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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.

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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.

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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.”

You can do your part.

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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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Supporting moms on the front lines one flower at a time

How do you celebrate Mother’s Day during a pandemic?

For two locally based businesses looking to honor mothers on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, the answer was flowers.

This May, Lowe’s Companies Inc. teamed up with Metrolina Greenhouses to provide nearly 25,000 hanging flower baskets across Charlotte for Mother’s Day, with 10,000 of those going to nurses and other caregivers in the metro area.

The gift from Lowe’s ensured that Mother’s Day was not forgotten amid the hectic days of COVID-19, when so many Novant Health team members are working diligently to treat patients.

“We wanted to show our appreciation to the healthcare workers who are out there on the front lines every day, helping to combat this virus and to keep us all safe,” said Betsy Conway, director of community relations at Lowe’s. “Many healthcare workers are not able to be with their families during this time, or they’re far away from their own moms and their families. So it was delightful to see their appreciation for just a simple act of kindness.”

The gift was part of a $1 million nationwide effort Lowe’s led to distribute 100,000 flower baskets to long-term care and senior housing facilities around the country. Lowe’s partnered with Uber to deliver baskets in various markets nationwide as part of the initiative.

“Just like the situation we’re in now, it was an unprecedented effort,” Conway said. “But it was well worth the effort and time we spent to ensure we were able to bring a smile to every mother, grandmother, caregiver and healthcare worker who received one of our baskets.”

This idea to celebrate mothers in a creative way dovetailed with a desire to support local growers such as Metrolina Greenhouses, a wholesale nursery in Huntersville, North Carolina.

“Metrolina Greenhouses is a wonderful partner of ours,” Conway said. “We were thrilled that Metrolina could participate with us in this effort. It was part of our commitment to supporting small business locally. Metrolina worked directly with us to deliver to more than 70 locations in the Charlotte area.”

Headquartered in Mooresville, North Carolina, Lowe’s has taken several steps to support its hometown and surrounding areas throughout COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, the company mobilized large product contributions of masks to Novant Health and other healthcare systems across the nation. The company also worked with local distilleries to make hand sanitizer available in bulk to support local healthcare heroes.

“We continue to look for innovative ways that we can support healthcare workers,” Conway said. “The flower baskets were a natural extension of that, and we certainly look forward to helping Novant Health provide remarkable care in the future.”

You can do your part, too, with a gift to the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund).

Contributions to the fund provide critical resources for those on the front lines, helping them so they can help those in need. Join us and make your gift today.

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The meaning of Memorial Day

Reflections of retired Gen. James Amos on our national day to remember

Memorial Day is more than just a long holiday weekend. In the Novant Health family, there is perhaps no one better suited to explain its resonance and significance than Gen. James Amos, USMC, Ret.

Amos joined the Novant Health board of trustees in 2018, after an impressive 42-year military career. He served as the 35th commandant of the Marines and oversaw units at every rank from lieutenant colonel to general. He reset the Corps’ combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, shepherding the beginning of a force reduction from 241,000 Marines to 221,000. And he introduced Marine leadership to industry best practices regarding diversity and talent management.

Now, as we head into this important weekend, we’ve asked him to share what it means for our military and our community.

Many Americans confuse Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Could you please explain why Memorial Day is sacred to active military men and women, to our veterans and to their loved ones? 

You bet I can. Memorial Day was established for Americans to take pause once a year and to remember the many sacrifices of men and women who have worn our nation’s cloth and have fought our nation’s battles over the past 244 years. As the word “memorial” tells us, it’s a day for remembering and honoring those who sacrificed their lives in battle and service.

It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. In the Civil War, an unimaginable 620,000 soldiers were killed, a death toll massive enough to force the creation of national cemeteries. The holiday used to be called Decoration Day because many people would spend the day placing decorations and flags on the graves of fallen soldiers.

On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day to honor and mourn those who died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

Veterans Day, on the other hand, has a different history. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany in the First World War, then known as “the Great War.” Commemorated as Armistice Day beginning the following year, Nov. 11 became a legal federal holiday in the United States in 1938. In the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to American veterans of war.

Could you share why you feel Memorial Day should have greater importance to our nation?

I’m kind of a softie at heart. My wife of almost 50 years calls me a mush-pot because I get choked up at most of our national holidays. But Memorial Day has a special meaning for me as it causes me to remember specific names — names of men and women I have personally served with who rest now under those white marble crosses in our military cemeteries. I’ve now buried two of my three closest friends in life, all three being fellow Marines. We entered the Marine Corps at the same time and grew up flying together over decades. Their lives, as well as their family’s lives, come to mind on Memorial Day.

