being conducted. The meals have come primarily from small businesses in downtown Salisbury, such as Sidewalk Deli and Go Burrito.

“It certainly made sense that they not have to go out in the middle of their shifts and try to worry about what they’re eating or drinks or whatever they might need,” said Mona Lisa Wallace, a partner at Wallace & Graham. “We decided that this would be a wonderful project for us to support them — providing their meals during this time when they are giving so much of themselves, while also helping downtown Salisbury and the local restaurants who have been suffering financially because of COVID-19.”

The meals have been a welcome morale boost for the staff, who are performing dozens of tests a day in all kinds of weather conditions. Many are living away from home to avoid spreading the virus to their families. To date, their gift has totaled more than $10,000.

“This is a big stress reducer and an opportunity for team members to have levity and fun during their break,” said Rick Parker, executive director of the Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Foundation. “We really appreciate Wallace & Graham volunteering to do this.”

The firm has deep roots in Rowan County and with the Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Foundation. It also has a keen interest in medical screening in the community. “It’s always been a goal of ours to improve healthcare and to make it more affordable for people in this county,” Wallace said.

Notably, the firm and the Wallace family provided the lead gifts in the foundation’s ongoing capital campaign to build a state-of-the-art treatment center that consolidates all Novant Health Rowan Medical Center cancer services into one beautiful facility at a convenient location. The Wallace Cancer Institute, which is slated to open its doors in August, will provide leading-edge treatment and personalized, patient-centered care, particularly for women with breast cancer.

“The Wallace Cancer Institute is going to be a magnet for cancer treatment in our community, in that you can stay local and receive the best care in the country,” said Bill Graham, a partner at Wallace & Graham and chairman of the Rowan Medical Center Foundation Board. “Here, you’re going to be a name and a person, not a number.”


Breaking down barriers

Stacy Sawyers is paving a path to care for cancer patients in need

Stacy Sawyers’ work puts her face to face with patients at one of the most challenging times of their lives. They’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, and yet, for various complex reasons, they are unable to get the care they need to wage a battle against the disease.

Sometimes they can’t afford the medication they’ve been prescribed. Sometimes they can’t pay for the gas it takes to drive to and from their treatments. Sometimes they’ve lost jobs and their access to health insurance.

Sawyers calls them barriers. She’s a cancer services support specialist at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center’s Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center, and her job is to help patients overcome them, leveraging generous donations to provide the financial support necessary to push them forward in their cancer journey.

“It’s almost like being Santa Claus every day because I get to swoop in and take care of a barrier or remove a fear because of blessings from others,” Sawyers said.

Those blessings come courtesy of four different funds, established by private donors to help uninsured, under-insured and underserved patients pay for medication, travel, lodging and other household expenses: the Evans-Hopkins Fund, which is earmarked to support Kernersville-area patients who are being treated for breast cancer; the Andrew Griffin Fund, which is designated for urology patients; the Lee Simstein Memorial Fund, created to honor the work of Dr. Lee Simstein; and the Rebekah Fund, established in honor of Dr. Dawn Moose and focused on ensuring cancer patients have access to critical dental care.  

Sawyers can access those funds to support patients, but that doesn’t mean what she does is easy. She often finds herself working with patients who are reluctant to receive help. For many, they don’t want to admit they can’t afford the care they need on their own.

Before COVID-19, Sawyers would ease their concerns and work to overcome the stigma in person.

“It was all face to face: Sit down, have a conversation, meet them on day one when they have no idea what’s around the corner and everybody’s worried about money. I get them to take a deep breath, and I tell them I’ll be next to them. I don’t have the answer to everything, but we’ll work through it together,” Sawyers said.

In the thick of the pandemic, those conversations had to happen by phone — a key difference for Sawyers.

“Even though I can have the same conversations, the eye contact or the pat on the shoulder really helps. It’s a lot easier to get someone to understand that I’m not judging them because they can’t afford their car payment when we’re talking face to face,” she said.

As the country has begun to open up, Sawyers is back in the cancer center, albeit 6 feet from her patients and hidden behind a mask. But she’ll take it, if it means getting back in front of the people who need her — because the need persists, in ways Sawyers couldn’t comprehend before she started this work.

Take, for instance, the Rebekah Fund. Originally, it was intended to serve head and neck cancer patients who must have dental evaluations before receiving radiation or chemotherapy. If they don’t have a healthy mouth, those treatments will create more damage to the mouth and the jawbone, Sawyers said. The preventive measure in those cases is removing teeth — in some cases, all of them.

“So not only have these patients been told they have cancer and that they need chemo and radiation, but there’s now a good chance they’ll have some of their teeth removed,” Sawyers said. 

Those extractions are expensive.

“As staggering as this sounds, it is very easy to see — hold onto your seats — a $10,000 or more bill for those services. I have one patient who showed me his bill, and it was over $27,000. The average is $15,000, and there are a minimum of 12 patients a year who will need that money,” Sawyers said. “It is certainly an under-met need.”

And, as it turns out, it extends beyond just head and neck patients, which Sawyer learned recently when she met a 72-year-old patient with metastatic breast cancer. The woman couldn’t start a medication that would ease her pain and help her bone metastasis because it would kill her jawbone.

“I called her and talked to her and immediately fell in love with her. She talked about how she made sure her kids had good teeth and her husband had good teeth, but she never took care of herself,” Sawyers said.

The patient needed nine teeth pulled but couldn’t afford it. Sawyers got to work on a solution. She collaborated with Heather Egan, chief development officer of Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation, to ensure the donors behind the Rebekah Fund would agree to expand the scope of the fund. Then, she sent the patient to a dentist, who made it possible for her to begin taking the medication that will strengthen her bones and improve her quality of life.

And when the $2,600 bill came, Sawyers covered it, with donations from the Rebekah Fund.

“When we told the patient, she cried. She couldn’t believe that someone would do that for her,” Sawyers said. “The dentist emailed me after her visit and told me she was great. And I know he treated her like a queen.”

That was a good day, and those are the days that keep Sawyers going.

“Some days I come home and I just sit and stare for awhile, but typically I come home better than when I went to work because I receive a blessing from passing blessings on,” Sawyers said. “I just want our patients to know they are not alone. They have a champion.”

You can support that work with a donation to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation.

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