Irene Engel Ready to Try ‘True’ Retirement

Irene Engel in 2012 (John Sponauer/UConn Foundation Photo)

Even though it’s been more than 20 years since she retired from UConn Health, Irene Engel never stopped working to make it a better place.

Irene has been a fixture at UConn Health since before John Dempsey Hospital opened, first as a nurse at the old McCook Hospital in Hartford, then as a nursing administrator, then in various positions as part of the medical school administration, and then, in “retirement,” working to rejuvenate the UConn Health Auxiliary.

Today, Irene’s life as a retiree in the more traditional sense is underway. Earlier this year she stepped aside as Auxiliary facilitator and helped with the leadership transition, with Debbie Baril and Chris Kaminski now serving as co-facilitators.

The Irene Engel Fund for Professional Advancement in Nursing

In honor of Irene’s dedicated service to UConn Health, both as an employee and in retirement as facilitator of the UConn Health Auxiliary, the UConn Foundation has established the Irene Engel Fund for Professional Advancement in Nursing. This fund is to benefit UConn Health nurses who would like to enhance their professional development through channels such as academic courses and conferences.

The Foundation is accepting checks (payable to The UConn Foundation, please specify it’s for Irene’s fund) at 10 Talcott Notch Road, Suite 100, Farmington, CT 06032. Checks also can be dropped off at the Connucopia Gift Shop.

The next chapter for Irene starts with her spending winters in Florida. But we couldn’t let this snowbird fly without answering a few questions before she left!

How did a young nurse from New Hampshire end up at UConn?

After nursing school (Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, Lebanon, N.H.) I got a job in the ER at Hartford Hospital to be near Harry, who was my fiancé. He worked at Pratt and Whitney in East Hartford. I came to Connecticut in 1955, and lived in the old Hartford Hospital maternity ward. They rented out rooms to the employees. My whopping salary was $232 a month, and I paid $28 to live in the dorm. I was allowed to have a hot plate and an electric skillet, and we had common bathrooms.

I started in 1968 at McCook Hospital, part-time on the surgical floor, weekends only. I went to full-time in 1970 when David (our son) turned 5. I’ve been part of the Auxiliary since 1969 (its founding year). That’s when we started the art collection.

You retired as an associate dean in the UConn School of Medicine in 1996. How did you get there?

At McCook we opened the ICU, started the renal dialysis program, and instituted primary care nursing, where the patient always had the same nurse, and the nurse followed the patient. It was a really big deal at the time. In 1975 the hospital in Farmington was ready and we started all over there. By then I was assistant director of nursing and we set up all the floors in the hospital, the ER, the ICU, the NICU, the OR, and eventually pediatrics, surgery on the 7th floor, and moved the ICU to the 2nd floor.

After Harry died (in 1978) I went back to school and got a degree in business. David and I both graduated in 1983, him from high school and me from Post College in West Hartford. At that time the faculty wanted to move out of the hospital and have a faculty practice, and they needed an administrator. They originally were looking for a physician, but they gave me a chance. That was the start of what would become known as UConn Medical Group (UMG), run out of the Department of Surgery. About six years after that, my work there was done, and I moved into the dean’s office first as an assistant dean then an associate dean. My nickname was “the Czarina of Space.” I was loved by some and hated by others.

By the time I was 60 I had worked myself out of a job. In 1996, I turned 60 on April 29 and retired May 1.

But how “retired” were you really?

About a year later, I got a call from Peter Deckers (then the medical school dean) and Dr. [Steven] Strongwater (hospital director) saying they’d like to talk to me about the Auxiliary, which was struggling. They asked me if I would consider taking on a job as president of the Auxiliary. Instead I agreed to take a different approach, as a facilitator. I wouldn’t do monthly meetings, I’d only do quarterly meetings, I’d keep up the newsletter, and I would try to make us profitable again.

