Alumni Voices in the Pandemic

SPHHP alumni are on the front lines and contributing in other ways in the fight against COVID-19. Their thoughts paint a picture of the myriad ways public health and the health professions are actively working to help, care and protect.  

Jacquelyn “Jackie” Andula, MPH ’03, BS ’90

Specimen collection branch director, Erie County Department of Health

"I organize a team of nurses and support staff to assure proper execution of nasopharyngeal swab collection for people who want to be tested for COVID-19. I also do some tracking, notification and enforcement activities. I am not going to lie—staying positive is very difficult. Falling back on your knowledge and training is important. Also admitting that we are all very stressed, and taking a day off when you need it or speaking to a mental health counselor. We are living through a pandemic; when we come out the other side we will be stronger."

Karina Armstrong, MPH ‘15

Quality advisor, Niagara Health

"I am assisting in the Staff Screening Support Centre to process referrals to have our staff swabbed for the virus at Niagara Health (hospital system for Niagara area, Ontario, Canada). We have staff complete an online form every day before their shift to assess their risk factors and how they're feeling. The most meaningful part of my work during the pandemic is helping to take care of our staff so they can take care of our patients!"

Laura J. Barnum, BS exercise science ‘93

Vice president for finance and management and current agency executive for COVID-19- Emergency Response Team, Buffalo State College

VP for finance and management Laura Barnum.

"I have always remembered one of our professors, Dr. Diane Debacy, telling us that ‘failing to plan, is planning to fail.’ It is especially fitting to the current situation. Preparing for an emergency can be challenging to prioritize when there isn’t a real emergency to respond to and there are so many day-to-day competing priorities. Thankfully, Buffalo State College recognized how important it is to prepare, and we have a very knowledgeable and talented Emergency Response Planning group in place. For this reason, we were able to quickly assemble our Incident Management Team in late February to respond to the situation as it has evolved and continues to do so."

Joseph M. Berlinger, BS sport and exercise studies ‘86

EHS and facility manager, Edwards (part of Atlas Copco Group Safety)

"As an essential business I have found it rewarding during these difficult times to not only apply my knowledge towards helping develop a safety and health plan for our employees, but then also be able transfer this knowledge to a couple local organizations, helping them to prepare their own safety plans for re-opening."

Dean J. Carroll, BS occupational therapy ‘00

VNA of Western New York

"[O]ur caseloads dwindled, but all along we had our complex therapy patients.  These patients had multiple health issues, and many of them are higher risk for negative consequences from the virus.  Home care really had an essential role in the system. We worked to keep patients out of the hospitals so the hospitals could focus on those that were critically ill with the virus."

Read more from Dean

In the early stages of the pandemic working in home care was very challenging in many ways.
In the first days of the local infections we really did not have a lot of time to prepare and plan as the virus was being spread in our office.  We had several staff members sick and hospitalized early on.  

Initially, PPE was not available, and we were still seeing patients in their homes.  Many patients began cancelling services, elective surgeries stopped and our caseloads dwindled, but all along we had our complex therapy patients.  These patients had multiple health issues, and many of them are higher risk for negative consequences from the virus.  Home care really had an essential role in the system. We worked to keep patients out of the hospitals so the hospitals could focus on those that were critically ill with the virus.

As the months went on home care was given the responsibility to care for patients who had surgical needs but they were being delayed to prevent stress on the hospitals. We were seeing patient who were unstable cardiac patients who needed pace makers. We had severe neurological patients that needed back and neck surgeries to decompress nerves.  We had patients with fractures that required surgical intervention but we're placed on hold until the virus decreased. These were not traditional patients and required different strategies for intervention. They required safety training, illness education and strategies to function until their surgeries could be done.

The next patients we began to see more consistently were elderly patients who were deconditioned and had falls.  Many of these people had active lifestyles prior to the virus, but home quarantine led to muscle weakness and generalized deconditioning as well as exacerbation of some chronic health conditionss.  They did recover but the continued lifestyle change made maintaining progress difficult.
 
