During this unprecedented global pandemic, we have all watched with gratitude and admiration as our medical health professionals and volunteers jumped headlong into the fray to treat victims of COVID and keep the rest of us safe. This month we catch up with one of these 'bright soles', Renie Joie Penna-Couttenye, the Quality Assurance Nurse Manager for the Arlington County, Virginia Public Health Department, who helped mobilize and lead her county’s response to the crisis.
Renie, how would you describe your job since the COVID crisis hit?
Well, I am still the Nurse Manager of the Public Health Department in Arlington (across the river from Washington, DC). But when the coronavirus arrived in February and we had to mobilize the County’s response, our traditional organizational lines dissolved. We had to stand up a new Incident Command Structure (ICS) to manage and coordinate the public health response for the County. That meant mobilizing people from different departments into a new organization to handle everything from planning and operations, contact tracing, safety guidelines, logistics, and of course finance, to handle getting all the necessary people and equipment -- from personal protective equipment to ventilators – to where they’re most needed. In the end, we needed to get over 100 people into the new command structure and trained up. These were heady days and we all wore a lot of different hats. Once we stood up the ICS, I moved into the role of Safety Officer, then virtual team lead, and now handle advance planning so we can plan for and stay proactive, and ahead of this crisis.
Yes. I had to establish and maintain the guidelines and processes for our teams to work safely, whether from the office or from home. I realized our first task, really, was to get as many people working from home as fast as possible, which isn’t so easy when we’re all essential personnel. This became a job unto itself, so I led a virtual development team to create or modify software from scratch so that most of the staff could tele-work. I’m proud of what our team did. We were able to send people home within 1 week, instead of the two that we worried it would take!
That sounds like a Herculean task. How are you managing??
It’s been tough on all of us. We normally pull 13 hour days. But I work with wonderful people and we manage because we’re all highly motivated to do this work. Our client in all this is the general population, assisting not only our doctors and frontline personnel, but guiding the public; preparing our amazing volunteers and reserve medical corps to staff drive-thru testing clinics and conduct contact tracing… and to do it all safely. So for someone like me, who loves organizational development, the ability to put processes together that I know may help protect people is so rewarding. Even if I never get to meet these people, I know I’m doing something to help keep them safe.
You sound incredibly motivated! Where do you get it from?
I’m actually so thankful to be busy. I haven’t even had a chance to miss what I’m missing. I am an extrovert and I love people, going out and dancing, but thankfully I’m so engrossed in my work that I don’t have time to sit around and mope. I know it may sound nerdy, but I am thriving because I’m really motivated by creating and applying organizational principles. Fairly recently, I completed my Master’s in Organizational Development and Leadership at Johns Hopkins University; and so to be able to put my own experiences and judgment, together with what I’ve been studying for so long to such important use, is a reward. Being able to look at a problem that normally takes 10 steps to do, and finding a way to do it in 3, that gets my intellectual curiosity going!
Wow. Do you ever take time off?
Sure! A few weeks ago I did take my first two days off! My colleagues were wonderful and just told me to ‘go home, we got this.’ So I did. I believe in self-care and I’m able to turn off my cellphone and escape when necessary. Fundamentally, my spiritual principles align with my organization principles: I don’t want to be indispensable. In fact, my job is to make sure that I’m not indispensable so that anyone can jump into my role. Anything I go into, I start from there. And when you work with great people who are as motivated as you are… well, we trust each other and learn together.
Nurses have long held a special place in the American, and global, collective conscience as the most respected and beloved professionals. You guys seem fearless. What draws one to the profession?
It’s a great field because there are so many specializations and capacities that you can work in. You can also take a more holistic approach. I was actually pre-med in undergrad, but started to feel that, as a doctor, you can only heal with the tools that you’re given. I was always interested in treating the whole person. When I finished nursing at Hopkins, I went straight into delivery and labor. I loved it because it allowed me to work with women on their breathing and overall wellbeing. Eventually I wanted more intellectual stimulation so I became a case manager and went into public health. You can do a lot of different things as a nurse that I think other professions don’t necessarily allow.
A couple things do stand out about the profession and its practitioners, some of which I rediscovered recently. First, nurses generally and sincerely want to help others. They’re empathetic. That is a constant. Recently, we were being asked to recruit more nurses to staff the drive-thru testing clinics. At first our department heads were reluctant to do it out of a desire to protect us from possible infection. But all of us… we stood up and told him that we would love – would be honored – to volunteer. Many of us were upset that we weren’t able to serve that calling because we know how important testing is. Bottom line: there is a willingness among nurses to want to help. A courage to do whatever is asked. You’re not working against the grain to pull people in that don’t want to be there. I think that really showed up again for me when this crisis hit.
And one last thing, it's not only nurses that have really come out to help. The MRC volunteers, and all other supporting our system – librarians, for example! – have incredible skills that they have put to use,.. It’s had a huge impact. So maybe what’s been really amazing has been the spirit of volunteerism that I have seen in people during this crisis. That has really touched my heart.
We could just end with that! But my last question is: what’s your first vacation going to be when you finally get to take one (with a new pair of Laiiks of course ;)?
Ha! My mother stole my last pair of Laiiks so I’ll need to get them back first! But honestly, whatever and wherever it is its going to be to see family. I’ve been dying to go back to Venezuela where my family is from… so that’s been on my radar.
A crucial part of Bright Soles is to highlight and donate to organizations that are striving to make a positive impact. We asked Renie which organization she believes provides the best support where it's needed the most, and she chose the Bail Project, a national, revolving fund trying to reform and mitigate the devastating effects of over-incarceration, and economic and racial disparities in our US justice system. If you want to learn more about how the cash bail system criminalizes poverty and is a structural linchpin of mass incarceration and racial inequality, read here.
This week from today until July 1st, we're donating 15% of all purchases to the Bail Project.