We were profitable, for many years, but unfortunately, the last few years have been very difficult for the Auxiliary. The gift shop moved from the main lobby in the C building to the University Tower, and although the space is beautiful, sales have been down since the move. If things don’t turn around in the next few years, the sad part is, we may have to get rid of the shop, and that would be the end of the Auxiliary, which would be a shame.

UConn Health Auxiliary Board at Patient and Family Education Center dedication November 2015
Irene Engel (left), who recently turned over the role of facilitator of the UConn Health Auxiliary, is now enjoying retirement. She and the Auxiliary board were joined by Drs. Andy Agwunobi and Dr. Bruce Liang for the dedication of the UConn Health Auxiliary Patient and Family Education Center in the Outpatient Pavilion in November 2015. The board members pictured, from left, are Irene Engel, Mary Louise Wadsworth, Margo Granger, Debbie Baril, Swapna Das, Ellen Cartun, Ann Lazarek, and Wendy Urcioli. (UConn Health file photo)

If you had to choose a few of the Auxiliary’s accomplishments you’re proudest of, what comes to mind?

The Family Place at Homewood Suites, for NICU parents, that was such a special thing. And gladly, it’s still there, even though it’s not ours anymore. The second thing I would say is the webcam project that we did with the Rotary in the NICU. Those are two things I think we should really be proud of.

The Healy Chair (Fall 2005 UConn Health Magazine, P. 15), that was a big deal. We didn’t do it alone either. The faculty collaborated with us to make that chair happen. We took on a $950,000 pledge, and with the help of the faculty to get the money, we got the $1.5 million. It still pays Audrey Chapman’s salary today.

Over the years we’ve done a lot for research, and for students, with scholarships and travel money for medical, dental and nursing students.

What is it about UConn Health that makes it such a special place to you?

My love for a teaching institution. Not only can you help medical and dental students become educated with patients, but there was a warmth and a love that we all had in those early days. We just bonded together in a way to want to be successful and be proud of what we called the health center.

So many people that I mentored went on to do such great things in the state, in other institutions and in our own institution, so it always made me feel I’ve had a tie. I’ve always been pleased that I’ve had so much to do with medical care in this state: starting up the open-heart surgery at Hartford Hospital, starting up the neonatal intensive care unit as we know it at the Health Center, and now at Children’s, and helping bring paramedics to Connecticut. Those were all big things. And that’s my life, because I felt that I helped educate other nurses, and medical students, and I met so many great people doing my jobs.

What will you miss the most?

The people. That’s easy. The people, the friendships, the loyalty.

Spotlight on Services: UConn NeuroSport

Dr. Anthony Alessi on sideline at Rentschler Field
Dr. Anthony Alessi is director of UConn NeuroSport in Downtown Storrs. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Whether an athlete suffers a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or a persistent neurologic condition, he or she can turn to UConn NeuroSport for diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation. Located in downtown Storrs and part of UConn Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, NeuroSport enlists multiple specialties to deliver personalized care. Dr. Anthony Alessi, a neurologist who specializes in sports medicine and neuromuscular disease, is the director of UConn NeuroSport.

Dr. Anthony Alessi, UConn NeuroSport

What kinds of conditions do you see at UConn NeuroSport?

Although everyone is focused so much on concussion and head injuries, and rightfully so, we also take care of athletes with other neurologic injuries, like migraine headaches, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. We’re not limited to high-velocity contact sports. Other athletes – runners, non-contact sports athletes, any of those who they feel have a neurologic problem, whether it be acute or chronic – we’re happy to see, even if it’s just to give them a second opinion. Or people who are getting symptoms, as they’re running they’re starting to develop neurologic symptoms, we’re happy to see them.

Who are your candidates for care?

We see all ages, including high school and younger, from throughout the region, including other states. We have elite athletes who fly in and stay at the hotel out here, at the Nathan Hale Inn, and will stay for several days. We put them through the regime based on what we see and who they’re going to see next in the same day. If we need imaging we get that done quickly – we’re now able to do MRI imaging here. We have everything right here in Storrs, including athletic fields to assess athletes on. It’s exciting because it’s growing pretty fast.