The next phase has included people that have recovered from Covid 19, but have severe deconditioning, respiratory issues, cognitive deficits and chronic fatigue.  These patients have a long hard road ahead.  

Throughout the pandemic at every phase OT in-home care has had a vital but undervalued role as the focus during the pandemic has been nursing.  I have been honored to be working throughout this crisis and doing my part to support the healthcare system and the community which I live and work.

Eleni Casseri, MPH epidemiology ‘20

COVID-19 staff, Erie County Department of Health Infection Control Office

"I have been working with data on patients who have unfortunately passed to learn more about where those patients lived and what comorbid conditions they had, and with antibody testing data to see what areas within the county (usually by zip code) are having the highest rates of people testing positive for antibodies to COVID-19. It has been an extremely valuable learning experience as a recently graduated MPH student!"

Elizabeth Clifford, MS/CAS nutrition ‘19

Registered dietitian, Wyoming County Community Health Services Skilled Nursing Facility (contracted through Morrison Living)

"We are making sure that long-term care residents are meeting nutrition needs and maintaining weight while being in lock-down, and many of us are also available to provide the increased one-on-one care that many of our residents need during this time away from their families and loved ones. Overall, helping everyone get through this and being there for everyone has proven to be pretty impactful during this time."

Read more from Elizabeth

How do you apply your educational training in your work during the pandemic?

My education regarding interaction with staff and residents has been easily applied in this situation. I did quite a bit of work with the Lighthouse Clinic during my graduate and internship time at UB, which helped me develop my communication skills and confidence when dealing with diverse people and professions. 

What might you remember most about what you have experienced during this time?

The increased levels of respect towards the nutrition staff and nursing. We have had to increase our time spent working together and I think that we will become a stronger team because of this pandemic. 

What advice would you give to people, given your perspective on the front lines?

Be there for your clients, residents and staff whenever possible. Sit with them when you have a free moment and provide a shoulder to lean on or ask if there is anything that you can do for them, even if it's something as simple as getting them a snack or something to drink. People often don't like to express their frustrations or let their guard down even during tough times, but it does mean a lot when you take the time to be helpful. I am making many more amazing connections by just offering assistance and getting people things they need (within my expertise, of course). I find that it also helps me re-center myself and bring my focus back. 

Christina Crabtree-Ide, PhD epidemiology '20

Recently named “member of the month” by The Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science, Christina Crabtree-Ide's work understanding the social and contextual factors that impact health and healthcare access, particularly in medically underserved areas, is even more relevant during the era of COVID-19. Crabtree-Ide suggests that the pandemic “has put enormous pressure on rural regions of the U.S., where population susceptibility factors are different, and community attributes and county-level infrastructure and capacity vary widely. The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the regional variation in healthcare systems and population needs and characteristics across the U.S.” Read the full interview on the iaphs.org website.

Carol DeNysschen, PhD exercise science ‘07

Professor and chair, Department of Health, Nutrition, and Dietetics, Buffalo State College

"I've been volunteering since the beginning of the pandemic, and I see the need for food on the front line. I make homebound calls for the Meals on Wheels program, and it is beautiful to hear how people appreciate the nutritious meals, or the way the volunteers check on them and just the assurance of a delivered meal. Having a background in public health and nutrition, I was able to better recognize signs of food insecurity and provide helpful and friendly direction to community food sources (such as Meals on Wheels and food pantries)."

Read more from Carol

I am on the board of FeedMore Western New York, so I saw a need to help address the rising food insecurity issue that has accompanied the pandemic. I immediately started volunteering in any capacity they needed. The stories of hardship are real and by helping this robust organization provide food to those in need, I feel honored to have the opportunity to help out. A board member and I have coordinated a "Spread the Love" peanut butter drive throughout WNY.

How do you apply your educational training in your work during the pandemic?

