When she considers her role as a switchboard operator at Southeast Georgia
Health System, Bettie Jo “BJ” Hardy says, “We’re
the bridge, the lifeline, between the public, the patients and the doctors.
We’re the first contact the public has when they call the hospital.”
Hardy is part of the Health System’s 10-member Telecommunications
team. In addition to coordinating telephone calls between health care
providers, patients and families, the telecommunication specialists monitor
hospital-wide alarms and announcements.
“If a patient has a cardiac or respiratory emergency, the team announces
a ‘code blue’ on the hospital’s telecom system and pages
the beepers of all of the necessary health care providers. They also announce
other emergencies affecting our facility or patients,” says Director
of Information Systems Chuck Bumgardner.
Helping callers is the most important aspect of the job, says Telecommunications
Specialist Toni Barnett. “My job lets me communicate with people
from different backgrounds. It requires patience and treating callers
the way you would want to be treated. We are here to help and support
An Empathetic Ear
Despite an “extremely high call volume,” Hardy keeps Barnett’s
words in mind. “Some elderly callers don’t know exactly what
they need. If my parents called the hospital, I would want them treated
with kindness and patience,” says Hardy, who takes care of her elderly parents.
No two callers are alike, and the Telecommunications staff must be prepared
for anything. Hardy recalls a young patient who was discharged from the
Emergency Care Center. “She called us crying hysterically. She had
no money, no friends or family nearby and no way to get home. My co-workers
gathered some funds between us and called her a cab.”
While efficiency can be taught, empathy tends to be inborn. Now, more than
ever before, the Health System operators must display an abundance of both.
Rising to the Occasion
The COVID-19 pandemic impacts every hospital department, and Telecommunications
is no exception. “They are handling an overwhelming number of additional
calls from people trying to find out how to get vaccinated,” says
Bumgardner. COVID-19 made this fast-paced job more demanding, and that’s
a challenge for the two or three employees manning the phones each shift.
“We get a lot of visitation inquiries now,” Hardy says, referring
to the Health System’s mandatory one visitor per patient per day
policy. Barnett describes the poignancy of this moment. “People
are scared. You can hear it in their voices.”
The demand for vaccines is high, but supplies are low. The Telecommunications
team is on the frontlines of that difficult situation, and Barnett appeals
to the public for understanding. “COVID-19 made our job a lot busier.
All of the hospital staff are working hard to help patients and distribute
information to the public. Please be patient with us.”
All for One, One for All
A supportive work environment helps the team press on. “Most of
us have worked in this department 29 to 35 years. We are like family and
try to look out for one another. If one of us is going through something,
we all are,” says Hardy. Both she and Barnett are 29-year veterans
of the phone lines. Like everyone else, they worry about the virus. “We
follow the CDC guidelines. I never hesitate to wear my mask everywhere
I go,” Hardy says. She has received her first vaccination and strongly
encourages others to get vaccinated. Barnett concurs. “We will weather
this pandemic with technology, prayer and vaccination.”
For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine, visit