Boulder Community Health staff led a day of learning and personal and organizational reflection Friday at the 3rd Annual Compassionate Care Symposium – this year focused on themes of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Caregivers, leaders and staff from across the health system came together to hear the results of a three-month shadowing program where leaders and staff spent the day following a caregiver from a different department outside their comfort zone.

A diversity expert from Mount Sinai in New York was flown in to talk about best practices and ways in which diversity and inclusion trainings lead to better patient outcomes and better retention of employees.

Employees signed up for afternoon-long breakout sessions on topics such as: multiple generations in the workplace, compassion for the homeless, acceptance and inclusion of mental illness, LGBTQIAP diversity, and racial and cultural diversity.

"I think that we as an organization are working hard at inclusion and equity and there are so many nuances to this awareness," said BCH Spiritual Care Manager Sharna Ill, a lead organizer of the symposium. " It's okay to start with a breath and to feel awkward but to be curious and want to support a continued growing of conversation that doesn't end, that allows us to take better care of patients and have greater compassion for all who walk through our door."

The day-long event was the culmination of six months work by over 20 BCH staff members, who took on the responsibility in addition to their regular jobs, including Sharna Ill and ICU Nurse Leader Lynne McAtee-Harris who together co-chair the Compassionate Care program at Boulder Community Health, which focuses on nurturing caregivers to enhance patient care. The event was financially supported by the Boulder Community Health Foundation led by President Grant Besser and the BCH Clinical Education Department led by Sarah Wise.

“The human need for connection and inclusion is strong,” McAtee-Harris began at the beginning of the symposium, “There is a desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Belonging makes us feel good, warm, accepted and comfortable. We understand our group, we relate, we speak the same language, share a similar culture and purpose. When we step outside our group, there can be fear and uncertainty. Suddenly, we feel smaller and less sure of ourselves.”

McAtee-Harris led a group who spoke about their experiences shadowing someone with a very different job in the organization. In all, 120 people asked to shadow caregivers in different departments, including BCH President & CEO Robert Vissers, MD who shadowed McAtee-Harris in the ICU.

“We kept having to extend the shadowing program because so many people wanted to join,” laughed McAtee-Harris.

Environmental Services employee Cecilia Cid shadowed a nurse in the intensive care unit. Through a Spanish interpreter, Cid told the group that the shadowing experience gave her a new perspective on her colleagues.

“My respect to everyone who works on that floor,” Cid said, citing the multiple priorities juggled by the nursing staff. “I’ve always enjoyed my job on that floor but now I enjoy it more because of my experiences shadowing.”

BCH Vice President and Chief Legal Counsel Sarah Meshak shadowed a nurse in the operating room and found the experience eye opening.

“If there’s any place for me that’s out of my comfort zone it’s the OR,” she said. “The first thing I noticed is that I was on my feet all day. My back hurt. My feet hurt.”

Meshak said that she snuck a seat on a stool but she noticed that no one in the operating room ever did, bringing their best to what is a life-changing event for many patients.

“I witnessed the amazing amount of compassion that these nurses have for these patients,” Meshak said. “It was like they said, ‘You are mine for the next two hours and I’m going to make sure everything goes well for you' and they did.”

She said she saw first hand the implications of some of the legal requirements she enforces, such as hand washing. She was particularly impressed with operating room nurses who woke up patients in their preferred language. “What a wonderful thing to wake up to your own language after something scary like a surgery.”

BCH Foundation President Grant Besser also shadowed McAtee-Harris in the ICU and said the day gave him a deeper emotional connection and understanding of the complexity of a caregiver’s job.

“I was surprised at the diversity of skills that are needed at any one moment and I left in awe of the unspoken dance of the caregivers who went about their jobs in a beautiful flow,” he said, “The emotional intelligence is off the charts here.”

Besser said he was able to witness first-hand the effects of community issues at the heart of the foundation's work such as mental illness, aging, and the opioid crisis. “I have a new perspective on how can we align the fundraising and grants of the foundation to better meet those needs.”

BCH President and CEO Dr. Robert Vissers spoke at the event about diversity as a core strength of any successful organization.

Dr. Vissers said that he learned a lot about diversity, forgiveness, inclusion and acceptance as a former emergency department physician working for 20 years in primarily safety net hospitals.

While completing his MBA program, Dr. Vissers said, he learned that teams with a diversity of experience always produced better solutions and products, every time.

“The exceptional provider is able to see patients through an unbiased lens but also see their uniqueness,” Dr. Vissers said.

He cautioned that being in Boulder can sometimes bring a false sense of arrogance that we are already progressive and welcoming to all. “Early this year we found that as an organization we have a lot to be proud of but there are a lot of things that we could be doing better.”

Dr. Vissers said we need to open ourselves up to listen to anybody who may be having a different experience.

The symposium was attended by caregivers and staff from departments throughout the organization: leaders, directors, nurses, doctors, therapists, aids, secretaries, members of the I.T. department, chaplains, clinical staff, respiratory therapists, our environmental services team, Spanish interpreters, marketing, human resources, and more.

Keynote speaker Dr. Barbara Warren, PsyD, LGBT healthcare advocate from Mount Sinai, spoke about the desire for and importance of inclusion and diversity training within health care systems nationwide.

“Patients who feel respected and connected to their caregivers are going to have a better health outcome,” Warren said. She said the fact so many people attended the symposium showed that there is workforce demand to do diversity and inclusion work.

Dr. Warren led two leadership sessions on diversity and inclusion attended by about eight BCH leaders, ranging from vice presidents to unit supervisors. She described the Mount Sinai program and experience, defined the role of leaders in an effective program, and provided training on the concept of implicit bias.

Breakout sessions were led by BCH staff, community experts and some community members who have been affected by these issues. Topics explored included racial and implicit bias in the workplace, Hispanic culture, multiple generations, LGTBQIAP issues, mental health issues, and homeless population issues.

Each attendee received a gift bag with books on diversity themes, a journal, reflections (in Spanish and English), mugs and essential oils.

“It was a beautiful day of learning and self-reflection, diversity and inclusion,” McAtee-Harris wrote later, “and I was so proud and happy to be part of such a unique and fulfilling process.”