Chester County Hospital and its community have always enjoyed a special relationship. Since the hospital’s founding in 1892 — well before the notorious 1918 Flu swept across the globe as the 20th century’s great pandemic — the two have worked together seamlessly, identifying one another’s needs and finding ways to ensure they are met.
The outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus) presented Chester County Hospital with a crisis of potentially equal proportions. National shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, long waits for testing, and a virus that savagely attacks some while sparing others combined to create a perfect storm unlike any America’s health care system had ever seen.
Fortunately, Chester County Hospital had a secret weapon in the war against COVID-19: its community.
With the first diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, calls from the community began rolling into all areas of the hospital. “People were reaching out asking, ‘How can I help?’ and ‘What do you need?’” says Andy Gordon, director of Business Development and Strategy at the hospital. “Everyone was so gracious.”
Soon, unsolicited offers of PPE, food, funds, and even shoes and other necessities were coming in faster than anyone at the hospital had anticipated. It was clear that a system was needed to not only manage and distribute donations but also identify and receive items that were in shortage.
The job fell to the hospital’s COVID-19 Task Force, a group that included representatives from all areas of the hospital charged with predicting and responding to the challenges of this pandemic. A call for ideas on how to manage the influx of donations was put out to task force members and within 48 hours a multi-pronged plan was in place.
Creativity and Experience Pay Off
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. Mix in some creativity and past experiences and you get great results. The challenge facing Chester County Hospital caused Gordon to think back to 2016, when he had helped set up a road-side donation center following a huge flood that had hit the rural community of Clendenin, WV. Right before the flood hit he arrived there on a church mission trip to help the community with two of his children. He never imagined that experience would prove so valuable at CCH. Now, Gordon was marrying those lessons — learned on the fly — with the ideas of his colleagues. The result was a PPE Drive-Thru that kept people safe while allowing the hospital to collect much-needed items.
“We sealed off the first floor of our parking garage so people could drive in and have their donations collected from their trunks by volunteers who were wearing PPE,” he explains. “These were sorted, inventoried and loaded onto pallets that were then put into moving pods. The pallets stayed in these pods — which had also been donated — for three days to ensure that any traces of the virus were dead.”
From there, the hospital’s Materials Management Department made sure the donations of N95 and ear loop masks, shoe coverings, gowns, gloves and cleaning supplies were divided and delivered to the areas in the hospital where they were needed most. The collection model has been so successful that it has been adopted by other hospitals within the Penn Medicine system.
“It’s really amazing when you see everything together in the supply room,” says Tom Gavin, director of Development. “People are giving what they have, and you wonder why they aren’t keeping this for themselves, but they just want it to go to its highest purpose.”
The hospital’s connection with the West Chester community is something that Gavin has often relied upon in his development role. It’s why he didn’t hesitate to reach out to the hospital’s volunteer and community leaders, who in turn reached out to their connections within the area — pharmaceutical companies, home builders, auto body shops and community safety net organizations — to ask for help with specific needs.
And when the Centers for Disease Control indicated that homemade masks were acceptable for use in non-clinical areas, he asked for help with those too.
“Under Tom’s guidance, we organized a mask-sewing effort that was supported by churches, retirement centers and local sewing clubs,” Gordon explains. “We were able to get special fabric that can withstand a high-heat sterilization process, and people who were sewing masks for the hospital were encouraged to come to the PPE Drive-Thru to pick some up. A few days later they would come back with these perfectly sewn masks.”
At last count, the hospital’s Drive-Thru had collected a staggering 196,000 items with donations still coming in. It is all being put to good use. Gordon says none of this would have been possible without a small army of employees — led by physical therapy assistant Cecilia Davidson — who banded together to get the job done. And, of course, the community.
“Everything we believe and love about this community is being demonstrated right now,” Gordon says. “It’s hard to express how grateful we are for its support and how humbled and happy we are to be a part of it. Our bond with this community is definitely the silver lining to this crisis.”
Beyond the Obvious
According to Gavin, the range of contributions the hospital has received indicates that “people feel a responsibility for their fellow community members and they’re expressing that in different ways.”
“Someone delivered almost 2,000 bottles of natural juice and a couple companies have contacted me to donate shoes to our clinical staff,” says Jackie Felicetti, chief Human Resources officer. “Yesterday, I received $1,000 in Macy’s gift cards and today a company from out of state called to say they were sending laundry and dish detergent for our staff. I’ve been blown away by the generosity we’ve seen.” Community members have also donated thousands of meals for staff. (Read more about these generous food donations in the upcoming June issue of System News.)
It’s important to Felicetti that, as much as possible, these donations are shared across all areas of the hospital so that everyone feels appreciated during this challenging time.
Taking care of its own is a theme that runs deep within the Chester County Hospital community. To help its staff who may not want to go home out of concern for at-risk loved ones or young children, the hospital has leveraged its relationships with local hotels to provide these employees with a place to stay. This support hasn’t only been seen in Chester County, hotels in both the Philadelphia and Lancaster areas have also made housing available to Penn Medicine health care workers not able to return home as well. In addition, a long-standing relationship with the YMCA of Greater Brandywine has helped ensure that staff who must report to the hospital have access to nearby childcare.
“I think one of the things I’ve really enjoyed are the children and community members who have gotten together and written us letters of gratitude,” Felicetti says. “And the other night, I was walking home with my badge and mask in hand and these runners went by and gave me a big thumbs up. You never feel like a celebrity working in a hospital but that gesture…it meant so much to me.”
“At a time when people could stay home and take care of themselves, they are focused on taking care of others,” Gavin adds. “We have a building full of these people, but it turns out we have a community filled with these people too. This is a scary time, but there’s a lot of good that’s also happening.”