What is UConn NeuroSport’s approach to care?

We are familiar with what medications need to be used that are legal, from the standpoint of performance-enhancing drugs, and we have to modify our treatment based on their performance. Some drugs that we would use typically for, say, migraine or epilepsy, will impair performance. Some will cause patients to gain weight, some to lose weight.

We look at all the neurological aspects of sport. When someone comes here with head injury, we typically look at that, verify the diagnosis, and then try to implement a program of getting them back to their sport, working with athletic trainers. It’s a multidisciplinary approach to getting an athlete back. It’s crucial to all of sports medicine, and neurology is no different. UConn, here in Storrs, is one of the few places where we do that through the Department of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. We’re a growing of group of subspecialists within neurology who do sports.

Which other specialties are involved?

We work with primary care sports medicine specialists, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, and athletic trainers.

Who refers patients to UConn NeuroSport?

We get most of our referrals from athletic trainers. When you’re an athletic trainer for a team, your job is to get that athlete back as quickly and safely as you can. Those are the people who are closest to the action.

Second to them are primary care physicians, who evaluate their patients and then send them to us when appropriate. Anytime a physician is faced with a patient who they’re not able to get back in a timely fashion, or they keep meeting obstacles with, those are the people we want to see.

We have athletes with neurologic conditions who compete at the highest level of sport. Who would even imagine that someone could be playing at the highest level of their competitive sport with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis? But that is going on.

More information about UConn NeuroSport is available at health.uconn.edu/orthopedics-sports-medicine/specialties/neurosport.

Spotlight on Services: Diabetes Education

UConn Health diabetes educators
From left: UConn Health certified diabetes educators Lori O’Keefe-Fomenko, Rebecca Santiago, Linda York, and Jean Kostak (Photo by Kristin Wallace)

Diabetes educators are an essential part of the care team for people with diabetes. The UConn Health Diabetes Education Program includes nurses and dietitians – some of whom are certified as diabetes educators (CDE) – as well as physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, exercise specialists, social workers, and other health care professionals. All work together to ensure the best care and management of diabetes.

Jean Kostak, diabetes education specialist
Jean Kostak, UConn Health Diabetes Education Program coordinator

Jean Kostak is a diabetes education specialist and the program’s coordinator.

How do CDEs fit into the larger care picture?

CDEs are health professionals who work with providers to support patients’ day-to-day efforts managing their diabetes. We can be registered nurses, registered dietitians like myself, pharmacists, exercise specialists or social workers. We take the time to get to know the patients, help them develop a plan, and give them to the tools to take control of their diabetes. Part of that is, as our name suggests, educating patients about their type of diabetes and how it progresses through their lifetime.

What’s the most common question you get?

“What can I eat?” We probably get that the most. We work with patients to individualize their meal plan to help them meet their blood sugar goals and lose weight if needed. Often times they can still enjoy their favorite foods, in reasonable moderation. If you think about it, it’s really not that different than those don’t have diabetes, because really we all should be careful about what – and how much – we eat.

Rebecca Santiago, diabetes nurse educator
Rebecca Santiago, diabetes nurse educator
Linda York, diabetes nutrition educator
Linda York, diabetes nutrition educator

How do you help with the self-management of diabetes?

Good lifestyle choices go a long way in managing diabetes, and the cases of people who have prediabetes, good lifestyle choices can slow down or even prevent progression to type 2 diabetes. This includes of course exercise. We work with patients to teach them how to fit physical activity and exercise into their daily routine regardless of their restrictions. We educate them about their medication and how to take it correctly. And we can assist with choosing the right blood glucose testing monitor and show them how to use it and interpret the results.

Why is this an effective care model?

Lori O'Keefe-Fomenko, diabetes nurse educator
Lori O’Keefe-Fomenko, diabetes nurse educator

Managing diabetes can be stressful. Adding to that stress is, if not managed properly, diabetes can lead to other complications. When you have someone to work closely with as you face these challenges, you can build confidence in you ability to self-manage you diabetes. And that can help you feel your best. We have an ongoing relationship with our patients. They don’t have to go through it alone, which can make a big difference in not letting their diabetes get in the way of leading a full, healthy life.

