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Care starts at the door: How screeners are keeping MGH staff, patients and visitors safe during the pandemic
By Lucy Lau
You could say helping people is in Piranavvan Nagarajan’s blood.
The University of Toronto grad is a long-time volunteer at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) and has aspirations of becoming a respiratory therapist, one of many positions in the healthcare sector he says he became aware of when he started spending his Saturdays stocking supplies in MGH’s emergency department in 2017.
The 23-year-old says the experience gave him a “new perspective” of the hospital while allowing him to use his skills to help others. So when MGH began looking for screeners in mid-March at the guidance of the infection and prevention control (IPAC) team, Piranavvan naturally gravitated toward the role.
“I like helping people,” Piranavvan says. “It’s very rewarding to see the difference you can make in someone else’s day by doing even the smallest thing.”
Piranavvan is one of more than 70 screeners who were hired at MGH during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stationed at MGH’s entrances, screeners are responsible for ensuring all staff, physicians, patients and visitors who enter the site are free from symptoms of COVID-19 and wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
During the pandemic, they’ve become the first face that many people see at MGH and are instrumental in preventing the potential transmission of COVID-19 within the hospital.
“Screening helps keep our staff, patients and visitors safe and directs those who may be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to be tested,” says Denny Petkovski, manager of corporate projects and volunteer services at MGH. “Today, all healthcare facilities do some form of screening but, thanks to the leadership of our IPAC team, MGH was an early adopter. We were one of the first hospitals in the GTA to implement this degree of in-person screening.”
The questions that screeners ask, like whether or not someone is experiencing coughing or shortness of breath, may seem redundant. But they encourage those entering the hospital to be more conscientious of their health, Piranavvan says.
This was especially important at the start of the pandemic when less information was known about COVID-19. In this, the screening process allows MGH staff, physicians, patients and visitors to feel confident they are stepping into a place that is safe and where symptomatic individuals are redirected to MGH’s COVID-19 Assessment Centre or the staff COVID-19 clinic and instructed to self-isolate.
“Screening gives people the chance to stop what they’re doing and think about whether they actually have these symptoms,” says Piranavvan. “And if they do, they’re able to take the necessary steps to prevent COVID-19 from spreading within the hospital and in their own community.”
The role of screeners goes beyond rattling off a list of questions. They also instruct patients and visitors on how to correctly wear masks, gloves and other PPE, and how to properly wash their hands. In addition, they help soothe feelings of stress or anxiety that some may be experiencing when they walk into a hospital.
“If people have any questions — like ‘Do I need a mask? Where should I go? What should I do?’ — we educate them and tell them there’s nothing to worry about and that the proper safety measures are in place at the hospital. And we direct them to where they need to go,” says Piranavvan.
Some screeners have even gone beyond the call of duty, volunteering to be redeployed to long-term care (LTC) homes in the GTA.
For Lauren Thachen-Cary, a recent medical school grad who began working as a screener at MGH when her observership at the hospital was delayed due to the pandemic, the decision to work at LTC homes during the peak of COVID-19 was a no-brainer.
“I’m relatively young and healthy, so I’d rather it be me taking on this role than perhaps someone who is older or more susceptible to COVID-19,” Lauren says.
A medical doctor who hopes to pursue a surgical residency, Lauren says working as a screener at MGH and LTC homes has helped her better understand different aspects of healthcare, including what individuals in health administration do on a daily basis.
Like Piranavvan, she’s also learned how to communicate more effectively with patients and visitors coming into the hospital.
“Some of the people coming in are stressed or tired. They may be coming to see a loved one who is sick so emotions can be very high,” Lauren says. “We’ve had to learn to keep a cool head while remaining empathetic and continuing to do our job.”
Many screeners have also gone on to assist in other units at MGH. Piranavvan, for example, was hired as a summer student on MGH’s IPAC team, while Lauren has served as a patient experience liaison in the hospital’s video family visit program, which allows patients to connect with their families through video call. Others have gone on to work as porters or in roles in environmental services and other areas.
“It says a lot about these individuals’ character that they were willing to come in to work during a pandemic,” says Denny. “The fact that they’re now being hired in other positions at MGH speaks volumes about the culture of the entire organization.”
Piranavvan says he feels good about being able to help on the frontlines of the pandemic. He hopes to continue this work as he pursues his medical studies.
“It’s been a dream of mine to have a career where I can help people,” says Piranavvan. “And being able to meet all these different people at the hospital and to make these connections with them has just reinforced that.”