by Sharon Chayra
Growing up near a large teaching hospital in Ghana, located in West Africa, Dr. Ama Brobbey had one aspiration—to help others in need. Today, as Chief Medical Officer for Intermountain Healthcare in Nevada (formerly HealthCare Partners Nevada), she gets to do just that.
At the apex of medical oversight, Brobbey no longer does rounds in the hospital, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t touching lives. Leading Intermountain Healthcare’s team of 325 physicians in Nevada, Brobbey’s authority lets her touch more patients than she ever could as a hospitalist. Under her guidance, the Nevada operation is privileged to serve many patients throughout Southern Nevada, and has consistently earned recognition for clinical excellence, especially in keeping the older Medicare patients healthy. Brobbey attributes this success to teamwork, but her skill in assembling high-quality primary and specialty medical teams has never been more evident as it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has changed the world and certainly the practice of medicine. One short year ago, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare, a not-for-profit health system, acquired HealthCare Partners Nevada. The roll-out of enhanced services and a new name would coincide with the growing media interest in Intermountain and its sponsorship of the Las Vegas Raiders football team, generous charitable involvement and excellence in medicine. When COVID-19 hit, however, plans were adjusted to intensify the organization’s focus on patient, caregiver, and community members’ safety.
Within hours of a state-wide shut-down, the Intermountain Healthcare team in Nevada had already convened and activated a crisis plan. Intermountain Healthcare availed its vast resources from Utah in epidemiology and infectious disease control and redirected efforts to protect the communities served. As a trusted authority, the goal was not only to inform and educate, but also to extend empathy in a scary situation. Interestingly, in an industry where men still outpace women in medical leadership, the healthcare response team had a strong presence of females.
According to Dr. Brobbey, “The female experience is so basic and ingrained in the overall life experience of both genders, that it makes sense the majority of clinicians, which includes nurses, are female. The empathy we bring to a profession, which is based on helping people at their most vulnerable, is priceless.”
One of these key leaders working with Dr. Brobbey is Clinical Quality Medical Director, Dr. Judith Ford, who has been with the company 23 years. Board certified in Internal Medicine, Dr. Ford’s unflappable style and smarts made her a natural spokesperson. She was on-call to deliver the latest information to journalists, as well as being the nexus for providers and central caregivers who either had questions, may have been exposed to or became ill with the virus. The initial pace was reminiscent of the long hours of medical residency, but Ford marched forward with her plucky humor. The fact that she works with Utah’s Infectious Disease team to bring cutting-edge information to frontline providers in Southern Nevada and developed safety protocols was a bonus.
Ford pursued medicine because it coupled her love of science with that of doing well for others. She knows it’s not just her caregiver colleagues in the trenches with her, but her family. “I have a wonderful husband who is a true partner in raising our children and caring for our home,” says Ford. Driven by the motto: when you know better, do better; Ford states her simple goal, “I want to leave a legacy where female clinician leaders are free to innovate in our collective medical future.”
The full force of telemedicine was unleashed on an enterprise-wide scale to ensure patient visits continued from the safety of home and Population Health initiatives were expanded to identify and direct response needs. The Intermountain Healthcare Wynn Urgent Care location transformed into convenient COVID-19 testing stations where people could drive up and remain in their cars while the clinic was still available for routine urgent needs. The scope of this coordinated effort spanned from Pahrump to Mesquite and all points in-between and involved every division of the company and caregiver.
Helping plan the logistics of this massive effort is Chief of Staff and Chief Nursing Officer, Keyona Cole. As a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner, Cole’s background in emergency departments honed her calm-during-chaos demeanor. Cole says, “COVID-19 has made sure that we were all on our toes.My role as Chief of Staff requires consistent research on COVID-19 and deciphering how and what to communicate to our caregivers and patients.” Under Cole’s watch, she has created solid processes that are communicated in the company’s regular briefings. These documents have become the “go-to” source of truth and Cole is particularly proud of her attention to detail, stating; “This pandemic affects people so differently and I had to be sure to manage both ends of the spectrum: those who were scared for their lives and those who could be more cautious during this time.”
Dr. Ann Jurani-Suarez, until recently, continued to see older and medically fragile patients. As the pandemic crested, Jurani-Suarez accepted a full-time promotion to Medical Director. It was bittersweet for this tiny dynamo but lets her make even bigger strides in medicine and life.
Born in the Philippines but immigrating to the U.S. at age 3, Jurani-Suarez credits her mother’s example for where she is today. “My mother, who has always been my role model as a strong, confident, professional woman, taught me from my earliest memory that as a woman and an immigrant, I would always have to work harder to prove myself. She pushed me to excel beyond what I thought I could achieve and then push even higher,” says Jurani-Suarez. This foundation coupled with the devotion of her husband, Willie, their son, Kasio, and daughters Isela and Nedia, have given her a purpose beyond what she could ever have dreamed. It has also fueled her mission to help patients live their healthiest lives possible and help lead the medical group into new dimensions of compassionate care.
As Jurani-Suarez notes with her trademark enthusiasm, “I have the honor to continue caring for patients through their primary care providers, focusing efforts on how to best serve our patients’ needs in traditional face-to-face visits and also expanding to the virtual world of video visits and embracing the challenges this new way of practicing medicine involves.”
While COVID-19 has captured most of the attention, women are still having babies and requiring specialized female care. With Nevada’s integration came a women’s health center of excellence. Although Intermountain boasts robust OB/GYN capabilities, the addition of Nevada’s fellowship-trained, minimally invasive gynecologic surgeons, and its state-of-the-art facility enhanced its reach to the most vulnerable in Southern Nevada: mothers and babies.
As Medical Director for Women’s Health, Dr. Sonia Ceballos has long been a champion for women and children. A happily married mother of twins, Ceballos is much more than a clinician, she’s an advocate. She explains, “I wanted to, in a very practical way, help my community—women, the Spanish-speaking community/Latinos, my city, my family and those who had given so much to provide me the upbringing and education I received.”
Ceballos, with the oversight of globally renowned physician Dr. Warren Volker, and a nimble team of surgeons, nurse practitioners, ultrasonographers, medical assistants, and administration created a place where such services were possible. Not only does the Women’s Health division provide care to medically underserved women, but also provides a training opportunity for next-generation healthcare providers thanks to collaborations with academia and private business.
Under Ceballos’ direction, COVID-19 may have thrown a proverbial wrench into the works, but unexpected arrivals are what the Women’s Health clinicians train for every day. Ceballos emphasizes, “We had to become innovative, figuring out ways to continue to take care of our patients—especially our pregnant women and women who had significant gynecologic issues who continued to require our assistance despite the current circumstances. Ultimately, as a medical division, we have benefitted from the methods and resourcefulness that we have developed during COVID-19.”
And, when COVID-19 threatened to starve shut-in senior citizens, Intermountain Healthcare became a key sponsor of the local Delivering with Dignity campaign. This collaboration helped restauranteurs avoid food waste while maintaining employment for food and beverage workers as it fed hundreds of Southern Nevada’s seniors who would have otherwise struggled with food security.
The adage that nothing remains the same but change has never been truer. COVID-19 has changed the practice of medicine, but it hasn’t changed its mission. It may have cast a dark shadow on human history, but it illuminated what is best about people. COVID-19 provided a stage where professionals who typically work outside of the spotlight enjoyed by today’s celebrities can now bask in a little celebrity of their own, including these five phenomenal women. This list is by no means complete, nor is it static. After all, who knows better than those in leadership at Intermountain Healthcare that medicine is truly healing when it contains an array of diversity and a big dose of heart.