Inspiring hope through healing: National Hospital Week 2021

Every year, National Hospital Week presents an opportunity to highlight the innovative ways healthcare workers, hospitals and health systems support the needs of patients and families.

But this past year has been unlike any other.

Across CHOC’s entire health system – two hospitals, multiple primary and specialty care sites, and staff working remotely from their homes – the entire team’s dedication to patients and families has been a bright light during challenging times. Further, the team’s response to the pandemic has underscored CHOC’s innovation, excellence, collaboration, perseverance and compassion.

In recognition of this year’s National Hospital Week theme, “Inspiring Hope through Healing,” four members of the CHOC family share in their own words what about their work is so inspiring and why they are so committed to CHOC’s mission:

Maria Carrillo, CHOC environmental services aide 

“I make small simple designs out of toilet paper at the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center at CHOC because it’s something nice for the patients and their parents to see while they’re here.

This past year, I saw a lot of ups and downs on the unit. The patients are worried about COVID, their families, their school, their friends. I want to give them even more special attention than what we would give already. The toilet paper designs don’t take much time at all, but people really seem to like them.

I’ve worked at CHOC for 16 years in many areas, but this unit is very special and very different. I have so much more interaction with patients here. In other units, I might come in and out of the room to clean and say hello and goodbye if the patient was awake. Here though, patients tell me how they feel and how they passed the night. They draw me pictures and write notes. I get to know them better even though they don’t stay very long on the unit.

To me, the work here is so much more than cleaning. I try to put special attention into everything they touch and see. Cleaning and disinfecting is always important, especially during the pandemic, but safety is a top priority for us. A big part of my job is paying close attention to stray items or anything that might be a safety risk.

Everyone on our team is doing their own part to keep our patients safe and healthy. All the staff on the team are unidos – united – and all working together in a special environment with special patients. We check in on each other, asking if they need water or have taken a break.

In my Hispanic culture, there can be a stigma around mental illness and many feel shame in seeking help. Working in the unit for two years has opened my eyes to all the treatment available for people in need, and I wish I knew that sooner. Some people have misunderstandings about what it’s like in an inpatient mental health unit and what happens there. I tell them that our patients are brave, smart kids who are coming forward to face their problems with the help of a caring team.”

Lauren Schwarz, certified child life specialist at CHOC Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit

“One of the great honors of my job is that I get to be present for patients and families during their most challenging moments in the hospital, but also their lightest and most joyful. In the pediatric intensive unit, the patients are normally intubated or sedated or can’t talk. So, I end up having a lot of great relationships with siblings and parents. That obviously looked different last year. To keep everyone safe, only one parent at a time could be at the bedside, unless the patient was really critical or at end-of-life. Those days without many visitors reminded me that it is a privilege to be present on this floor where I can provide a safe space for families to share their feelings and process their experiences.  

In October, we had two sisters— Izabella, 5, and Itzayana, 10 months—with the same genetic condition. One was already on hospice care and the other was heading in that direction. The two were totally reliant on their medical care team and their parents. They also had two older sisters at home. It was just a lot for this family to be here. I would often check in with Yuriana, their mom, and had become close to her, but in this specific moment, all of us didn’t know how much time these sisters had. I wanted to be a listening ear and help her process this information. She off-handedly mentioned that she had always wanted to have family photos taken, but just never got around to it.

With the help of our department and the CHOC Foundation, I was able to secure a photographer and a gift card so the family could get some outfits for the photos. The photo shoot was done at home where they were most comfortable. Yuriana and the older girls had their makeup done, coordinating outfits were planned and all the girls had their fingers and toenails painted.  

Izabella passed away shortly after that photo shoot. I just thought, ‘Thankfully, we were able to capture this for them.’  Itzayana and Yuriana were back in the hospital just a few days ago. I stopped by their room to see how they were. I spotted on a table the photo of their complete family in a frame.”

