Health care leadership: Alumni perspectives on responding to the COVID-19 emergency

In this issue of the Kendall College of Arts & Sciences newsletter, we invited a few A&S alumni who are deeply involved in the COVID-19 pandemic to share a little about their roles, experiences and reflections in their own words. These are their fascinating, frequently inspiring, insights.

John B. Forrest, M.D., FACS

Dr. John B. Forrest (B.A. ’72) is a member of TU’s board of trustees and the Regional Chief Medical Officer of the Ascension St. John Health System in Oklahoma, where he oversees all six of that group’s hospitals.

Dr. John Forrest smiling and wearing glasses, a white shirt, dark tie and black blazer
Dr. John Forrest

The COVID-19 pandemic has been and continues to be a hugely significant public health issue. I have the vaguest memories as a young child of not going to public swimming pools because of my parents’ fear of us contracting polio. Without question, however, this has been the most challenging period in the health care industry in my lifetime.

Beginning in the first week of March, at Ascension St. John we rapidly shifted our focus to managing this pandemic within our system while still striving to deliver the highest quality care to the communities we serve. By the second week of March, we had shifted our operations to a Code Yellow, Level One Disaster management status. As such, we held twice daily disaster management committee meetings to manage all of the functions of a complex health care system from a centralized control center. This was undertaken in concert with the entire Ascension Health System and via a FEMA-outlined control system. The factors scrutinized twice daily included logistics, human resources, facilities, inventories, communications, pharmacy and finance. Subject matter experts also constantly reviewed and incorporated the latest science for patient care.

Within our hospitals, intensive care unit rooms had to be rapidly converted or created to manage the complex isolation techniques needed for the care of coronavirus-positive patients and patients under investigation for risk of developing COVID-19. Difficult decisions, such as curtailing elective surgeries, limiting visitation within the hospital and staffing allocations had to be made.

Over time, our treatment of COVID-positive patients evolved, with changing ventilator management; evolving drug therapy, particularly with Remdesivir; convalescent plasma; and corticosteroids. We also grew to understand that patients’ age and co-existing health problems increased their risk of mortality. At the same time, our caregivers were dealing with a range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, sadness as well as resolve. Supporting one another was, therefore, essential.

Testing for COVID-19 was a challenge initially, but that improved in the early summer. Then, in July and August, testing again became more difficult as the surge progressed. I am pleased to report that those hurdles have largely now been cleared. Controversies, though, are still present regarding whom should be tested, when they should be tested and retesting.

The COVID-19 pandemic will only be truly controlled when an effective and safe vaccine is available. To see real mitigation and to stop the pandemic, approximately 60% to 70% of the population will need to have immunity. That being said, research has been moving forward at warp speed for vaccines, coating monoclonal antibody therapies and antiviral agents. It is my hope that this research will bear results later this year or in the first quarter of 2021. Beyond COVID-19, I believe that societal vigilance is needed to maintain the discipline required for stopping, mitigating or suppressing any future pandemics.


Robert D. Thomas and William F. Thomas

Robert (B.A. ’74) and William Thomas (B.A. ’74)  are twin brothers, TU alumni from the same graduating class and the founders of Senior Star senior living communities. Today, the Thomas brothers are co-principals of that firm, which operates in seven states. William is a past member of the TU board of trustees and both men currently serve as co-chairs of the university’s capital campaign.

Bill and Bob Thomas smiling and wearing glasses, ties, white shirts and dark blazers
William Thomas and Robert Thomas

Our roles, as well as those of all our corporate leadership team, have changed – profoundly – as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundamentally, we are all consumed with keeping everyone who works and resides in our communities safe and healthy. As much as we do every day, we know it isn’t enough. We continually ask ourselves, what else do we need to consider? What else must we do? Communication is paramount. Creating a frequent cadence of dialogue in various forms that families, residents and associates can rely on is critical.

When international news turned its sights on the novel coronavirus in January, we began daily discussions regarding our growing concerns. We then formed our own 24/7 COVID-19 task force. At that time, personal protective equipment and other supplies were difficult to source, so we put together a purchasing team to focus on the procurement of a minimum of 60-day supply. To assure associates were not working when ill, we also established a triage team to monitor and trace everyone in the company who reports symptoms.

Early on, we closed our buildings to the general public and we stopped accepting new residents because we realized the only way the virus could get into our communities was by walking in the front door. We also established a Difference Maker’s Pledge and asked all of our associates to follow our safety protocols at work and to live a safe lifestyle at home.

Most recently, we extended the timeframe of our COVID-19 sick pay. Our associates, full time and part time, may use this additional benefit to offset any loss of income due to illness for up to 14 days.

Despite and within this terrible crisis there has been somewhat of a silver lining. First, we have learned to use technology in a way that allows us to better connect and communicate with our associates, families and residents. As part of this innovation, our community leadership now conducts a weekly family Zoom call and we are consistently helping our residents connect with loved ones across the country using iPads. In addition, we have connected residents to physicians via telehealth visits and we have regularly sent out video messages from our CEO.

Second, our associates have been more creative than ever before in finding new ways of doing business. For example, we created a new memory care program called Purposeful Beginnings for new residents that pairs each one with a dedicated individual caregiver in their first week in their new home.

We have also learned so many lessons during the pandemic. One that stands out is that we can allow our associates to have flexible schedules, work remotely and continue to be very productive.

For our corporate office team, our thoughts regarding office space have changed. Before the pandemic, 100% remote working seemed out of reach. We realize now that we can knock down any barrier we face with a focused drive and a strong team. It’s a mentality that is here to stay.

Creating flexible work schedules for our community teams to allow associates to have greater work-life balance is crucial to their well-being. For example, our associates who are parents are navigating a delicate balance between work and remote learning for their children. We understand the need to be flexible and we envision these varying work schedules will continue beyond the pandemic.