“It’s life-changing to be able to even contribute in a small way to someone’s healing and recovery process,” Raymond Dang says of his time as a screener at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. (Photo: UHN)
Once COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, University Health Network (UHN) needed to respond in order to keep staff and patients safe.
Brenda Perkins-Meingast, Senior Director, Practice Based Education, Synapse, Nursing Clinical Lead, stepped up to offer her assistance.
Brenda, with a small but mighty team along with UHN People, Culture and Community, recruited screeners to ensure all hospital sites across UHN were aligned with both federal and provincial Ministry of Health and Public Health Guidelines.
From the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 until early July 2022, approximately 400 screeners were hired to manage the surveillance at the hospital entrances.
Located at the dedicated entrances of each hospital, screeners were amongst the first to greet patients, visitors and staff. They played a vital role in ensuring anyone coming into UHN hospitals met the required guidelines.
Brenda’s contributions, aside from hiring the screeners, was ensuring they had the necessary tools and resources to do their important role. She supported the screening program by developing standard work processes and associated policies, worked closely with the site leads and supervisors, ensuring the screeners had the necessary training, and supports for dealing with all that challenges they faced during the time they were screening; everything from the fear of the virus in the beginning to the level/degree of incivility they endured.
“Without screeners it would have been very challenging, in fact it would have been chaos,” Brenda says. “The healthcare system would not have been able to continue to provide safe patient care without ensuring we had healthy providers to care for our patients.”
Alyssa Macedo, Quality and Patient Experience Manager at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre who served as Site Lead for screeners, says if it weren’t for Brenda’s influence and leadership, screening at UHN would not have succeeded.
“Brenda was a top-notch leader who set an example for every single screening team member,” says Alyssa. “She led the way and created a wonderfully supportive team, and was often on the ground with rolled up sleeves, sneakers on and ear buds in, multi-tasking and helping everyone in need.”
Screeners didn’t only keep everyone safe, but also ensured every patient in the hospital had the best possible experience they could. Many walked away with a new-found passion for working in healthcare.
“They did a whole lot more than screen people – it was a huge opportunity to make a difference in patients’ lives,” Alyssa says, noting that she witnessed screeners connect with patients so well, it was as if some were lifelong friends.
“It’s been a wonderful experience seeing the team support each other, grow into themselves, and to witness the impact they can have on even just one patient,” she says.
Screening eventually came to an end, which inevitably eliminated jobs. But Brenda, Alyssa and the other Site Leads for screeners – Leanna Graham at Toronto General Hospital; James Skembaris at Toronto Western Hospital; and Sandra Mills at Toronto Rehab – worked with their colleagues from UHN People, Culture and Community to ensure those who wanted to continue working at UHN were provided opportunities to apply for other career opportunities.
“For any screener that wanted to stay, we worked with them to find employment and made sure that they had an opportunity to apply for a new job, whether it be in reception, Transportation, or as a ward clerk,” Brenda says.
For both Alyssa and Brenda, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the screening experience was witnessing the milestones their team achieved.
“I was amazed by how committed the screeners were to their role and their resilience in dealing with all the changes and challenges throughout the pandemic,” Brenda says.
“Something I’ve learned from this experience is that when people need to pull together to get something done, they do!”
From a managerial perspective, Alyssa learned the true importance of letting people be themselves in the workplace.
“By listening to our staff, giving them a lot of autonomy and letting them excel in their own ways, I’ve seen them rise to the challenge and perform phenomenally as a team,” she says.
“They’ve surpassed my expectations in every way.
“I’m truly grateful to have been a part of that, and I truly believe we are in good hands with the next generation of health leaders.”
UHN sat down with three screeners from the team Alyssa assembled to discuss the experience.
Raymond never saw himself working in healthcare. It wasn’t until he got a job as a screener at the Princess Margaret that he realized he was destined to help other people.
In fact, it changed who he was.
“It’s life-changing to be able to even contribute in a small way to someone’s healing and recovery process,” he says.
Before he got this job, Raymond was in a rut and found himself feeling stagnant. In helping other people, Raymond learned to help himself.
