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A lifelong advocate for health

New cancer survivorship fund honors Rick Parker

For 39 years, Rick Parker has dedicated his career to improving healthcare for others and connecting generous donors to Novant Health’s mission to deliver remarkable care throughout the communities it serves. When he retires at the end of 2020 from his role as executive director of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Foundation, he will conclude a career that began entirely by accident. Literally.

When Parker was a sophomore in college, he was involved in a motorcycle accident and suffered a compound fracture in his leg. He was hospitalized for six weeks in two facilities, where doctors put him in traction. Eighteen months passed before he was able to walk again.

Through that experience, Parker came to understand and value the importance of quality healthcare. With his newly gained perspective, he started his professional journey, and it’s a move he never regretted.

“The healthcare industry is one of the most cognitively stimulating industries in the world,” Parker said. “It’s just a fascinating business. I truly woke up every day — and I still do — excited about coming to work because there’s just so many different opportunities to keep you motivated, both intellectually and emotionally.”

Parker joined Rowan Memorial Hospital in 1981 to launch a patient advocacy program. Over the next several decades, he adapted to various roles and responsibilities to keep up with the changing times. He worked with professional and support services, such as imaging, pharmacy, laboratory, environmental, dietary, discharge planning just to name a few among many other functions of the hospital.

“I just kept taking on additional duties — sometimes responsibilities other people did not want to deal with,” Parker said.

In 2013, Rowan Medical Center Foundation needed a new executive director, and Parker was ready for the challenge. The role provided him with an opportunity he’d always wanted: to help the community in a focused way. He was nervous about fundraising early on, but it came naturally to him.

“I started my careergoing down the road of, ‘How can I help the community have better healthcare?’” Parker said. “So, I never felt like I was really asking anybody for any money. I was just asking people if they wanted to participate in something that would be a game changer.”

Throughout his tenure, Parker helped Novant Health raise money for the first residential hospice facility in Rowan County and for 3D mammography technology to improve breast health services. One shining example of Parker’s work has been the Novant Health Wallace Cancer Institute, which opened in 2020. The facility brings research, treatment, prevention and rehabilitation together under one roof, easing some of the stressors oncology patients and their families endure. Parker said he is happy to retire having helped bring such a valuable resource to the community. The way the project came together was just, as he puts it, “magical.”

“I’ve done a lot of projects over the years, and this one had no flaws whatsoever,” Parker said. “When we started construction, it did not rain for five months. Normally when you start construction, it feels like a rainy season begins, and you get behind. We did not get behind on this project. In fact, we built a 32,000-square-foot facility and opened it in 12 and a half months. It’s just unheard of.”

For Parker, the philanthropic role has led him to partner with people who already had a passion for healthcare and simply needed his guidance on how to impact the community. He remembers receiving an unexpected donation of $500,000. It was a moment that took his breath away.

“I was shocked,” Parker said. “I raised the roof after I hung up the phone that day.”

Today, Novant Health Foundation has a surprise of its own: the launch of a new Cancer Survivor Fund to honor Parker. Because fighting cancer often creates financial strains for patients and families, the Cancer Survivor Fund will provide financial assistance to cancer patients receiving care at the Wallace Cancer Institute. The fund will help these community members cover the cost of necessities such as housing, utilities, transportation and nutritional supplements.

As Parker reflects on his time with Novant Health, he is grateful for the opportunity to serve his team members and the community.

“I’m forever grateful to Novant health,” Parker said. “I’ve really enjoyed becoming part of this remarkable healthcare team.”

As far as what is next, Parker is looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren and enjoying outdoor adventures. He recently inherited his father’s Harley Davidson motorcycle, and he has begun to enjoy the open roads again.

“I always thought, if I got to the end of my life and I was asked, ‘Were you able to help one person and expect nothing in return?’ would I be able to answer that question?” Parker said. “I can answer ‘yes’ now.”

You now have an opportunity to help those in need and honor Rick Parker and his legacy of impact in his community Through a donation to the Cancer Survivor Fund, you can help survivors and families enjoy life again, free from cancer and financial stress. Make your gift today.