Having a background in public health and nutrition, I was able to better recognize signs of food insecurity and provide helpful and friendly direction to community food sources (such as Meals on Wheels and food pantries). 

What might you remember most about what you and/or your patients/clients have experienced during this time?

This whole experience gave me a deeper insight into the extent of food insecurity in WNY. Listening to the difficult situations community individuals experienced brought me to a higher understanding of the purpose of FeedMore WNY and other community agencies.

Christopher Dressel, BS exercise science ‘09

Owner, Dressel Chiropractic

"My most meaningful work has been serving the doctors, nurses, and essential workers on the true front lines of this pandemic who injured themselves while on the job or at home and need chiropractic care to continue working. An 'essential worker' designation does not shield them from injury, and my services being deemed essential has allowed me to keep dozens of these men and women on their feet, helping those who need it most during this time."

Megan Evangelist, MS occupational therapy '08

Clinical Specialist in Occupational Therapy, NYU Langone Health

Occupational therapist megan evangelist wearing personal protective equipment in a health care setting.

"We had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and find a way to thrive in chaos. We had to find ways to reassure our patients and each other while also maintaining a realistic mindset that little was known about COVID-19. It seemed that everyone 'took their hat off,' informally dropped their clinical title, set aside their personal missions, and became part of a unified front to fight our way through the pandemic."

Read more from Megan

What is most meaningful in your work during the pandemic?

The most meaningful part of my work during the pandemic is being able to provide comfort and support to patients in the face of fear and isolation. As an occupational therapist, part of my role is to develop a deep understanding of the patient…what they find motivating, meaningful, and important, and incorporate those details into the rehabilitation process. These are challenging pieces of information to determine for a number of reasons; in many cases, the patient is unable to communicate because of mechanical ventilation and/or changes in mental status.

Additionally, at the height of the pandemic, there was a no visitor policy so we couldn't ask these details from visitors at bedside. So, we had to get creative! We immediately teamed with Social Work and Care Management, who are routinely in touch with family/caregivers, to obtain as much patient-specific information as possible. Once we have that information, we are able to personalize our therapy sessions, which helps motivate the patient and speed up the rate of recovery. Our strategies include use of the patient's favorite music, discussions about loved ones, putting favorite television shows or sports teams on television in the background, and engagement of family/caregivers into therapy sessions via video platforms. We find ways to personalize care in unique and meaningful ways, and in turn, this has been the most meaningful part of my work.

How do you apply your educational training in your work during the pandemic?

I have always felt that my education at the UB was top notch. In particular, the training I received on the psychosocial aspects of performance following injury/illness/disability created a foundation within me that allows me to easily and successfully connect with others. This skill has been paramount during the pandemic--not only are the patients afraid but so are the healthcare professionals. My deep understanding of the aspects of psychosocial performance helps me prioritize well-being not only for my patients, but also for my teammates.

In addition, the Gross Human Anatomy course has been instrumental in my understanding of the human body, especially as it pertains to the musculoskeletal system and disease process. I can remember the clinical correlations discussed during that course like it was yesterday! Because of this detailed and complex preparation and training in the structures of the human body, I am much more effective in addressing and treating the musculoskeletal issues faced by so many patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What might you remember most about what you experienced during this time?

An experience I will always remember from the pandemic is working through the fear of the unknown. Every day, policies changed. Every day, there were new updates and mandates from local and national levels. This was the new normal. We had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and find a way to thrive in chaos. We had to find ways to reassure our patients and each other while also maintaining a realistic mindset that little was known about COVID-19. It seemed that everyone took their "hat off," informally dropped their clinical title, set aside their personal missions, and became part of a unified front to fight our way through the pandemic. With incredible support from leadership and from each other, we made it happen.

What advice would you like to offer, given your perspective on the front lines?

