Rising to the Challenge | Torrance Memorial

Published on April 01, 2022

Rising to the Challenge

Torrance Memorial nurses keep patients and themselves safe during the pandemic.

Nurse in PPE

Written by John Ferrari | Photographed by Monica Venegas

From supplies in the warehouse to procedures in the ER, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Torrance Memorial, everything had to change. No one knows that better than the frontline nurses who provide care for patients throughout the hospital and have continued to do so—safely—throughout the pandemic. Even before the pandemic reached the West Coast, Torrance Memorial’s nursing staff was preparing for it.

“We were very much watching what was going on in the East Coast,” recalls Mary Wright, Torrance Memorial’s chief nursing officer and senior vice president of patient services. “We had a lot of planning to do.” That planning had to encompass providing care not only for Torrance Memorial patients, but also for the hospital’s own nursing staff.

“We developed safe ways to check in patients, and then we also had to think about waiting and treatment areas and transporting patients,” says vice president of nursing services Shanna Hall. “Information was changing fast in the beginning. We were getting information from different sources—some of it contradictory.” 

Torrance Memorial made the decision to rely on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, but having a single, trusted source of information was only the first step. The info also had to spread throughout the hospital. 

“Behind the scenes, clinicians were creating protocols based on evidence coming in,” Hall says. “We educated staff on all the protocols. Infectious disease nurses went to each department to educate. There were changes almost weekly, so our educators were busy! That lasted for about the first four months, after which it stabilized.”

Torrance Memorial needed its entire nursing staff to treat COVID-19 patients and combat the pandemic. “Even when elective surgery was turned off, we never laid off anyone,” Wright says. Instead, the hospital cross-trained surgery nurses and technicians to fill critical pandemic roles. 

“We had a role we created: spotters,” Hall explains. Spotters were trained to ensure clinicians entering a room with a COVID-19 patient had the correct equipment, and they had removed their personal protective equipment (PPE) properly when they left the room. They also trained to support ICU nurses.

Torrance Memorial’s support for nurses and other employees went beyond medical protocols and procedures. “The trajectory was, after making sure staff were personally protected with PPE, we focused on supporting them and then on how to support them at home,” says Hall. 

male nurse's arm holding IV poleNurses in contact with COVID-19 patients worried about the possibility, however unlikely, of bringing the disease home to their families, so Torrance Memorial partnered with hotels to provide rooms for concerned healthcare workers working in high-risk areas. “Everyone was fearful about going out,” Wright adds, “so we used part of our cafeteria as a little grocery store. Because everyone was working so hard, eventually we had a way for staff to order prepared food to take home too, and we partnered with the YMCA to offer free childcare through the end of the school year.”

Torrance Memorial’s nurses have weathered five “surges” since the pandemic began. With each, the hospital’s practitioners have more familiarity with the disease, but each is different too. 

After the initial surge in early 2020, the second surge during the summer brought more staff illness—the result of greater community exposure. The third, hitting last winter, was in some ways the worst. By that time nurses were dealing with COVID-19 in → their own families. 

The fourth surge, which started in July 2021, largely affected unvaccinated individuals. While mortality rates were lower, nurses also found themselves treating more young patients. “That was difficult for nurses because there was a solution for this that people weren’t taking,” Wright says. 

Thanks to the widespread availability of effective vaccines, by early November the COVID-19 caseload was decreasing, Wright adds. However, this didn’t last long as the fifth and widespread Omicron surge came into play just after Thanksgiving and was with us deep into January.

Torrance Memorial’s nurses continue to maintain the protocols implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among patients and staff. “We’re a pretty safe lot,” Wright says. “We do keep our masks on. If we gather for any reason, we keep the groups small. We’re leading the way. We want to make people comfortable in the level of protection they want. By now, everyone has been impacted by this disease to some degree.”

Hall agrees. “There’s not a person I talk to today who hasn’t been affected directly or had a friend or family member affected by COVID-19.”

Supporting the Mental & Emotional Health of Staff

As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, many of us were affected physically, mentally and emotionally. Torrance Memorial staff worked to provide 360-degree support for every employee under difficult circumstances. That effort started with a website critical to linking employees to valuable resources during the pandemic when we couldn’t be together and expanded from there, recalls Elaine McRae, director of Torrance Memorial University (TMU) and member of the hospital’s Leadership, Education and Wellness Council. 

TMU, a source for employee personal and professional development, became a key channel for the hospital’s efforts. “We continued our curriculum of managing emotions, practicing inclusion, leadership communication and other topics,” McRae says. “But we had to reinvent the university because everything we did before was live, and suddenly employees needed information remotely. So we converted our training to Zoom to reach our employees.”

The newly formed Building Resilience Steering Committee, chaired by Nursing Services VP Shanna Hall, guided the hospital’s expanded efforts with help from psychologist Moe Gelbart, PhD, filling the new mental health director position. Working together, with input from managers on what their teams needed, McRae and TMU facilitated the rollout of support groups, a series of speakers discussing aspects of mental health, and activities from music lessons and meditation sessions to gratitude journaling. While many of these were virtual, once it was safe to do so TMU also began offering in-person activities, including surf therapy through a partnership with the Jimmy Miller Foundation.

Torrance Memorial also continued Support Our Staff (SOS), a program designed to help employees bounce back from—or simply process—mental and emotional issues. The program includes a health supervisor on the campus 24/7, peer supporters and other resources. 

As the hospital looks ahead from the pandemic, McRae says TMU is ramping up an important initiative to educate employees on unconscious bias. “Torrance Memorial is committed to doing better at eliminating bias in the workplace. Already more than 3,000 staff have completed the online training,” she says, and the discussion sessions have been “warm and honest. Everybody wants to do the right thing. We pride ourselves on having a very kind and caring culture here.”