Lulu Torres, patient service representative, CHOC Hyundai Cancer Institute

“I’ve been at CHOC for 32 years. I started here in 1989 in primary care. I moved to oncology when the Hyundai Cancer Center opened. My job here is to greet patients and schedule appointments. That’s basically it. 

I’m the first person that patients and parents see when they walk through the door. Many of them call this ‘Lulu’s Clinic.’ The kids come in so sad and scared, and I just try to calm them down. I cry with them and laugh with them. I’m a very happy person. Everybody has their days, but I try my best. I’m always laughing. Everybody says my laugh is contagious. I see between 20 and 40 kids per day. When a patient comes to our clinic for the first time I know it’s rough, so I try to be positive and tell them, ‘You’ve got this.’ I try to show them the attitude that they’re going to be OK. 

I serve on the committee for the CHOC Oncology Patient Ball presented by the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, and over the years, that event has really stood out as an inspiration to me. It’s amazing. Some of the kids will come in limousines. The girls will wear gowns and the boys will wear tuxedoes. And all the vendors who help with the food, and the volunteers who put up the decorations, and the celebrities who show up – the kids absolutely love it. For many of them, it’s really a first happy memory. For a while, they get to forget about their illness.

A lot of people ask me, ‘How can you do this job?’ They tell me it takes a special person to do it. But I don’t think too much about it. I really appreciate all the patients. Last year was tough. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to do a lot of video conferencing. I’m a big hugger, and it was very hard to refrain from hugging people. There are a lot of times when hugs are necessary. Despite the challenges of COVID, we all worked together as a team to continue serving our patients, and we are looking forward to things getting back to somewhat normal. I’ve always loved working here and the people I work with. During COVID, I’ve done my best to remain positive. A mother told me, ‘I always can see you smiling behind that mask.’” 

Chris Venable, nursing supervisor, CHOC at Mission Hospital 

“I started with CHOC in 1996 when my daughter was only 4 months old. I feel so fortunate to work somewhere that was so close to home, supportive of my needs as a mom and to be able to do what I love. As my fellow nurses and I were all raising kids around the same age, we all worked together to cover each other so we could be moms and nurses. It was super important that I was able to be involved in my daughter’s activities and sports and I can happily say I don’t think I missed an event. I’m proud to see her grow into a lovely young lady, graduate from college and to be doing what she loves. Working at CHOC at Mission really helped us make that happen. 

Most of our nurses have been here for over 15 years and I feel that says a lot about our workplace. When I was in college, I would visit Orange County and would drive by CHOC and thought it would be great to work at a hospital dedicated to children. When I moved this way, I found out about CHOC at Mission and have been here ever since. 

This job is all about the people – patients, families and my colleagues. My passion is to make sure we do right by the patients and the families. My goal is safety and always making sure that the patients and the families know what’s going on and that we follow CHOCs values in caring for them. This past year has been the most challenging. COVID has been beyond nerve wracking. CDC guidelines were literally changing daily, and we all tried hard to keep up. I was very appreciative of our updates from our CHOC Command Center, which I know worked hard to keep us all up to date. The protection of our nurses and healthcare team was always front and center. We really did an excellent job to support each other. 

In December, when CHOC received the vaccines for staff, our chief nursing officer asked, ‘Do you want to help with the rollout of the vaccines?’ I’m a flu vaccine champion at CHOC at Mission and knew I wanted to help with the vaccines in any way. I was able to help with the scheduling of nurses to administer the vaccine and am beyond thankful for all those who stepped up at the last minute to help staff get vaccinated. I was also fortunate to help with vaccinating in the Orange County super pods at the Disneyland Resort and Soka University. 

Finally, one of the things I’m most proud of at CHOC at Mission is what we have done with asthma education. One of my colleagues took an asthma education course and said, ‘You need to do this.’ I really didn’t want to initially but did and it has really become one of my main passions. We now have eight asthma educators who are on our team and during normal times provide education to over 250 families a year. 

Our nurses are like family to me and I really feel beyond proud to be able to be a part of the team at CHOC at Mission, providing care to the patients and families of south Orange County and beyond.” 

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