The award was established in 2016 and it recognizes and honors VA employees who have demonstrated adherence to the highest standards of infection prevention and control in practice.
Ford has been hunting down microorganisms for five years for the South Texas Veterans Health Care System. It’s a daily battle for her and her team. The Centers for Disease Control estimate 1.7 million HAI’s every year are responsible for the deaths of almost 100,000 patients.
That outlook might be intimidating for some people, but not Ford. “It’s intriguing because instead of trying to look for what you can’t see, you look for what you can, something basic like hand washing,” Ford said.
Ford could not look for things “you can see” by staying in her office, so she hits the road, rounding in every corner of the 1 million square foot facility. “STVHCS relied on Ford to train employees and contract screeners at main entrances,” said former STVHCS Director/CEO Christopher Sandles.
Long before starting her career with the VA and the coronavirus devastating America, Ford was chasing another legendary organism, Tuberculosis (TB), which takes a deadly second place as one of America’s worst infectious diseases. Ford said that training and experience helped prepare her for COVID-19.
“We took care of a lot of TB patients,” Ford said, referring to her early nursing career. “We dealt with case management, so a lot of Personal Protective Equipment, a lot of respirators. You get very familiar with negative airflows and those kinds of environmental controls.”
Ford said it was natural for her because of her previous training that she was able to take the lead and collaborate closely with engineering to convert wards into COVID units.
The engineering service converted multiple inpatient wards, including the removal and relocation of several Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) patients up to the North Texas VA.
The healthcare system needed Ford’s counsel as the surge hit South Texas. Through the first couple of surges, the Infection Prevention (IP) team tested 64,000 Veterans, with 10 percent of them testing positive and a portion of those being admitted.
Keeping cool under pressure was something most employees needed to operate in and around an unknown like COVID. She learned that as a young girl from her soldier father.
“My father taught me a lot and he is one of the reasons I am a nurse,” Ford said. “He taught me how to stay calm.”
An unfortunate but very serious gash in her father’s hand was turned into an early lesson.
“What are you going to do, What are you going to do,” she recalls her father pressuring her for an answer.
“He taught me I couldn’t panic,” Ford said. “I’m the patient, I’m panicking, and you have to stay calm and solid otherwise I cannot depend on you,” Ford recalled.
Thankfully, for thousands of South Texas COVID-19 patients, that lesson landed.
Listening to her father’s stories of life as a Korean War POW after his passing instilled a sense of duty and courage. That outlook is what led Ford to put her hand up and volunteer to test Veterans in a nearby state nursing home after COVID-19 overtook the facility. This was early on in the outbreak, and not much was known about transmissibility and PPE requirements.
As the IP leader, Ford was tasked to provide training, and time was of the essence. “We swabbed all of their patients in a few days, and that ended up cascading into the Swab Squad. They needed our services, and the staff needed our education,” Ford said.
Once again, Ford touted collaboration as a game changer against infectious disease as she brought the samples back to the lab at the Audie L. Murphy Hospital to be rapid tested, which minimized the impact at the nursing home.
Using her HRO toolkit
Besides her experience fighting hidden enemies over a decades-long career, her award submitter, VISN 17 Quality Management Specialist, Vicki Butler says that career is fueled by passion and that passion always comes back to one thing…keeping Veterans safe. “She has a passion for serving the Veterans and staff,” Butler said. “As we transitioned from a ‘closed’ unit to an ‘open’ unit, she again worked closely with engineering, infectious disease, nursing, providers, and senior leadership to ensure safety,” Butler added.
Ford knows that the HRO principle of “Deference to Expertise” is critical to patient safety.
“It starts with collaboration, and they might have picked me [for the award], because I tend to be outspoken,” Ford said.
Two services she works very closely with are the Environmental Management Service (EMS) and Sterile Processing Service (SPS).
“EMS is one of those superheroes that you never hear about because if they are not doing their job, we would see a lot more transmissibility,” Ford said.
“Their cleanliness and their focus on cleanliness really does prevent harm. I don’t know that they get the accolades.”
She realizes both are pivotal members of the infection prevention team and consults with the services through reviewing their processes and training.
Although some staff are intimidated by her oversight activities, Ford says with infectious diseases, you can never be too careful. She realized during COVID, as staff was becoming fatigued, there is a threat that the focus on safety wavers. Her rounding promotes reluctance to simplify by enhancing work processes and as a result, patient outcomes.
“Sometimes the perception is that we are meddling into their stuff,” Ford said. “Sometimes you need that extra set of eyes. When you go into a place, if you’ve always been there, you don’t see the stuff that is evident,” Ford said.
Humbled by her recognition, she took a short pause to enjoy it, but knows that COVID, MRSA, and CLABSI are watching and waiting.
“As soon as you let your guard down, any organism is going to take advantage,” Ford said.