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Rounds: Pouring a cup of ambition as the journey wears on

Nov. 30, 2020, 3:53 PM

In the midst of a long, hard trek, we are inclined to focus on the miles remaining — forgetting all the terrain we’ve already conquered.

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

Taking a few moments to reflect on where we started and how far we’ve come can replenish resilience, restoring vital energy to keep moving.

Colleagues, we’re on one of those journeys right now.

It started as a race, became a marathon, and now it’s at least an ultramarathon. While we are beginning to see glimpses of an effective vaccine on the horizon, it’s not yet clear how long it may take to immunize enough people to impact the alarming surge in COVID-19. And with winter approaching quickly and the number of cases rising, I, for one, am in search of inspiration.

So, let’s turn back for a moment and look at what we’ve accomplished this year. With little effort, the list becomes a mile long. Importantly, the stories are not about a select few, but about the vast number of incredibly important contributions by nearly 30,000 VUMC people doing their best each day — with exceptional skill — and as the pandemic stretches on, incomparable stamina and grace.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 ignited something inside us. Through spur-of-the-moment collaboration and remarkable insight, we’ve pivoted in ways we never thought possible — turning our energy and creativity to find ways to make it safe for millions of people in our region to receive care. And just as important, new ways to make it safe for VUMC’s people to deliver that care.

To spotlight just a few: establishing a state-of-the-art telehealth platform in a few weeks, allowing more than 200,000 online care encounters that could never have happened a year ago; changing our IT network and security infrastructure in weeks when it was thought to take years; finding ways to bulk sterilize and reuse PPE; establishing a COVID-19 screening center in our Medical Center East parking garage — so impressive it made national news; building new care models and cross-training that has enabled safe and effective care despite staffing shortages due to COVID-19 — all at a time of higher demand for VUMC services than at any time in history.

Our world-renowned research and education teams stepped forward, not only helping us find creative solutions to vexing COVID-19 diagnostic and treatment challenges but rolling up their sleeves to help our laboratory staff due to the high demand for clinical testing. And through it all, VUMC has played a leading role in the nation’s efforts to produce vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, on a timescale compressed beyond any drug development effort in human history.

As our very own Dr. Bill Schaffner described to a Wall Street Journal reporter — “it’s 21st century science.” We have been integral to that science, with a host of COVID-19 related milestones, from the release of remdesivir, to key studies showing the efficacy of the new RNA vaccine, to the first heart-lung transplant in a COVID-19 patient, and many more. Through vision and ingenuity, as well as good old-fashioned elbow grease, so many of our programs are changing the game for people right here in Nashville and across the country.

I’ve had a front row seat to how extraordinary your efforts have been over the last seven months. Yet, no matter where we’re sitting, there is so much happening and at such incredible velocity, one can easily miss the forest for the trees. I’ve contemplated whether there is one, single accomplishment — an overarching success — that characterizes the scope of your incredible efforts over the past year.

So, consider this as a balm for fatigue and inspiration to plow forward — as of Nov. 20, well over 11,000 COVID-19 patients were so sick they were admitted to one of over 170 hospitals across Tennessee since the beginning of the pandemic. VUMC alone admitted almost 15% of those patients, nearly 1,650 people. Of those, we have discharged 1,356 to their homes.

That’s more than 90% of those moms and dads, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles who experienced the harshness of COVID-19 in a way that many of us are spared but went home to their families and friends. To paraphrase Itzhak Stern’s unforgettable words in Schindler’s List, the lives saved are “an absolute good.” It’s an accomplishment we all share, as the countless factors that make it possible are as rich and complex as the fabric of our Medical Center, including everyone here now, and all who have come before us.

Dolly Parton, who generously seeded some of our early stage COVID-19 vaccine research, has said, “let’s tumble out of bed tomorrow, and the next and the next, and keep pouring ourselves a cup of ambition.” Hard to say it any better.


Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

President and CEO, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

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