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‘This is a human push’

Why Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown gives — to her patients, the community and her team members at Novant Health

From as early as she can remember, Ophelia Garmon-Brown, MD, has wanted to be a doctor.

Her inspiration stemmed from personal tragedy: She lost her father to encephalitis at the age of 2, and by the age of 4, she told her family she wanted to “save all the daddies” because no one should have to grow up without a father. The experience gave her clarity. She knew exactly what she was going to be when she grew up.

And that’s exactly what she became.

Dr. Garmon-Brown’s family nurtured that passion for helping others. When they moved from the inner city of Detroit to eastern North Carolina, the closest full-service hospital was 45 miles away in Greenville. For some in the community, getting to that hospital was a struggle so Dr. Garmon-Brown’s aunt, Mamie would drive those in need to Greenville, stay with them through their appointments and then drive them back home.  Many of those folks would “pay” her with a chicken or produce.

Dr. Garmon-Brown learned that helping others was never considered a chore. It was just the right thing to do.

Those early experiences set the tone for Dr. Garmon-Brown’s 40-year career in the medical field. Now, as the senior vice president and chief community health and wellness officer at Novant Health, she is focused on health equity, ensuring all members of our community have access to remarkable care that addresses the unique needs of every patient.

“We really do have to do things differently for different types of people,” Dr. Garmon-Brown said. “A lot of times our healthcare providers will say, ‘I treat everybody equally.’ But equal care may not be what people need because those who have not had access to care for a long time, may need things done differently to achieve health equity.

Dr. Garmon-Brown has worked with Novant Health to set up a Healthy Equity Fund at Novant Health designed to help with the social determinants of health. She and her colleagues have found that 10 to 20% of what helps a patient is what they learn in the doctor’s office. The rest of their wellness is determined by outside factors, including environment, socioeconomic status and education.

The Health Equity Fund attempts to address those factors by taking a holistic approach to health and wellness, providing access to everything from financial assistance to transportation services to resources that enhance health education for patients and their families.

“What we hope to do with the Health Equity Fund is to be able to bridge gaps for people who are trying very hard to do their best, but they need help,” Dr. Garmon-Brown said.

Dr. Garmon-Brown’s passion for helping others extends to her colleagues. She pays attention to her teammates and encourages them to take care of each other so they can better serve their communities. She also contributes to Giving. Serving. Together, Novant Health’s team member giving campaign — a commitment she has maintained for many years.

“I have been amazed at how many of our team members come to work every day and give remarkable care but are struggling: struggling to pay the rent, struggling to have transportation, struggling to get their food, struggling in so many various ways,” she said. “The Giving. Serving. Together campaign allows us to help those team members in a real way. This is not a corporate push. This is a human push. This is a teammate push. This is a community push. Because we know, as we push together, we can push ourselves up an incredible hill and make a difference in the lives of others.”

Dr. Garmon-Brown is also giving back through a book she co-authored, “The Unexpected Gift: Profiles in Courage from Cancer Survivorship.” The book tells the story of those who gave back to their communities while they had cancer, offering a message of hope for those struggling with chronic and severe illnesses. A percentage of the proceeds of all book sales will support the Health Equity Fund at Novant Health.

“As a family doctor, I would say to my patients with cancer that cancer can be a gift,” Dr. Garmon-Brown said. “Cancer gives us the opportunity to know that maybe our lives will be shortened, and we can go out and do the things that we need to do and to find a silver lining in something that’s so difficult.”

For Dr. Garmon-Brown, that silver lining has been service to others. While that can take the form of a financial contribution, it doesn’t have to.

“A dollar, if that’s what you can do, is wonderful,” Dr. Garmon-Brown said. “But it’s not just about your money. It’s about your time. It’s about your talent. Whatever you have a passion for. How can you help to make a difference? It may be volunteering with our youth. It may be volunteering in our community. It may be all sorts of different things that you love doing. Whatever it is, find it and make that your gift.”

You, too, can make a difference in the lives of others with a contribution to Novant Health Foundation.

Your gifts help ensure that our commitment to remarkable care continues and that it reaches across our communities to all those in need. Join us, and make your gift today.