What are the qualifications of a certified diabetes educator?

We must prove our knowledge and skill in diabetes self-management education by completing at least 1,000 hours of patient education and pass a challenging certification exam. Patients can be sure that when they’re working with someone with CDE credentials, they’re in good hands.

November is Diabetes Awareness Month, and this year, National Diabetes Education Week is Nov. 4-10.

Learn more about diabetes care at UConn Health at health.uconn.edu/diabetes.

Looking at Us: In Compliance With Deb Abromaitis

Healthcare Compliance team
The UConn Health Office of Healthcare and Regulatory Compliance includes (from left) Joanna Mackie, Shannon Kelmelis, Kim Bailot, Deb Abromaitis (interim compliance officer), Michelle Mendocha, Kaitlyn Rewenko, and, not pictured, Rikel Lightner. (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

One of the reasons for the UConn John Dempsey Hospital’s high marks in the latest Joint Commission survey is the work of the Office of Healthcare and Regulatory Compliance. Longtime UConn Health nurse and nurse administrator Deb Abromaitis serves as its interim compliance officer, and she credits her staff (and many others) for the successful visit. Today we get to know Deb a little better. She lives in Unionville with her husband, and has two grown sons and two grandchildren.

Deb Abromaitis

Favorite sport:
Figure skating

Favorite holiday:
Christmas. I love giving puzzles to my nieces, nephews and my children to figure out how to solve the puzzle to get a gift.

Favorite place(s) to visit:
Istanbul, Turkey. I also love to vacation in the Outer Banks with friends.

Favorite dining spot:
I love going out to different restaurants for breakfast on the weekend with my husband and friends.

Interest outside of work:
I always love and treasure spending time with my family.

Describe your role here, and how your roles have changed/evolved over the years?

I’ve been the Interim Compliance Officer in the Office of Healthcare and Regulatory Compliance for less than a year. The first time I worked at UConn Health was about 30 years ago, and I have been in many positions over the years, starting as a per diem nurse then a nursing supervisor, manager, and director.

Some of the areas where I have managed include the Nursing Supervisors, Bed Control, Float Pool, Transportation, Emergency Management, Environment of Care, Patient Relations, Volunteers, Spiritual Services, Interpreters, Quality and Regulatory.

When you were first starting as a nurse, if someone told you that you’d be a hospital compliance officer, how would you have reacted?

I would never have believed it! I love people and knew that as long as I was a nurse I would never be anywhere but at the bedside!

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job today?

The most challenging would be having others understand that we are trying to be helpful when we work with areas to meet the needs and regulatory requirements for the patients, the staff and the institution.

The most rewarding is watching patient care improve, staff pride and satisfaction grow, and the institution get recognized for the great work that we do and the care that we provide.

We recently had an unannounced accreditation survey by The Joint Commission. What goes into preparing for and dealing with that, and what made it successful?

In the hospital we say that we are always prepared for a survey. It’s working hard every day to do everything possible to educate and train all staff to meet all regulations to provide the highest level of care to all patients.

What made it successful is the commitment of everyone at UConn Health to remain regulatory compliant and provide the highest level of care to our patients. We hear that it takes a village….and it truly does! There are so many employees who work very hard and are willing to do whatever they can to help have a positive impact on our survey. They are sincerely appreciated!

I don’t want to name individuals as I know I would feel terrible about leaving out the many, many people who were instrumental in this success. I do need to recognize Dr. Agwunobi’s constant support of the readiness process, including his commitment to securing repeated visits from The Joint Commission Resource consultants who helped us prepare for the actual survey. In addition, I do need to highlight:

  • My staff in the Office of Healthcare and Regulatory Compliance, who worked tirelessly for months training and obtaining all documents needed.
  • Senior leadership, who provided a plethora of time and support as well as vision.
  • Chapter leaders, who ensured compliance and readiness with Joint Commission standards.
  • Nursing and all staff who worked tirelessly to prepare their units and the entire hospital to be ready for the survey each day. Those who willingly spoke with Joint Commission surveyors and shared the positive aspects of what we do were terrific!
  • Support staff who assisted day in and day out as ambassadors, scribes, runners, drivers, catering, maintenance, facilities, housekeeping.