And of course, the countless memorial services I’ve attended over the years, particularly since 9/11 and our combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, come to mind every Memorial Day. As I’ve grown older, many of the names have begun to fade, but the circumstances of their loss have never left me.

It’s simply our sacred duty as fellow Americans to take pause on Memorial Day.

You led Marines in multiple worldwide conflicts. Who are some of the patriots you remember on Memorial Day?

I remember well the CH-46 helicopter crew we lost on the opening night of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They crashed at 2 in the morning in the middle of a huge sandstorm, along with a squad of British Royal Marine Commandos that they were inserting behind enemy lines.

I remember taking the call in my command center at midnight about the loss of one of my attack helicopters just outside of Baghdad.

Then there was the CH-46 helicopter that went down in the Euphrates River, just south of ancient Babylon with all hands lost.

I well remember the Marines I lost on a convoy who were attacked just outside Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.

Years later, I remember the Marines I lost at the battle of Sangin, Afghanistan, one of the deadliest of our time. I remember attending the memorial services back home in Southern California for many of them, while standing by their families and loved ones.

The list is pretty long. My hope is that I don’t ever forget them as I get older. I want to remember as many of them as I can.

On 9/11, your office was destroyed by American Airlines flight 77 when it struck the Pentagon. Can you tell us how that affected you?

This was a defining time in my life. What happened on 9/11 has shaped my approach to many things since that day.

Just months before, I had moved into a newly renovated portion of the E-ring of the Pentagon. My office was on the fourth deck, overlooking the Pentagon helo pad and Arlington Cemetery. I was a young one-star [general] at the time, working as the deputy head of Marine Aviation. I was away from the building when American Airlines flight 77 was hijacked and deliberately flown into my side of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., killing all 64 people onboard, including the five hijackers and the six air crew. In total, 184 people were killed that day at the Pentagon.

Just 35 minutes before, the airplane had taken off from Dulles and was loaded with jet fuel when it flew into the bottom three floors of the Pentagon. The impact and explosion were so severe that it drove what was left of the plane through the E and D rings, finally stopping at the C ring. My office was three windows just to the left of the point of impact. The top area and roof of the Pentagon burned for five days before the fire department was able to put out the flames.

Our entire country was in mourning. You remember it. None of us could believe that it had happened to us on our own soil.

Here is some of the irony, though:All partisan politics were set aside. Think about that. Partisans became patriots. Everybody flew American flags from the homes, their offices, on their cars. You couldn’t drive under an overpass on the interstate that wasn’t covered in American flags. We became a single body of people. We were all Americans, and we knew we’d come out of this and would see better days.

And you know what? We did, and we have. So while it was truly what I call “the worst of times,” it also became the best of times. Our nation came together. Like the Bible says, “We were in one accord.”

Marines have a proud history of leadership. What are some leadership lessons that all Americans can apply during this worldwide pandemic?

Great question. We need to remember who we are as a country and remember our history. We are overcomers. It’s time to be positive.

Never doubt that we will figure this COVID-19 matter out. While it’s a tough nut to crack, never doubt our ability to crack it.

When you think of all that our nation has been through in its 244 years, we have to believe in ourselves. We can do this.

Focus on what’s important, not the fear of the unknown. Do what’s right in taking care of your health and the health of your loved ones.

Lastly, if you have the wherewithal to help in any way, then do it. It can be financially or materially — just do it.

As our country suffers the loss of more than 90,000 Americans from COVID-19, what message would you like to share with “team aubergine” at Novant Health?

You know, Americans have always applied the term “hero” and “heroes” to our military, our police and our firefighters. I think that we’re seeing a whole new generation of heroes emerge out of the COVID-19 fight. You can’t look at national news in the evening or read the newspapers or scan the internet without reading about our healthcare workers — all of them, from doctors and nurses and physician assistants, to the team members who clean the rooms and ensure that all is sanitary.

This generation of healthcare workers has discovered its true grit. They’ve faced the impossible head on. They’ve stared down death and have overcome. While it’s been terrible, I predict that these men and women will rise from all that they’ve seen and experienced as more dedicated professionals. They have all been tried in the crucible of life and death, and they are stronger for it.

These ladies and gentlemen — selfless in all that they are now required to do — are today’s real heroes.