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In pursuit of excellence

Bernie Washington on how her ‘fire to thrive’ is making a powerful impact on Novant Health

For as long as Bernie Washington can remember, she has had a standing weekly dinner date with her mother. During those dinners, they talk about life and goals and planning, and the ritual is as important for Washington now as it was when she was a child.

“Those dinners helped me to mature at a young age,” said Washington, senior director and deputy chief of staff at Novant Health. “I have strong, courageous women in my life, and my mom and grandmother taught me to march to the beat of my own drum and live life with intention and grace. I’ve always been committed to excellence and to providing the most value I can, no matter the challenge.”

That pursuit of excellence has had a direct and valuable impact on Novant Health.

Washington first joined the organization in 2010, working in community and corporate relations. She accepted a leadership role with the Charlotte Hornets in 2013 and then returned to Novant Health in 2016 as director of operations for Novant Health Foundation.

“I deeply enjoy working for Novant Health, and I was able to continue to work under the leadership of Kim Henderson, who is senior vice president and system chief of staff,” she said. “I believe in and model Novant Health’s culture and mission. Being able to contribute to both in meaningful ways and support our vision and strategy for healthier and stronger communities is important to me.”

When she returned to Novant Health, Washington spearheaded the launch of a digital presence for the foundation, including the development of, the launch of several social media platforms and the creation of a robust marketing and communications strategy.

“My objective was to establish foundational capabilities and processes so our foundation system could optimize for the future. I consider digital products to be critical capabilities, and at the time, we didn’t have any,” Washington said. “Once the foundation’s site and social media platforms launched, my team and I were proud of how our work elevated the presence of the foundation and increased connectivity with donors, patients and team members. The response from our foundation leaders and our donors was especially rewarding.”

To ensure continued success, Washington and her team monitored the new website over the course of the next year, analyzing the data to understand how the digital presence was performing and to identify areas where it could be improved.

“It wasn’t a matter of launching the website so we could move onto the next thing. It was about constantly evolving it, continuing to nip, tuck, adjust and improve,” Washington said.

The results spoke for themselves.

“When we met for our one-year evaluation of the performance of the site, I was thrilled to report it had received 20,000 visits. We processed more than 900 online gift transactions and gained 500 new donors,” Washington said. “Launching the online giving presence expanded our options for giving. These days, that’s what donors have come to expect.”

A little more than a year after launching the foundation’s digital presence, Washington took on her current role as senior director and deputy chief of staff at Novant Health. In this position, she has witnessed firsthand the unexpected effects of COVID-19 and the strength of Novant Health’s leadership teams in their response and navigation of the crisis.

“Throughout the pandemic, the health and safety of our patients and team members have been our No. 1 priority,” Washington said. 

That approach was felt most immediately on the front lines, with team members manning testing sites and emergency rooms across the health system. To help stop the spread of COVID-19, Novant Health’s corporate offices transitioned to virtual work for the remainder of 2020. Support and resources, from child care to short-term lodging and financial assistance to support groups, were made available to all Novant Health team members, so they can take care of themselves and their family during the pandemic.

“It is a great feeling to work for an organization you know will support you during tough times and an even better feeling to know the organization you work for prepared for times like these and can flip a switch to make these benefits available and this new way of working possible,” Washington said. “We didn’t skip a beat. Instead, we rallied together, adjusted our focus and became better, faster and stronger, which speaks to the dynamic leadership at Novant Health.” 

At the same time, COVID-19 put some of Washington’s initiatives on hold. For one, she designed a new rounding program for the Novant Health board of trustees. The program was expected to debut earlier this year and allow the trustees to round at all Novant Health facilities as part of an effort to gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening across all markets and to show appreciation for physicians, nurses and team members. When COVID-19 hit, it put the program on pause for the foreseeable future.

But Washington is embracing setbacks as opportunities to rethink the status quo and evolve.

“I’ve always embraced change, no matter the cause. I innately look for the opportunities that come with change, and this mindset has served me well. COVID-19 has presented opportunities to be innovative and creative. It has presented opportunities to stretch, build stronger bonds and be a better partner,” Washington said. “A crisis either makes you or breaks you, and I am proud to say I am part of a team of people who, when the going gets tough, they step up together.”