“This job really encouraged me to not only work hard for myself, but work hard for the patients who come in and see me every day,” he says.
As a non-binary person of colour, Raymond played a critical role in representing a minority that’s at a unique intersection of marginalization. In being a screener for cancer patients, Raymond was able to ensure those communities got the visibility and respect they deserved, and simultaneously the best treatment possible.
“It’s so important that we have queer representation and inclusivity in cancer care, because if we didn’t, then a lot of patients might not be able to be diagnosed properly – they may not want to be forthcoming with their healthcare providers, they may not feel like they want to disclose what they do in their lives, which can affect their treatment outcomes.
“And that would be the biggest failure on our part as healthcare providers.”
Through his screening job, Raymond was able to become a member of the Sexual and Gender Diversity in Cancer Care group.
“This was the perfect way for me to integrate myself into the community and to understand a little bit more about the cancer community, and to make an impact at the end of the day,” he says.
“It’s opened up my universe, I’m so proud of what we’re doing and proud to be a part of Princess Margaret’s chosen family.”
Once the pandemic hit, Joseph felt inspired to contribute and began looking for a job in healthcare. He got the job working as a screener at the Princess Margaret and walked away with a sense of wisdom he never felt before.
“I saw people from every walk of life come through our door,” he says.
“You see people who are in good moods, people who are bad moods, people who need a little extra help, or people who already know where they’re going in life.”
What stuck with Joseph the most was the resilience patients sustained in the face of cancer.
“They choose to look at life more optimistically than others, and that’s something I find myself thinking about a lot,” he says.
“The cards you’re dealt in life don’t matter so much, a lot of it is your outlook which influences how you go about your day to day life.”
Joseph once helped a vulnerable patient with no shoes come back into the building and wait for a family member to pick them up during a snowstorm. After being transferred to the Princess Margaret for treatment, all of her belongings remained at Mount Sinai Hospital.
“Chemotherapy treatments can be very hard for patients, and she just wanted to go home,” he says.
Joseph took the time to speak with the patient, understand her mindset and calmed her down enough to convince her to come back inside and wait for help.
He was eventually promoted to a supervisor position, where he discovered the value in mentoring a team built on diversity.
“What I liked most about being a supervising screener was being able to support other people to be the best that they could be,” he says. “I wanted everyone on my team to feel empowered and to have the confidence they needed to reassure them that they were capable of doing things on their own, in their own ways.”
Joseph has since accepted a position working as a patient flow coordinator at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and looks forwards to continuing to help people every day.
“This experience taught me that you need to keep your eyes open to things going on around you – if you’re too focused on your own, you can miss a lot of things,” he explains.
“Sometimes, that someone who might need help, may be able to help you, too.”
Much like Raymond and Joseph, Alessandra was tired of her job in customer service and found herself wanting to give back during the pandemic.
“How can I help? Even in the smallest way?” she says.
Alessandra got the job at the Princess Margaret as a screener, and was eventually promoted to supervisor. The opportunity taught her to be patient and compassionate, not only for others, but for herself as well.
“Healthcare needs to be approached differently, and this job has taught me to put myself in patients’ shoes, which is very different from any other customer service job,” she says.
While Alessandra never worked in healthcare before, the conclusion of her screening job made her realize she doesn’t want to leave the hospital or stop supporting patients. She has since accepted a position working reception in the Chemotherapy Unit.
“The pandemic changed me and changed the way I see things now, because this happened out of nowhere, and affected everything in everybody’s life,” she explains.
“When everything is constantly changing around you, but your job is one of the only ones that didn’t change and was one of the only things that kept people going, it helps a lot,” she says. “Even the small things – like reassuring somebody that they’re going to be safe, and we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe – it made me want to give back.”
One thing Alessandra enjoyed about the job was the opportunity to create positive relationships with patients and other staff members. If it weren’t for Alyssa, Alessandra doubts the experience would have been as successful as it was.
“She was always looking out for us and finding ways to make the hospital better for screeners,” she says.
“We always felt supported and she enabled us to do better, and that’s not something that happens in every job.”