This entire experience was a reminder about how scary and lonely it can be to be a hospitalized patient. My best advice is to reach out to those in need. Whether you are the friend, family member, or a direct caregiver of a patient, take the time and find a way to let that person know you are thinking of them. Time and time again, I was witness to the immense joy brought to so many patients who read text messages, cards, letters, emails, signs, posters, etc. from friends and family who couldn't be physically present. It is always worthwhile to reach out!

Thomas Forrester, MPH '20

Contact Tracer, NYS Department of Health

"I believe that the most meaningful part of this work is reassuring people that there are resources available to help them stay safe and healthy, that they don't have to have to go through this alone."

John Gaeddert, MPH ‘10

Public health educator, Erie County Department of Health

"I am constantly gathering information from reputable sources (global news, my colleagues, the data that Erie County is generating and working with), digesting it, and using that knowledge to assist callers. Whether they are contacting us to schedule COVID-19 testing, requesting guidance for specific situations or just asking general questions, I am glad to be serving the Western New York community in these ever-changing times."

Nicholas Gallo, BS public health ‘20

Senior public health technician, COVID-19 response logistics coordinator

"What I find most meaningful in my work during the pandemic is the ability of different organizations to come together as one for the community. Different work, different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses--it does not matter. Everyone has made it their goal to help no matter if it is your day-to-day job or something completely different. Even our volunteers have come in asking 'whatever is needed of me--I will do it to the best of my ability.' It truly makes me wake up and go to work every morning with a smile on my face."

Dana Grady, MS occupational therapy ‘11

Senior Clinical Occupational Therapist, St. Peter's Hospital, Albany, N.Y.

"The most meaningful part of my work during the pandemic was being a personal advocate and support to my patients who were going through a very difficult illness while being isolated from family and support persons. As a therapist during the pandemic, I worked in our ICU with multiple patients who were on ventilators and intubated for long periods of time. I facilitated their progression of care in terms of strengthening, endurance, ADLS and IADLS. I also helped to support patients' mental health in finding meaningful activities to participate in as well as assisting in contacting family members via iPads provided to patients to communicate with loved ones. Many rehabs in our area during the start of the pandemic were not accepting patients while they were still testing positive for Covid-19 , therefore as acute care therapists, we were responsible for rehabbing these patients during their prolonged hospital stays."

Kevin Jessop, BS exercise science ‘99

Director of education and training, medical device manufacturer

"Working to help our customers provide diagnostic procedures to those who need it is the most meaningful part of my work during the pandemic. I apply my physiological background every day. Being on the forefront is so important and valuable."

 

Marissa Kawyn, MS epidemiology '20

Contact Tracer, New York State Department of Health

"Working to help our customers provide diagnostic procedures to those who need it is the most meaningful part of my work during the pandemic. I apply my physiological background every day. Being on the forefront is so important and valuable."

Debbie (Mason) Levin, BS physical therapy ‘90

Physical therapist, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center

"When all of this COVID-19 era is over, what I will remember most is the challenges and triumphs of MY HEROES….my patients. After stabilizing in an acute setting, our patients face weeks and even months of grueling inpatient rehabilitation. To face this alone without daily support from their families and significant others is inconceivable. They do not get to share the joys of 'firsts': standing, walking, even sitting up. They miss the hugs of encouragement for each achievement and the consolations for their disappointments. Still, these individuals strive and overcome these challenges; and their discharge days are huge celebrations for them, their families and our staff! My admiration goes out to each and every one of them! "

Wei Lin, MS occupational therapy '18

Occupational therapist, Richmond University Medical Center

"Before COVID-19, I was running between the acute hospital setting to help the patients smoothly transfer to next level and the outpatient hand clinic to treat various hand disease. During the peak of the pandemic, I am working closely with a physical therapist to prone patients who are intubated and have loss of consciousness, and guide the high-level COVID-19 patients to perform simple therapeutic exercises to increase the oxygen intake. The most meaningful thing is saving a life and showing our support, especially when I see the patients discharged from the hospital."

