If you ask Kelly Barris about her experience working as an outreach nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic, she’ll tell you it’s not as simple as just calling patients. On the morning of June 10, Barris was speaking with a COVID-positive patient when she heard shortness of breath through the phone. The patient was a pregnant woman and Barris noticed she had a constant cough throughout the call.
Barris’ nursing training and experience told her that the patient needed immediate medical care and she advised her to go to the emergency department. However, the patient wanted to wait for her husband to get home from work at the end of the day. As part of one great team, Barris engaged her leader, Jen Balchunas, to talk with the patient about her need for advanced care. Unfortunately, the patient hung up on the outreach nurses.
Barris and Balchunas knew they could not let this pregnant patient go without the medical care she needed and called 911. The patient arrived at a UNC Health Emergency Department with an oxygen saturation of 90 percent, which soon decreased into the 80s.
The patient was admitted and remained in the hospital for seven days. During that time, her symptoms worsened. Fortunately, the patient began to stabilize and chances of viability improved. After a week in the hospital, she was discharged on home oxygen and is doing well because of the immediate attention Barris and Balchunas provided during the outreach call.
Leading the Way: COVID-19 Nursing Outreach Team
UNC Health is leading the way in how we care for patients seen in our Respiratory Diagnostic Centers. Balchunas leads a team of nurses who have stepped up from various departments, calling all patients who test positive for COVID-19. This team not only calls patients with test results, but the nurses continue to check in with the patients in the week that follows a positive test result. Their skills and training allow the team members to monitor patient symptoms and make critical decisions about when a patient needs additional care.
This service and level of care is truly unique to UNC Health and embodies all four of our core values.
“This is really rewarding work,” said Barris. “No two calls are the same, and our patients have complex and varying needs. Many are anxious about their diagnosis and about spreading COVID-19 to their families and work arrangements. Having a continued, open dialogue with a healthcare provider can make all the difference.”
To date, the Outreach Team has made calls for more than 16,000 results. Patients have expressed appreciation for check-in calls that help them feel cared for even when quarantined, and for the nurses that work tirelessly to reduce patient and family anxiety during some of the most uncertain times.
Carolina Care: What Our Patients Say
“I would like to thank you all so much for everything. On a scale of 0 to 10, you would get a 100 for being so amazing to me. I can’t thank you enough – you calling me every day and sending me a questionnaire was very encouraging. I believe it helped my healing because I could depend on that call every day. Living alone, that meant the world to me. I can’t see where you can improve at all, and as a matter of fact I was thinking about changing my primary care provider to you guys. I could not have been treated in a more professional and compassionate way. Thank you all so much! Charlene, thank you for being someone that never minded if I called with a concern, I appreciate you greatly.”
“I felt I was never alone and was able to report my symptoms to someone every day. In a time when it could have gone horribly wrong, everything was excellent.”
“At first, I was very anxious and scared, but was very relieved when I was told a nurse was going to call me every day to check in on me. They were very good to me.”
“This made me feel safer because you were keeping in touch with me daily and putting my worries at ease. All the care given was exceptional and the nurses went above and beyond.”
“It made me feel well knowing you all worried about me, and the attention that you gave me was really good.”
“Thanks for your help during these hard times. You all really are doing a great job by keeping in contact with the patients who have the virus. Thanks for everything.”
“Made me feel safe to know I had someone to answer my questions. Everyone was knowledgeable.”
“Thank you for your show of care and taking the time to call and make sure I was okay.”
“This made me feel strong, like I was safer, like I wasn’t alone. Everything was really good because we felt supported.”
UNC Health COVID-19 Nurse Outreach Team
Jennifer Balchunas, Beth Caviness, Kimberly Davis, Lisa Beaver, Jane DeJesus, Nate Kaegi, Samantha Jackson, Tejal Patel, Kim Johnson, Stephanie Moye, Sara Earle, Veronica Parris, Leslie Richard , Kelly Barris, Rebecca Bartik, Debbie Mazzola, Marissa Navarroli and Lourdes Rivera.