That team is comprised of other strong leaders in the Novant Health family who learn from and support each other.  

“I’m lucky to report to a leader who has always given me creative freedom,” Washington said. “Kim creates an environment where big ideas are welcome. Neither one of us particularly cares for the status quo. Over the past 10 years, she’s always given me a runway to develop new programs, design new processes and oversee unique projects. I respect the partnership we’ve built, and I do not take it for granted.”

Washington chooses to remain optimistic about what the future holds and focus on ending the year with a bang. In addition to her daily operations, she’s been collaborating with Novant Health Medical Group leadership on a physician governance project that has made great progress and continues to gain momentum. She and her team are planning for a normal 2021, even though they may have to adjust. But in her words, “It’s better to be prepared than behind the ball.”

“The trusted advisors in my life – my parents being at the top – have encouraged me to go through life with a great attitude,” she said. “I get my work ethic from my dad, and I’ll never forget the day he told me, ‘Life is 5% what happens to you and 95% how you respond.’ Those are words I live by every day.”

In unprecedented times, we all need to do our part to step up.

You can show your support for Novant Health with a donation to Novant Health Foundation. Your contributions make it possible for us to provide remarkable care throughout every community we serve. Join us and make your gift today.

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Behind the masks: Meet our supply chain superheroes

How Mark Welch and his team kept protective supplies strong amid the COVID-19 pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the need for personal protective equipment, or PPE, skyrocketed across the country. Healthcare facilities everywhere found themselves scrambling to outfit providers with the masks, gowns and gloves needed to treat their patients.

Long before the pandemic, though, Mark Welch was getting ready.

Welch is the senior vice president of supply chain at Novant Health. In a normal world, his job involves making sure Novant Health team members across the system have what they need, when they need it and in the most cost-effective way possible.

During a pandemic, he quickly learned that, while the nature of the job remains the same, the speed and intensity go into “hyper mode.”

“We have great data systems, and we know how to plan and account for the amount of PPE we need for each team member on a normal basis. When we start talking about an unpredictable pandemic and the exponential demand for these products, the challenge becomes, where am I going to get enough supply to maintain this level of utilization and then some?” Welch said.

As Welch and his team members monitored the news of the virus outbreak and rapid spread in China, Welch took note and caution. He didn’t know what would come of it, but he started building up Novant Health inventories, just in case. A few months later, when COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S., Welch understood immediately a padded inventory would not be enough.

“What we feared was a situation in which team members would start worrying about not having enough masks, and all the different departments would start ordering as much as they possibly could,” Welch said. “Even though the ideal was to provide face masks and gowns to everyone, we knew we could not sustain that approach. So, in partnership with the clinical team, we built and allocated our supply using more scientific ways and studying the areas that would be most exposed. Because of that conservation and partnership, it allowed us time to build our inventories up even more than what we already had.”

In the old normal, Novant Health team members would use 75,000 to 100,000 N95 masks a year. Now, Welch is buying 500,000 at a time, enough to overwhelm Novant Health’s existing 150,000-plus square feet of warehouse space. Welch’s team had to rent another 50,000-square-foot warehouse just to store the critical inventory.

From those storage facilities, PPE is distributed across the Novant Health system, with shipments to each hospital at least four times a week.

“We had a command center for supply chain, and we were tracking pallets of supplies — where they were coming from and how much we were sending out. It probably took us about six weeks before we got into a good cadence, and we started early,” Welch said. “Now, we have good quantities on hand, and we have a good flow of product. With some of our supplies, we could probably make it to next summer before running low.”

The impact of that work has been profound for those working on the front lines, said Denise Mihal, executive vice president and chief nursing and clinical operations officer for Novant Health.

“Mark Welch and the entire supply chain team have kept our team members and patients safe,” Mihal said. “We had the PPE needed to protect our front line, and that was a huge relief as we managed all of the other stressors of caring for COVID-19 patients and our communities.”