William M. London, EdD health education ‘86

Professor, Department of Public Health, California State University, Los Angeles

"Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing a COVID-19 infodemic of misinformation, disinformation, nonsensical conspiracies, schemes, scams, frauds, and quackery. My writings are intended to help people to avoid being misled to waste their time and money, especially on bogus COVID-19 treatment and prevention products and services that can, in some cases, pose significant health hazards."

Philip Mathew, BS exercise science '11

Life sciences strategy and management consultant

"Challenging and overcoming the paradigm that “face-to-face interaction” is essential is what I will remember most from the COVID-19 era. We (health professionals, allied health professionals and industry partners) have had to reinvent what our working normal is…leaning into technology has ensured I can continue optimizing pharmaceutical clinical operations and minimizing disruptions. Looking ahead, the future is bright as we can empower more patients through telemedicine, telehealth and other emerging technologies."

Ekua Mends-Aidoo, BS exercise science ‘09

Equity and inclusion officer, Evergreen Health

"My work is focusing on access and equity in providing testing for communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Whether you're on the front lines or not, you can contribute. I think a valuable lesson learned is to give yourself and others grace. This is the time to be courteous and extend kindness to one another while grappling with a fast-changing environment. We could all use some grace and patience with ourselves and others."

Read more from Ekua

How do you apply your educational training in your work during the pandemic?

I minored in health and wellness at UB where we touched on topics like health care access and the social determinants of health. By focusing on the social determinants of health, we can look into the social, economic and environmental areas of health care to address health care disparities.  

What will you remember most about what you and/or your patients/clients have experienced during this time?

How pandemics exacerbate disparities in many ways and those most vulnerable can become critically impacted. It shows that there should be a continued focus on health equity for all.  

What advice would you give to people, given your perspective on the front lines?

Whether you're on the front lines or not, you can contribute. I think a valuable lesson learned is to give yourself and others grace. This is the time to be courteous and extend kindness to one another while grappling with a fast-changing environment. We could all use some grace and patience with ourselves and others. 

Lawrence Mietus, BS health science education ‘84

Independent business consultant

"I'm helping business owners design their strategies to get back to work and be profitable in spite of the COVID-19 economic climate: restructuring their revenue forecasts and budgets for the remainder of the year in response to the COVID-19 economic climate; positioning themselves to thrive in the post pandemic economy by strategically planning their resource allocation, operations, staffing levels and marketing messages, and proactively addressing the emotions and moods of employees and consumers as we prepare to 'engage' each other again."

J. Reinier Narvaez, MD, MPH ‘19

PGY-3 general surgery, University at Buffalo Department of Surgery

"I have helped the surgical services in creating pandemic-specific surgery policies by providing information on COVID and surgery based on the initially available literature and guidelines. Providing the background and setting the direction for surgical policy was an incredible opportunity to contribute greatly to our local health system. The data-gathering and critical evaluation of literature were skills that I've learned when I was pursuing my MPH at UB."

Samantha Navas, MPH ‘19

Care coordinator, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center outpatient ambulatory care center

"I work closely with cancer patients who, because of their diagnoses, are a vulnerable population that can be seriously impacted by COVID if they were to be infected. They have patience, understanding and appreciation for every healthcare worker that has any part in their wellbeing and care. With COVID things change on a daily basis, and I feel like my educational training at UB really helped me easily adapt in changing the platform from in-person clinical setting to an almost entirely telehealth world. The skills and knowledge I acquired from UB gave me an insight on how things rapidly change in the world of healthcare and to always be on my toes."

Michael Nowak, BS exercise science ‘07

Ophthalmic technician, Retina Consultants of Western New York

"What has been meaningful to me is, really, just all of us on the front lines getting our stories out so the rest of country and that the world sees what we go through every day. (Yes, of course, the dedicated doctors, nurses and first responders, but also the ones that don’t always get included such as grocery workers, restaurant staff, sanitation workers, postal workers and other lower-level medical staff such as myself). We all go to work every day, we put on our masks, gloves and any other PPE we are fortunate to have, and we work with the public all day and night, knowing we could very possibly get infected with COVID-19 ourselves or bring it home to our families and children."

