Aaron Sadeghi
"I come to work every day knowing these patients may be feeling isolated, scared, anxious, or angry," says Aaron Sadeghi, seen at the screening booth at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. "In knowing this, I try to build relationships from a place of understanding." (Photo: UHN)

Aaron Sadeghi was looking for a way to help.

Without a job and watching the pandemic unfold in the headlines, he was feeling low and in need of a purpose. Then, Aaron saw a job posting as a screener at UHN and knew this was it.

"I can't put it into words – it just gives me the motivation to wake up every morning knowing that I am helping people during this challenging time," he says of his work as a screener, which began in August.

Aaron is one of about 160 screeners across UHN. They greet patients, visitors and staff at hospital entrances, asking if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, explain safety measures and provide masks.

Aaron, who screens at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, admits it can be a difficult role – telling a family member they can't visit a loved one; informing a patient with cancer that they have to go to their appointment alone; slowing a staff member's morning down slightly during the screening process.

But he focuses on the positives and the changes he can make.

"I come to work every day knowing these patients may be feeling isolated, scared, anxious, or angry," Aaron says. "In knowing this, I try to build relationships from a place of understanding."

'We all have our part to play'

Like so many things in healthcare during COVID-19, the UHN Screening Program was formed quickly with little room for error.

In March, when the global pandemic was declared, guidelines for implementing screeners were distributed one Friday with the expectation that they would be up and running by Monday.

"COVID has brought unique challenges," says Brenda Perkins-Meingast, Director of Practice Based Education at UHN, who manages the screening program.

"We have been learning as we go, especially at the beginning," says Brenda, noting that despite her experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) two decades ago, nothing compares to COVID.

Binita, Selena, Erika
There are about 160 screeners at UHN. Among them are: (L to R) Binita Patel, Toronto General Hospital; Selena Tindale, Toronto Rehab; and Erika Mayorga, Toronto Western Hospital. (Photos: UHN)

In the first few months of the pandemic, new policies were implemented across UHN, and the screeners were the ones enforcing them face-to-face with patients and families, and TeamUHN members.

At first, the screeners were redeployed hospital staff. They experienced both fear of the disease, and of the psychological and emotional rollercoaster they would face.

Eventually, as it became clear the screening program was going to be longer term, activity increased within the hospital requiring the staff back to their positions, UHN hired screeners. Onboarding tutorials were implemented and scripts were created to support them in the role

"Screeners are the face of the hospital," Brenda says. "They are the first point of contact you see coming in, so they play a critical role; so having the required training is important. and the supporting training." 

Training includes understanding updated policies, asking the right questions, customer service, and de-escalation skills if someone becomes frustrated with what they're told upon arriving at UHN. Difficult policies were implemented, such as the no-visitor policy, and inevitably, screeners faced backlash.

"We appreciate people are tired and stressed, but we have to stay the course," Brenda says.

"We all have a role to play in getting through this pandemic."

A purpose during challenging times

Like so many people, Michael Nesbitt, a clinical researcher at the Princess Margaret, found his normal life altered dramatically. Many of his patients weren't coming to the hospital anymore and his typical recreational outlets, such as basketball, were no longer available. Michael found himself looking for more.

He decided to volunteer as a screener part-time when he wasn't working. Today, he is a screening supervisor.

"I was able to have that patient interaction back, which is my favourite part about my normal job," he says.

Michael, who has worked at the Princess Margaret for 17 years, is able to easily navigate patients to the right clinic, while bringing some positivity to their day.

"At the end of the day, our job is to keep UHN and the larger community as safe as possible," he says. "By keeping the Princess Margaret safe, then our clinicians can give our patients the care they need."

Aaron and Michael, along with so many other UHN screeners, have chosen to overlook the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty of the work for the opportunity to bring some happiness to someone's day.

"If I can put even a tiny smile on a patient's face or a small action to make their experience less frightening, I know I am making a difference," Aaron says.

"I became a screener to do my part during these challenging times, but what I have found is that screening has given me much more in return."

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