A Bridge over Troubled Waters

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 our callers.”

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 sghs.org/covid-19.