Workers from across Charleston campus pitch in to help hospital colleagues via 'Helping Hands'

February 10, 2022
a young woman in a mask and gloves uses wipes to clean a large plastic T rex
Research coordinator Sarah English cleans a toy dinosaur in the 10th floor playroom of the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital, freeing up the Child Life team for other tasks. Photo by Sarah Pack

Aaron Heath carefully examined the hospital wheelchair: how to fold it for storage and then pop it open for a patient to sit in, how to activate the brakes so it doesn’t roll backward as the patient sits, how to fold down the footrests. 

He looked a little nervous. Pushing patients from their rooms to the hospital entrance to meet their rides home sounds easy enough. But step past the common areas, like the cafeteria and the gift shop, and the hospital quickly turns labyrinthine.

It takes practice navigating these halls, and Heath, despite his years working for the Medical University of South Carolina, has spent little time in the hospital. As chief information security officer and cybersecurity counsel, he spends most of his time in an office on the outer bounds of campus. But on this evening, he was volunteering for a two-hour shift with the transport team.

It’s part of a program called Helping Hands, in which employees on the Charleston campus can volunteer to help short-staffed areas of the hospital. One of the benefits of the program is that it allows nonclinical employees like Heath – those who work in research labs, human resources, information solutions, compliance and more – to get into the hospital and get a firsthand glimpse of the core of the health system’s work, said David Bundy, M.D., chief quality officer for MUSC Health-Charleston Division.

“For folks who don’t have that exposure – to have a reason to be on the units where the patients are and where the care is happening – I think it’s good for them to have that exposure,” he said.

Particularly in this time when the nursing staff is stretched thin, he said, “It’s helpful to see, ‘Oh my gosh, that person is not figuratively running around – they are actually running around.’”

a man in office clothes talks with a man in company tee shirt next to a folded wheelchair in a hospital hallway 
Marion Wigfall, patient transport supervisor, right, explains to Dr. David Bundy how the transport team works. Photo by Sarah Pack

Bundy has volunteered for several shifts himself. He regularly spends time on the eighth and ninth floors of the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital as a pediatric hospitalist, but it’s good for leaders to see other parts of the hospital system at work, he said. For example, he’s helped with spring cleaning in Ashley River Tower and with nonclinical tasks on the floors where he usually works as a physician.

“For leaders, it’s a two-way street because we learn a lot seeing how things are,” he said. “We learn a lot just from seeing those processes up close. It's one thing to say, ‘We ran out of supplies.’ It's another to say, ‘OK, so what if you run out? Where do you go to get them? Do you go to a closet, or do you go to another unit, or do you go all the way to the basement?’ That’s lessons learned for us.”

The Helping Hands program started in 2020, during the first COVID wave. At that time, it was geared solely toward nursing staff. Nurses in the pediatric and mental health units, which weren’t as busy, were asked to help out in the adult inpatient units, said Leah Ramos, DNP, R.N., executive director of nursing for the adult hospital, one in a team of nurses who oversees the program.

“They were in a helping-hands role, wherein they don't necessarily take a patient, but they can help pass medication. They can help with the phlebotomy,” Ramos said. “As you can imagine, their patient population compared to the adult inpatient population is different, but they can still pass medication, and they can still draw labs.”

"I thought it was a great opportunity to help our nursing colleagues and our clinical staff to focus on what they need to focus on – patients.”

Kimberly Denty
Regulatory Affairs and Accreditation

From there, the program evolved to accept volunteers in administrative roles with nursing backgrounds and those with nonclinical backgrounds. Volunteers are assigned tasks according to their level of clinical training.

Jason Wall, R.N., director of nursing for inpatient oncology, transplant, hepatology, surgical specialties and spine, musculoskeletal and acute care, also oversees the program. He said the nurses are appreciative of the assistance.

“We always stay at a pretty high census regardless of COVID, but COVID impacts us because of the care processes and all the extra steps that it takes to provide care for the patient – in addition to having a large number of care providers out sick with COVID,” he said. “It makes a staffing shortage that much more of a staffing crisis, when our care team members are out sick.”

Ramos and Wall expect the program to run at least through this month. Helping Hands has attracted the services of long-time leaders, like chief nursing officer Patti Hart, DNP, R.N., as well as newcomers to the hospital system.

Kimberly Denty, R.N., manager of Regulatory Affairs and Accreditation, has a nursing background but has spent the past 13 years in administrative roles. She joined MUSC Health in December 2021 and volunteered for a shift on the COVID unit in January.

“The nurse manager called me the day before and said, ‘You know this is a COVID unit, right?’ I said, ‘Yep, I do know that,’” Denty said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to help our nursing colleagues and our clinical staff to focus on what they need to focus on – patients.”

Denty rounded on the unit to double-check that all accreditation standards were being consistently adhered to. She noticed an issue with the unit’s storage room and followed up the next day to get the ball rolling on fixing the problem. Overall, she said she enjoyed her time in the unit and the opportunity to see some of her new coworkers in action.

“It was a great experience. It allows you to be connected. You're not in some office doing policy – there's a connection to the work that we’re here to do,” she said.

Sarah English, a research coordinator with In Our DNA SC, doesn’t have that clinical background to draw upon, but she was equally eager to pitch in. She volunteered in the cancer unit at the children’s hospital, where she was put to work cleaning the toys in the unit’s playroom.

“I was excited to help out, especially as a new employee,” said English, who also started in December.

two men, one in office clothes, one in company tee shirt, maneuver a hospital bed through a hallway 
Aaron Heath, right works with Albert Farah to transport a patient back to his room. Photo by Leslie Cantu

English felt a connection to the children’s hospital; as an undergraduate at the College of Charleston, she had been part of a group that helped to raise money for the new hospital. She even got a hard-hat tour when it was under construction. But she was away at graduate school when the hospital opened, and so she had never been inside to see the finished product.

On her volunteer shift, she primarily got to see the 10th floor playroom. COVID protocols limit the playroom to one child at a time, and the toys must be cleaned between each child. Senior child life specialist Michelle Vandermaas was running from task to task and hadn’t been able to clean the toys when English arrived, so she was grateful for the extra set of hands.

Wall, one of the program’s organizers, has signed up for multiple shifts himself. Sometimes he’ll look at the unit schedules and fill in as a unit secretary. Simply being there to answer phones and get messages to the nurses without the nurses having to stop at the desk is a help, he said.

“At the end of the day, it's all about our patients and the impact that we have on our patients and their family members. And this program definitely has an impact,” Wall said.

As for Heath, the chief information security officer and cybersecurity counsel, he assisted in a couple of patient transports from treatment rooms to patient rooms but didn’t end up needing to use the wheelchair.

Now that he’s got a feel for the hospital terrain, though, he’s ready to volunteer again.