Virtual Conference Assists Caretakers and Individuals with Complex Conditions

In our first virtual conference, livestreamed from the Alemany Learning Center at the site of our future Children’s Specialty Hospital in Rock Hill, NY, The Center for Discovery (TCFD) shared in great detail its ongoing strategies to keep its most vulnerable residents and students safe and well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Theresa Hamlin, Associate Executive Director at The Center, began by explaining the difference between a pandemic and a disaster. “It’s a human resource problem. It is a people problem. You can have all the infrastructure in the world, but if you don’t have a doctor to get into a hospital because they’re affected, everyone is affected. Every system breaks down,” said Dr. Hamlin, “that’s the most important distinction between a pandemic plan and a disaster plan.”  Worldwide resources are affected, and recovery will be protracted in a pandemic, Hamlin added.

With that knowledge, The Center, under the leadership of President and CEO, Patrick H. Dollard, and Dr. Hamlin, created a pandemic plan back in 2009 after the H1N1 outbreak.  It included stockpiling PPE (personal protective equipment) and other supplies, and it helped prepare TCFD for COVID-19. However, Patrick Dollard shared that there is no time to sit back and rest. “We are still in the middle of this,” he said, “know full well we are ready to pivot at the last moment based on the analytics.”

Both Dollard and Hamlin spoke in detail of the daily use of data analytics to track the virus and exposure within The Center, locally, statewide, and nationwide. The Center had five cases among its residents; one of them was infected while in the hospital for another illness.  All residents recovered well.

Those statistics are in stark contrast to statewide stats on pandemic-related illnesses in the disability community.  “I think a lot of that has a lot to do not only with how we protected people but that we have a health promotion system here,” she said, “We think about preventative care here. Our residents eat only organic food here, and they exercise a great deal.”

The health promotion program at TCFD, known as Health E6™, is a lifestyle model aimed at reducing stress and optimizing health, and it was later outlined by Dr. Johanna Lantz, Chief of Psychology at The Center. She told conference participants, “We have always known that the Health E6 program effectively supports the health and well-being of our students and residents. We believe the Health E6 model is robust enough to help us through this most challenging time and the long road that is still ahead.”

Having a healthier, active community of complex individuals and a pandemic plan in place gave TCFD a head start when COVID-19 made its way to New York State, but a true transformation still had to occur within every department. From the Psychology, Education, and Admissions Departments, to the Department of Nourishment Arts (DNA) and the Department of Integrated Arts, there had to be flexibility and critical, seamless, transparent communication.

Dr. Cheryl Stenzel, TCFD Chief of Psychology, Family Services, spoke about the immediate need to address the growing issue of stress both within The Center staff and among families who either had their students living at home during quarantine or at The Center with residents in quarantine.

Personal consultations, Zoom check-ins, a staff hotline, and many stress management resources helped the 1700 members of the TCFD team, said Dr. Stenzel, “I think altogether, all of these resources offered to staff helped them to really see and feel how The Center really cares for them as a whole person and not just who they are when they show up at work.”  Similar resources were developed for families of both residents and students. The Center was the first New York campus to begin to quarantine and the first campus to open up for family visitations under strict safety guidelines.

Susan Sayers, TCFD Chief of Nursing, credits The Center’s great relationships locally with Garnet Health and statewide with healthcare giant Northwell Health for keeping TCFD ahead of the curve on information, testing, and other resources, but constant, frank communication with staff was also key. “We had a solid communications network, so I knew I could rely on my colleagues, and the information would go out…I think that it was the many different techniques and the many different things that we had the opportunity to use via technology that was very helpful,” she said.   The use of mobile phone system texting and weekly staff and family webinars are two examples that The Center employed.

“We were constantly working on different and creative ways to keep the connection to The Center strong because it’s so important. The family relationship and partnership with The Center is so important to our success with every individual,” added Kaitlyn Haas, Vice President of Admissions at TCFD, whose office moved immediately from Admissions into a family liaison.

The Honorable Amanda Ward, Chief of the Division of People Operations and Educational Sustainability, called The Center’s response to COVID-19 “flexigility,” transforming from a flexible agency to an agile one in just a month. “We set out to engage with staff individually…We were able to create a system where we were available for staff 24/7 through our staff information line, through counseling services and external partnering services. We quickly recognized that our workforce was changing. We held forums and roundtables and asked staff what their needs were, not just assuming what they were. We were really intentional in our response,” she said. The answers were surprising. Staff members were afraid to be out in public places, so The Center established its own laudromat and Co-op Market. Daycare and emergency care were also available. Staff were fed free healthy meals while on campus and given PPE not only for themselves but for family members as well.

Every department embraced this agile response, but perhaps none as obvious as the Integrated Arts Department. “We worked to develop outside-of-the-box programs through the use of technology and a little bit of ingenuity to move our programs forward,” said Conio Loretto, Senior Director of Music Therapy & Integrated Arts,We recognized that people needed to come together. We recognized their stress.  And the arts can address that stress.” With that goal in mind, the Integrated Arts team created incredibly meaningful experiences for residents, students, families, and staff via virtual video offerings, live, synchronous virtual experiences, and in-person experiences.

Of the experience, Jim Cashen, Assistant Chief of Integrated Arts, said, “We’ve learned – anything is possible.  And through the Integrated Arts, we’ve worked really as ambassadors as health, wellness, and wonders.  We say what happens here matters everywhere. Staying connected is key, art transcends, and we are not done yet!”

Despite the unfathomable stress, the true beauty that is The Center for Discovery shines brighter than ever. In the words of Dr. Lantz, “As staff at The Center, we often think about what we need to teach our students and residents – how we need to guide them…Our students and residents show us how to remain strong and resilient.  They have conquered far more challenges in their lifetime than most of us ever will.  They are the experts in persevering.  We thank them for inspiring us to keep going – even on our most difficult days.”

Dr. Hamlin concluded with “lessons we are learning” as the pandemic is still ongoing worldwide. She stressed that a proactive, science-based prevention plan is essential – as is the ability to act quickly.  And she warned about underestimating transmission rates, impact, and the length of time it will take for the virulence of COVID-19 to diminish. Reminding everyone that this is a “people virus,” she ended by saying,” People need to take care of people right now.  Take care of each other.  Take care of yourself. And stay safe. This is probably the biggest lesson here.”

To watch the virtual conference in its entirety, please visit: