The center’s 140-plus patients now rotate through a program called “Administrator’s tea,” where six residents per month have lunch with Bell to talk and air any grievances. The lunch mimics a restaurant experience with workers acting as servers, Bell said.
“It’s the regular lunch they would get normally, but given a five-star treatment,” Bell said. “Patients share their stories. They look forward to it. They get dressed up. It’s just us talking, but it is really about assessing the needs of the patients and making everyone feel important.”
She was also able to reduce turnover by creating retention programs, including employee of the month awards and fostering a relationship with the workforce.
“We celebrate the small stuff. Most of our employees have never received an award, ever,” Bell said. “I also make sure I send out birthday cards … in the mail. Some of them have only ever received bills in the mail. If the housekeepers didn’t clean the place, this place wouldn’t work. If the food is awful, then I have patients who lose weight. This works only if everyone is performing and I want to make sure everyone knows that.”
When the pandemic hit, it hit nursing homes the worst. Nursing homes accounted for a third of all COVID-19 deaths in the state during the early months of the pandemic. But Hartford was able to keep more patients safe than the average, Bell said.
Bell and her administrative team quickly took online courses to become certified nursing assistants so they could aid employees in feeding and bathing patients.
“I would come in and dress in scrubs and give baths,” Bell said. “We were trying to keep everyone sane. People were scared. We had to make sure people ate and were happy. We had to get creative too. We lost some people but we maintained a functioning center and had fewer outbreaks than most.”
Bell managed this as her own husband fell violently ill with COVID-19 in the early months. He wasn’t able to move or speak. But the center’s physicians acted as an impromptu telehealth service, helping her care for him at home and maintain her presence at the center in a crisis.
“Had I walked away to care for my husband, the staff would have questioned me as leader, forcing them to work during a deadly pandemic while I stayed at home,” Bell said. “I had to be in the trenches with them too.”