Everyone worked together to ensure we showed The Joint Commission the best of UConn John Demspey Hospital. The work of so many wonderful, dedicated staff made the entire survey an incredible success!

And when you’re not working, you’re often volunteering?

I love to volunteer, including being the opening ceremonies and figure skating competitions director and coordinator for the Connecticut Special Olympics for many years, volunteering on the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), fundraising for the American Heart Association, and I’m very proud that I brought and chaired the first Relay for Life in Farmington!

Your family seems to have several connections with UConn basketball.

My husband played basketball at UConn (Jim Abromaitis, 1975-1980). My older son played basketball at Yale (Jason Abromaitis, 2003-2007), and married Ann Strother, who played basketball at UConn. They have two children, a 3-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl. My other son played basketball at Notre Dame (Tim Abromaitis, 2007-2012). I never played basketball, but was a UConn cheerleader.

Looking at Us: Ellen ‘Bleeds Blue’ Benson, OR Nurse Manager

More than 11,000 surgeries are performed here every year from foot surgery to brain surgery which takes a lot of coordination and planning to make sure patients get the best care possible. A key reason our ORs run smoothly and efficiently is the dedication and tireless work of nurse manager Ellen Benson. She’s worked at UConn Health for the last 28 years. Ellen lives in Harwinton with her husband of 36 years. She has three grown children.


Ellen Benson, screen shot from video by Frank Barton and Ethan GiorgettiEllen Benson

Favorite book:
I was never much of a reader, but I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe when I was a kid, weird little short stories, they were great for my attention span at the time

Favorite movie:
I love Harry Potter and Indiana Jones movies.

Favorite time of year:
I love the fall. The cool crisp air, the colors, the smells and the comfort foods (like apple crisp and ice cream). Halloween is one of my favorite “holidays.”

Favorite place to visit:
This is a toss- up. I love the beach and I also love to hike in the woods, no particular location. As long as my family is with me, I’m happy anywhere.

Famous person you’d most like to meet:
Colin Powell. I read his autobiography and was amazed at his life story, the places he has traveled, the work he did, the people that he knew. I would also have loved to have met and worked with Florence Nightingale – she is my hero!

Something about you today that your younger self would never believe:
That I would love my job even more today than I did when I first started and that I would be the manager of the OR.

Why did you become a nurse?
I went to a career fair when I was 18 years old and was introduced to the surgical technology profession. I grew up butchering chickens with my grandfather, so I thought – I can do that job! I worked for about a year full time and then realized I could do more, so my husband encouraged me to go to nursing school.

How did you end up being the OR nurse manager?
I worked for nearly 19 years from 3 to 11 p.m. as a staff nurse. That was an extraordinary opportunity because I learned so much. I worked with a small group who really helped each other and it was an awesome environment. Working evenings also gave me the opportunity to be home during the day with my children. It was the perfect work/life balance for us. When my youngest daughter was in high school, my husband said it was time to switch shifts. It just so happened that the assistant nurse manager position opened up. I had never thought about going into management but I thought that it might be a good move for me. I got the position and learned many new skills. When the manager position became available, a few people encouraged me to apply. Much to my surprise, I was hired for the position and have been the manager for almost five years now.

What has been a major milestone in your career?
I earned my bachelor’s degree about a year ago. That was a huge personal achievement! I was highly encouraged to complete my degree by nursing administration and they really supported me through the process. I enjoyed taking classes with the younger students who were fresh out of their associate degree programs. I have worked in the OR my whole life so it was great looking at nursing through their eyes. I ended up being a mentor to quite a few of them and I still stay in touch with them, so that was really a wonderful experience. My husband and children also helped me achieve this milestone, if it weren’t for their support, it would have never happened.