A key element to this supply chain success has been Welch’s alignment with senior leaders at Novant Health. Scott Myers, senior vice president of corporate finance at Novant Health, helped Welch secure the funds necessary to make large-scale purchases, often in record time. And when Novant Health President and CEO Carl Armato and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Lindsay stood up an emergency management team of senior executives, Welch was in regular contact with them, sharing updates on the state of the most critical supplies. 

“We told leadership where we had concerns. We talked about conservation and availability and what products to be cautious about and what was coming in,” Welch said. “This level of communication and transparency gave our entire team a lot of confidence.”

Another key player in this process was the community, whose contributions were vital, especially in the early days of the pandemic, Welch said. In fact, the volume grew so substantial that Novant Health, in collaboration with Novant Health foundation, established a dedicated hotline and email address to help manage incoming PPE contributions.

“We received donations from Lowe’s, Home Depot, Red Ventures and even small companies. We had a dental association call and say, ‘We’re not practicing right now. We have masks. Can we deliver them to you?’ We took them, and we made sure we used them,” Welch said. “The community response was huge — not only in the donations but in the understanding of the support needed and really wanting to help.”

Even though the pandemic isn’t over, the hard work of Welch and his team has paid off, in the form of substantial stockpiles of critical supplies. It also played a vital role in the ongoing safety of patients and team members, said Dr. Pam Oliver, executive vice president of Novant Health and president of Novant Health Physician Network.

“Our tight connection and constant communication with Mark Welch and our supply chain team allowed us to focus on the complex matters of clinical care. We never had to worry about having the PPE and supplies we needed to keep our teams and patients safe,” Oliver said. “Prior to COVID, many of us took that team for granted as they worked in the background without recognition. We now truly appreciate just how crucial they are to our team and our success.”

Everyone on the supply chain team understands their role in the delivery of remarkable care, and their commitment pushed them to continue their important work, even amid a turbulent and uncertain time, Welch said.

“We talk to our team all the time about how important they are to patient care. If you don’t provide the product to the nurses, they can’t provide care to the patients,” Welch said. “The fact my team members came to work when things were tough demonstrates they know exactly how important they are and how they’re related to direct patient care, and that means a lot, to my leadership team, to our front-line workers and to our clinicians, as well.”

Before the pandemic, Welch’s team was known for saying “yes,” for doing whatever it takes to get things done. During the pandemic, that reputation has only grown.

“That’s the personality of our whole team,” Welch said. “We can figure it out, and we’ll get it done.”

You can do your part to be a “yes,” with a donation to Novant Health foundation.

As Mark Welch put it: “No matter the size of the donation, it will come with appreciation from every Novant Health team member. And you can feel confident that anything you donate will be 100% used for what you intended it for.” Do your part and give 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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‘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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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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Making #CLTStrong

Caroline Elliott is on a mission to feed healthcare workers on the front lines

Since the start of the pandemic, Caroline Elliott has raised more than $85,000 to feed front-line workers in the fight against COVID-19. It’s a campaign that has taken on a life of its own since its launch back in March, gaining momentum, attracting volunteers and making an impact.

The first week in May, it also landed her in the Oval Office of the White House, in a group of her fellow nurses, listening to President Donald Trump sing their collective praises in celebration of National Nurses Day.

“It was wild. It was kind of an out-of-body experience,” Elliott said. “It’s such an honor to be a nurse. The fact that I’m considered in the same category as so many people I’ve met who have these incredible stories is just mind-blowing to me. I’m doing what I can, and that’s important. But as I kept saying over and over at the White House, I definitely don’t deserve this.”

The front-line workers she’s been feeding, as well as the restaurants she’s been able to support in the process, would beg to differ.

Elliott is a fertility nurse. She lives in Charlotte but works remotely for a clinic in Washington, D.C. She is not on the front lines, but she has friends and colleagues who are.

“That’s what sparked my initial urge to do something. I just started to think, ‘What can I do to help?”’ Elliott said.

One of her friends on the West Coast had purchased bagels and coffee for a local hospital, and Elliott decided to do something similar. Healthcare workers need to eat to do their jobs. With cafeterias and restaurants shut down, they have to bring food from home or rely on vending machines with limited options. Elliott thought she could take that worry off their plate, while helping them eat well throughout their shifts.