Anne Pecora, DPT ‘19

Physical Therapist

"I work in a skilled nursing facility trying to get my short-term rehab patients stronger and home as soon as safely possible and keep my long-term care residents healthy while empowering them to participate in their functional mobility. In a time where residents aren't able to have visits from their family or friends, we're trying to make therapy their social outlet as well and use it to keep spirits high."

Ariana Perez, MPH ‘18

Surveillance epidemiologist, Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

"I believe the work we are doing at CDC and specifically in the EPI Task Force is having a positive impact in so many ways. We are conducting multiple studies across the United States that will lead to improved understanding of the epidemiology of COVID-19. We collect and analyze data to assess aspects of the virus and how it is affecting people in different parts of the country and in specific settings and among certain populations. These studies are furthering CDC’s ability to create guidance and recommend control measures to help reduce infections and prevent outbreaks."

Read more from Ariana

I believe the work we are doing at CDC and specifically in the EPI Task Force is having a positive impact in so many ways. We are conducting multiple studies across the United States that will lead to improved understanding of the epidemiology of COVID-19. We collect and analyze data to assess aspects of the virus and how it is affecting people in different parts of the country and in specific settings and among certain populations. These studies are furthering CDC’s ability to create guidance and recommend control measures to help reduce infections and prevent outbreaks. 

How do you apply your educational training in your work during the pandemic?

During the pandemic, I have been able to apply my educational training on a day-to-day basis. Most importantly, my training in epidemiologic methods and studies (e.g., case-control, cohorts) has been critical. In my role as field team coordinator, I work with teams of CDC personnel carrying out studies in various cities throughout the country. Every day, we meet virtually to discuss processes, logistics, and challenges experienced as the studies are implemented. This has been imperative to the success of the studies as they’re being conducted swiftly and efficiently to improve our understanding of COVID-19 as the pandemic evolves. 

What do you feel you might remember most about what you and/or your patients/clients have experienced during this time?

I have been inspired by how quickly and effectively all parts of government (local, state, and federal) were able to come together and mobilize emergency operations to battle COVID-19. I will remember that in a time of crisis, the country’s public health professionals–along with medical, scientific, and healthcare professionals–came together to protect the people of the United States, while also continuing the important public health work that was happening before the pandemic began.

What advice would you give to people, given your perspective on the front lines?

Stay positive during these times, and remember that we will get through this together. Finding ways to maintain your health and well-being is particularly important; finding hobbies and activities that you enjoy can be helpful. In addition, following CDC’s guidance related to social distancing, protective measures and hygiene practices is important when trying to protect yourself and your loved ones during this time. 

Denise Spencer, BS sport and exercise studies ‘88

Stonington School District Food Service Department

"I am distributing breakfast and lunch to the students in our district on the meal plan. All students under the age of 19 are eligible whether they were on the meal plan before COVID or not. What has been most meaningful is the gratitude and appreciation we have received from those in need of these meals. We hear from people daily on how thankful they are that we are doing this for them. It warms the heart!"

Angela Smalley, PhD rehabilitation science ‘19

Project leader for product evaluation, TREAT Center, Simbex

"I use my educational background on a daily basis as I help medical-device innovators develop and commercialize their product ideas like wearables, digital therapeutics and technology to facilitate remote patient monitoring/ telehealth. The developments in these fields are happening unbelievably quickly because of the COVID19 repercussions. The courses that I took at UB as a part of the Rehabilitation Science PhD program gave me a solid foundation in public health and epidemiology, health economics and research fundamentals, which allows me to contextualize and absorb the changing landscape in order to provide strategic guidance to innovators."