Why do you like working at UConn Health?
It’s just a wonderful place to work. We have this beautiful new hospital and we have great nurses, physicians and support staff to help us fulfill our mission of teaching and caring for the people of the state of Connecticut.

I love coming to work every day. I am proud to be a part of the UConn family.

I really do bleed blue!

Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. Graduate Takes Alternative Career Path

John Wizeman, Ph.D.

UConn graduates in biomedical sciences are thinking outside of the academic/tenure track box and considering alternative career paths. Ph.D.s are finding unique ways to apply their scientific skills in government, pharma, industry, business, as well as law. Brittany Knight, Biomedical Sciences graduate student, interviewed recent graduate John Wizeman, Ph.D., about his choice to pursue intellectual property law.

Patent law is an area of the greater field of intellectual property law (IP), which also includes trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. Patents provide exclusivity for inventors which can allow individuals to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create while encouraging creativity and innovation for public interest. In the last few years, patents in the biomedical sciences have earned a lot of attention. One example is the long-standing dispute over the IP rights to the revolutionary gene-editing technology known as CRISPR.

Wizeman initially learned about careers in intellectual property during a seminar coordinated by the graduate school. Cambria Alpha-Cobb, a technical specialist from Dilworth IP in Trumbull,  came to UConn and discussed the field. Wizemen says he would not have known about this potential career avenue without UConn setting up the seminars.

Anthony Sabatelli (Yale Ph.D. 1984, chemistry) a firm partner at Dilworth IP, created the internship program in 2014 to provide “meaningful real-world experiences” for Ph.D. students considering non-academic careers. The position at the firm is referred to as a Technology Specialist which allows interns to research the technical and legal aspects of IP-related cases, as well as publish articles on Dilworth’s IP online blog. Under the supervision of Sabatelli,  Wizeman published two articles on Dilworth IP’s blog, one of which was picked up by “Patent Docs” – a patent law weblog for attorneys.

Since 2014, several Yale alumni have utilized the internship to pursue law degrees, technology specialist positions in law firms in the Boston-area, as well as to attend law school in New York City.  One student even used the position to eventually transition to a career in scientific publishing.

“Based on connections with graduate students at both UConn and Yale, we decided to run an experiment at Dilworth IP to bring in a graduate student in the latter phase of their Ph.D. program – either in chemistry or one of the life sciences – to give them an opportunity to see what a career in patent law entails,” said Sabetelli.  “In structuring the program, we realized for it to be mutually beneficial for both the student and Dilworth IP, it would have to be more than just a mere shadowing opportunity. We would have to provide the student with actual projects and provide them with opportunities to interact with other colleagues in the firm and even, as appropriate, with clients. The opportunity that we came up with is one of Technology Specialist where the student can research both the technical and legal aspects of various intellectual property-related projects in our law firm.  As seen from the track record of the students coming through our program, it has given them a meaningful leg up making them highly competitive in the job market.”

In the Biomedical Sciences program, Wizeman completed his doctoral work in the lab of Royce Mohan in the Department of Neuroscience. He studied a form of vision loss that is prevalent in older individuals, called age-related macular degeneration (AMD).  “UConn was helpful in not only exposing me to this path, but to prepare me as well,” said Wizeman. “The training I received in the neuroscience department helped keep me knowledgeable about a wide range of scientific disciplines, as well as the newest and most groundbreaking research. I’m excited to bring this training to my new position.”

Students in graduate programs, such as those in the biomedical sciences, develop a broad skill set including comprehensive understanding of subject matter, oral and written communication, time management, project management, data analysis, and critical thinking. These skills, apart from wet lab or bench science techniques, are organic products of intellectual rigor and scientific discovery.

Wizeman adds, “This internship has given me an opportunity to work on my writing as well as introduce me to the IP field. Under Anthony Sabatelli’s guidance, I have been able to write several articles for the Dilworth blog. This experience helped me understand the field and find a position as a Technical Specialist for Lathrop and Gage, where I will begin an IP career in the coming weeks.”