At the same time, local restaurants needed business as the state-mandated lockdown forced them to close their doors and lay off workers. So Elliott decided to try a campaign that would pull double duty: She’d raise money to buy food from local restaurants, giving them a much-needed revenue boost. Then, she would donate that food to front-line medical workers at facilities across the Charlotte region.

She started out taking donations via Venmo. Within 24 hours, she’d raised $8,000.

“I quickly booked some lunches and some dinners, and it took off from there,” Elliott said. “People heard my story and spread the word. It’s been kind of a whirlwind. We’ve raised a lot of money, had some fun partnerships and worked with some generous, gracious people.”

Those people have given life to the campaign, now known as #CLTStrong, and its mission even when Elliott couldn’t. On the day of her first delivery back in March, she found out she’d been exposed to the coronavirus.

“I was heartbroken,” Elliott said.

Soon, her husband, Frank, tested positive for COVID-19, and while Elliott was never officially tested, she fell ill soon after.

“We had to call on our friends and family and strangers to do our deliveries. Now it’s all strangers — people I’ve never met. That’s one thing I’m really grateful for,” Elliott said. “It’s just complete strangers coming out of the woodwork and wanting to do something to help. Nobody has to do anything, but they are.”

Elliott put herself on self-quarantine for six weeks and relied on the generosity of volunteers to continue deliveries. Local businesses, such as jewelry maker Twine & Twig and Glory Days Apparel, have joined the effort to raise funds. Young Plantations filled her car with 600 bags of cookies.

Those donations have gone out across the healthcare community in Charlotte, including Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. Alex Funderburg, chair of the Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation board of directors, has become one of her champions, and the entire team at Presbyterian Medical Center has been tremendously grateful for the support #CLTStrong has been able to provide.

“Caroline knew a lot of these workers were facing tough hours and putting themselves in harm’s way,” Funderburg said. “Now, the campaign has served thousands of meals to our healthcare workers, and it’s been an entirely grassroots effort.”

At the same time, the money she’s raised has provided critical support for local restaurants. One restaurant owner told her he was able to hire back one of his employees, knowing that a big order was coming from #CLTStrong.

“Now I’m learning about which restaurants really need the help right now, and we’re doing our best to help those places out,” she said.

Even as we edge our way into a new and less restrictive normal, Elliott plans to continue this work, providing meals, helping restaurants and collaborating with others in the community. It’s not her job, but it is part of what being a nurse means to her.

“When I was a pediatric nurse, there were so many nights when I lay in bed with patients and scratched their backs to help them go to sleep. As nurses, we’re constantly stepping in to do whatever is needed to help,” Elliott said. “Throughout all of this, I have not heard one person complain. Everybody is just so eager to get in there and do what they can do.”

She’s seen that same resiliency throughout the broader Charlotte community, as well.

“Everyone has come together. It’s been pretty amazing,” she said.

You can do your part to support front-line healthcare workers with a donation to the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund).

The fund provides critical resources for those workers so they can focus on the important work of helping people and saving lives.

Join us and make your gift today.

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‘Leaders are made in moments like this’

From Hurricane Florence to COVID-19, Rob Stumbo is on a mission to help, no matter what

When you ask Rob Stumbo about the most poignant moment in his nursing career, he takes you back to 2018, when he was standing on the helipad of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center in the hours immediately after Hurricane Florence had battered the surrounding community.

Stumbo had been on lockdown in the hospital with the rest of the medical team for six days while the hurricane raged. The North Carolina National Guard was conducting search-and-rescue missions and then bringing sick or injured patients to the emergency room.

“That was one of the hardest moments, professionally and personally, I ever had to go through,” said Stumbo, a nurse and house supervisor at Brunswick Medical Center. “There was a lot of fear. Everyone has their family in the community and their homes, and we left all that to be at the hospital and to provide for the community.”

