How South Florida hospitals are helping their healthcare workers through the pandemic

·5 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented levels of stress — and need — to the healthcare field.

In response, hospital foundations, nonprofits and caring individuals rose to the occasion. From donated meals to outright cash, from free mindfulness classes to impromptu musical concerts, community gifts went a long way in recognizing the efforts of nurses, doctors, cafeteria workers, transportation techs and anyone on the front line of care delivery.

Memorial / Joe DiMaggio

“Donations of all kinds and sizes came from many different sources,” said Kevin Janser, president of the Memorial and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital Foundations, based in Hollywood. “It was mostly people who reached out to us before we came to them to ask. We’ve had both old donors and new ones, individuals and large organization. Overall, there was a general recognition that healthcare employees were especially challenged by COVID.”

Freedom, a therapy dog, delivers flowers to healthcare heroes at different Memorial Healthcare System hospitals. Passion Growers has consistently donated the blooms to raise the spirits of frontline hospital workers.
Freedom, a therapy dog, delivers flowers to healthcare heroes at different Memorial Healthcare System hospitals. Passion Growers has consistently donated the blooms to raise the spirits of frontline hospital workers.

Indeed, the hospital foundations that Janser heads received $800,000 in cash donations, to be used where it was needed most. So far, more than $66,000 was spent to help employees with specific financial problems. The bulk of the one-time cash assistance went for hardship issues — paying rent, power bills and other essentials.

“We found that the needs were varied and driven mostly by employment challenges in an employee’s family,” he said. This included job losses, furloughs and cutback in hours.

Another $100,000 went toward hotel rooms to house employees who couldn’t stay in their homes because of the potential of infecting vulnerable family members. Though that money was spent in the early days of COVID and before vaccines became available, it enabled frontline workers to work their shifts without worry.

Some donations are ongoing, however. Outside money has helped establish a special clinic to address the health problems long-haulers face, and a local florist continues to regularly donate roses from her shop, a beautiful pick-me-up that appears to ease the relentless demands of bedside care.

“When someone takes the time to acknowledge them and to thank them, it goes a long way in getting our employees through the next shift, the next day, the next week,” Janser said.

He also estimates that at least 75,000 meals were donated to frontline workers at the six hospitals in Broward County that make up the Memorial Healthcare System, the fifth-largest public healthcare system in the country.

Nicklaus Children’s Hospital

Providing meals and other culinary treats for the harried workers putting in long hours has proven to be a favorite among donors. At Nicklaus Children’s Hospital near South Miami, the chairman of the hospital foundation board, attorney Ricky Patel, took the initiative of donating from his own pocket.

Every day for three weeks, during the most taxing part of the pandemic, Patel had meals delivered to different departments in the pediatric hospital. He also made sure to order from local restaurants — a move that helped struggling businesses at the same time.

“He wanted to make sure that every department received meals,” said Michelle Boggs, president of the Nicklaus Children’s Foundation. “That helped to change the narrative because it’s not just the people you see in scrubs. Support staff are essential to a hospital, too.”

In addition, Patel also provided PPE for frontline workers, including 25,000 three-ply masks, and he directed cash assistance to needy patients. This included paying 12 months of apartment rent for one; a holiday season of gifts, clothes and food for another; and an all-expenses paid weekend at a resort for a third.

For one patient’s mother, Juany Martinez, he had more than 1,000 Christmas toys delivered to a block party in Little Haiti during the 2020 holidays, and he donated a $250 gift card to help Martinez buy food.

Ricky Patel and Juany Martinez, the mother of a patient at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. Patel, the board chair of the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Foundation, had more than 1,000 Christmas toys delivered to a block party in Little Haiti during the 2020 holidays.  He also donated a $250 gift card to Martinez to buy food.
Ricky Patel and Juany Martinez, the mother of a patient at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. Patel, the board chair of the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Foundation, had more than 1,000 Christmas toys delivered to a block party in Little Haiti during the 2020 holidays. He also donated a $250 gift card to Martinez to buy food.

Kula for Karma

Of course, not all help involves food or cash. Kula for Karma, a national organization that offers yoga, meditation, and stress management programs in hospitals, schools, and prisons, has been offering sessions at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach and at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Some of the programming predates the pandemic, but the specter of COVID has attracted a wider audience. Attendance has jumped by more than 50 percent, said Veronica Borrego, program director for the Miami office of Kula for Karma, as long hours have resulted in more burnout among healthcare workers.

Kula for Karma, a national organization that offers yoga, meditation, and stress management programs in hospitals, schools, and prisons, has been offering sessions at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach and at Jackson Memorial Hospital.  Here, a session is being held at Jackson.
Kula for Karma, a national organization that offers yoga, meditation, and stress management programs in hospitals, schools, and prisons, has been offering sessions at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach and at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Here, a session is being held at Jackson.

“The pandemic has made stress worse, but it has also drawn attention to the need for self-care,” she said. “I think organizations are realizing that taking care of their employees’ mental health is important, especially for those who care for others.”

Studies prove this. About 60% of frontline healthcare workers report that stress brought on by pandemic work demands has negatively affected their own mental health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Your body can only take so much stress and so many long hours,” Borrego said. “It needs time to calm down, to quiet the mind.”

Baptist Health

Baptist Health South Florida recognized the need for self-care before COVID. Its executives added the title of Chief Well-Being Officer to Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros’ duties as medical director of Palliative Care and Bioethics Services. The goal? To develop a support system for all hospital employees.

It’s not just physicians and nurses who suffer.

“Everyone is affected by this,” Viamonte Ros said. “We’ve discovered that even our transport people were struggling as well. They weren’t used to the amount of deaths they were seeing.”

Under her leadership, Baptist has strengthened its help hotline for employees, supplied teams of mental health and pastoral care counselors to departments, and provided crisis intervention debriefings one-on-one or in group settings. In an effort to keep staff members healthy, Baptist hospitals also offer free, on-demand mental care through a telehealth program for employees.

Demonstrating appreciation for the hard work and dedication, however, requires a long-term commitments. It’s more marathon than sprint, Viamonte Ros said.

“This is going to be with us for quite a while,” she added. “The need for comprehensive well-being is not going away” after COVID. “It will still be here long after the news trucks leave.”

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