While the political climate in Washington now remains as partisan as I have ever seen it, we are seeing the goodness of our country begin to shine. Folks are coming forward to help in any way they can. Industry and the scientific communities are as energized as I’ve seen in decades. We’re going to get through this, and we’ll do it as an American people.

And similar to the tragedy of 9/11, while these are clearly the worst of times, I would argue that, in many ways, they will be viewed in hindsight as the best of times because the will and strength of the American people will have defeated the COVID-19 virus.

We are overcomers!

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.

Donate now

‘Our humanity is being challenged’

Alex Funderburg on the COVID-19 crisis and the community’s inspiring show of support

A decade before the COVID-19 crisis, Alex Funderburg, chair of the board for the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation, found himself on the front lines of a different and much more personal healthcare battle.

In 2009, when his daughter was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a condition that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Funderburg started researching everything he could, learning about treatment options and the best places for care. In the process, he learned a lot about the world of healthcare. He saw challenges, as well as opportunities for improvement, and he wanted to help.

“A year after my daughter was diagnosed, she was getting better, and out of gratitude, I asked her doctor what I could do to get more involved. I ultimately was asked to rebuild the Carolinas Chapter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation in the midst of the Great Recession,” Funderburg said.

It wasn’t his job, but it became his passion.

“The power of philanthropy — not just the power of giving, but the gratitude that comes when people rally and support a cause — really moved me,” Funderburg said. “It made me want to become more involved locally. With Novant Health, their focus on healthcare quality aligned perfectly with my interests.”

That rebuilding experience gave Funderburg the opportunity to pursue a philanthropic mission in a time of economic crisis — experience that is proving particularly valuable now, as Funderburg shepherds the board through an unprecedented time in healthcare.

“In rebuilding the chapter, I went way outside my comfort zone. I recruited board members. I called on individuals and corporations to build support,” Funderburg said. “The sense of purpose and the mission orientation was something I’d never experienced before in my professional life.”

He’s seeing it again now, as the COVID-19 crisis has taken hold and the community around Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center has risen up to support healthcare workers on the front lines, Funderburg said.

In April, Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation launched a fundraising campaign with the goal of matching up to $1 million of unrestricted funds to support the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund). So far, the campaign has raised almost $1 million from donors across the Charlotte community and beyond to fund critical resources, such as rent and child care assistance for healthcare workers in need. Following an initiative begun by fellow board member Emily Harry, Funderburg teamed up with several other board members to launch ribbon campaigns in their respective neighborhoods, asking their neighbors to donate to the fund and then hang purple ribbons in their yards as a show of support.

“I would say virtually every member of my block has donated, and it’s spreading throughout a number of neighborhoods,” he said. “Just like when I organized my first walk for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, people come out of the woodwork to do incredible things, and it’s always inspiring. I just spoke with a couple who will be launching a ribbon campaign in their subdivision of over 1,400 homes.”

That inspiration is coming from all across Charlotte. Funderburg has seen a local nurse put together a GoFundMe campaign to purchase food for healthcare workers from local restaurants.

“They’ve served thousands of meals to our healthcare workers, and it’s been an entirely grassroots effort,” he said.

Students at Charlotte Latin School, with the help of a few parents, have designed and are producing face shields for medical workers. Brewers are switching from brewing beer to making hand sanitizer. There’s been a rebirth of chalk art to share messages of love and support, Funderburg said.

The country is now beginning to open up, but that doesn’t mean those efforts should stop. Healthcare workers will continue to be on the front lines, testing, treating and managing cases of COVID-19. And many of them will need support to do that work. Some have spouses who have lost jobs, putting them in financial hardship. Some need access to child care. Some can’t risk taking the virus home to immunocompromised family members and need temporary lodging away from home.

The current circumstance facing each front-line healthcare worker calls to mind that of a soldier, Funderburg said, someone putting him or herself at risk in support of the greater good.

“Unlike a soldier, I don’t think they signed up for what they’re in the middle of right now, but like a soldier, they’re stepping up and answering the call. And they deserve all of our support,” he said. “Our humanity is being fundamentally challenged right now. This disease is forcing us apart from each other. And figuring out ways to stay connected, to show that humanity to each other, that gratitude, that’s so important right now.”

You can do your part, too, by making a gift to the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund (formerly the Novant Health COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund).

It’s an opportunity to make a difference for those doing everything they can to bring our community and our world out of crisis. And a little goes a long way.

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