Over the course of those six days, a patient came into the hospital who was in bad shape. She had to be placed on a ventilator, and, at a certain point, it became clear that she needed to be moved to a larger healthcare facility. Under normal circumstances, the team would call in a helicopter right away. In a hurricane, they didn’t have that option.

So Stumbo and his team dedicated all the resources they could to stabilize her condition until the hurricane passed. As soon as the storm broke, they sent for a helicopter, which landed at the hospital a short time later.

“I remember being out there when the chopper took her. I remember high-fiving everyone as they flew away. The sun was parting the clouds. It was like a movie,” Stumbo recalled. “It felt like we finally helped her.”

And helping people is all Stumbo has ever wanted to do.

It started when he became an EMT in his early 20s, after a friend had a diabetic seizure right in front of him. Seeing that made him feel helpless, and he hated it.

“I don’t like not knowing what to do,” Stumbo said.

So, he learned. Being an EMT taught him how to respond in a crisis, how to help. Then, when he met his wife, a nurse, she encouraged him to do more. She told him he’d make a great nurse, and he listened. Stumbo got his LPN, his RN, his BSN, and now he’s one month away from receiving his master’s degree in nursing.

“I do feel like nurses are the backbone of healthcare. We’re there for people in their worst moments. These are not experiences those people necessarily want to remember, but we get letters all the time thanking us,” Stumbo said. “It’s been challenging, but we feel a sense of duty. My dad will ask me sometimes how I do what I do, and I tell him, ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’ That’s the attitude that nurses have. We need to step up because we’re willing to be that person.”

Since Stumbo joined Brunswick Medical Center five years ago, he’s had to step up a lot. He’s the youngest house supervisor on staff by more than a decade — a promotion that he considers one of the highlights of his career. But more than that, the past few years have brought some of the most significant challenges the young hospital has ever faced.

Hurricane Florence was one of them. The COVID-19 pandemic is another.

“I was there during several early cases when we suspected COVID-19. It was a very scary time for everyone. We had great backup from our leadership, but no one knew how serious this situation was going to be,” Stumbo said. “When all this was really starting to ramp up, I went to every department and asked if they needed anything. I looked them all in the eye and told them, ‘Whatever happens, we’re going to figure it out.’”

House supervisors are the engine of the hospital, Stumbo said. They ensure everyone and everything stays on track. A big part of that involves making sure team members have a place to turn when they have questions or need assurance.

“I spend a lot of time consoling people,” Stumbo said. “Everything is changing every day, but we’re all in this together. And we really have become a more cohesive unit for the whole facility. It’s amazing to see how we’ve all adapted.”

He’s also been amazed at how different members of his team have risen to the challenge, Stumbo said.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, a man came to the emergency room at Brunswick Medical Center in cardiac arrest. Stumbo and his team didn’t know if he had tested positive for the virus. They just knew he needed help.

“This was very early on, when we were still figuring everything out, and there was no hesitation. Everyone jumped in. We fell right back into our practices of helping, even though at the same time we were taking a huge risk compared to what we were taking two weeks before,” Stumbo said. “The charge nurse risked his life to try and save that patient, and we see that every day with our people. They just care, and that’s the biggest thing that we’ll take away from this. Leaders are made in moments like this.”

Stumbo, too, is among those leading the charge. He’s on the front lines every day, so when he comes home to his wife and four dogs, he leaves his clothes on the front porch and heads straight to the shower. To protect others, he tries not to go anywhere except work and home. And he hasn’t seen his parents or his grandmother, all of whom live nearby, in a month.

He acknowledges that it’s hard, but at the same time, he doesn’t complain. He loves what he does, no matter how difficult the job can be.

“Helping people is all I’ve ever really wanted to do,” he said. “This job gives me an opportunity to make a difference, and I can see it every day.”

The World Health Organization has designated 2020 as “Year of the Nurse” in celebration of Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday. We are proud to celebrate and recognize our Novant Health nursing team members this year, and always, for the remarkable care they deliver to our patients and their loved ones every day.

Nurses like Rob Stumbo need our support more now than ever.

You can make a difference, too, by contributing to the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund), which was established to help nurses and other team members on the front lines of the pandemic with rent assistance, child care services and more.

Donate now