“The program has truly been a win-win for both the students and Dilworth IP,” said Sabatelli. “The students have had a great learning experience while we have benefited from their help on numerous projects. Students like John that are taking the opportunity to learn about patent law, as well as other fields, are helping to strengthen the collaboration across universities and businesses such as UConn, Yale University, and Dilworth IP, which has been shown to be mutually beneficial.”

Looking at Us: Aretha ‘the Friendly Phlebotomist’ Floyd

If you’ve ever encountered Aretha Floyd, you may have found her so pleasant that you almost could forget she was sticking you with a needle. Aretha is an inpatient phlebotomist who draws blood throughout the University Tower. She’s worked in health care for 23 years, including the last three at UConn Health, where patients and coworkers know her to be friendly, upbeat, and always smiling. Aretha is a mother of five and grandmother of four. She and her husband live in Bristol.

Aretha Floyd, inpatient phlebotomist (Photo by Kristin Wallace)

Aretha Floyd

Favorite book:
Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Favorite time of year:
New Year’s

Favorite place to visit:

Famous person you’d most like to meet:
Aretha Franklin, because I was named after her!

Something about you today that your younger self would never believe:
I will become a nurse. I’m starting school in January and I’m really excited about it!

What is the most challenging or rewarding aspect of your job?

The most challenging and rewarding thing that I can say that I have here is drawing patients’ blood. Everybody’s scared, they’re nervous, and they’re upset, they don’t know what’s going on with them, and some of them just don’t want to be bothered. But when I come in I just come in with enthusiasm, showing them that I care and that I want them to get their results so they can be well. It’s one of my favorite aspects of things that I need to do to help them get along.

What do most people not know about phlebotomists?

Phlebotomists are nervous too! When we’re drawing their blood, the patient is saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re going to stick me with a needle,” but I’m saying, “Oh my God, I’m going to stick you but I hope I get it on the first try.” Being phlebotomist is a hard job. It’s not as easy as people think it is. When you are really drawing someone’s blood, you have to deal with people from all different races, different thoughts, how they think, you have to try to compromise and have sympathy and empathy for everyone, because everyone doesn’t like needles.

You have a reputation as a very positive and pleasant person. What drives that?

I love my family, friends, and coworkers, and most of all I love people! I love giving respect to people. I don’t care where you come from, who you are, I feel like everyone is my family. I think it’s important that we respect one another, always greet, and say something nice. It doesn’t cost that much. Say something nice.

What would you do to make UConn Health better place?

I would love to have a group of volunteers go into each and every patient’s room and sing. I would love that.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

I like to sing with my band, I’m in a five-piece band, we’re called Five Straight. I like to rehearse with them and learn new songs so we can show our talent. We’re not on Facebook yet, but if you need to know where we’re playing, you can come to me, I’ll let you know, I’ll text you, I’ll do whatever I need to do to let you know that we’re playing somewhere.

UConn Health Auxiliary: A 50-year Legacy

Debbie Baril manages the Connucopia Gift Shop at UConn Health, which is run by the UConn Health Auxiliary. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)

The UConn Health Auxiliary is in its 50th year of existence. Over that time, “The Good Deed People” have contributed more than $9 million to UConn Health.

The Auxiliary runs the Connucopia Gift Shop, both the main store in the University Tower (main level next to Starbucks) and the kiosk on the first floor of the Outpatient Pavilion, as well as the UConn Health Auxiliary Thrift Shop on Park Road in West Hartford. Whenever you patronize those shops, or any of the vendors who visit UConn Health during the year, or any of the vendors who come to the Spring Market or the Festival of Trees and Winter Faire (look for more details in the weeks to come), you’re supporting UConn Health by supporting the Auxiliary.

The UConn Health Auxiliary Patient and Family Education Center in the Outpatient Pavilion was dedicated in November 2015. Pictured, from left, are Irene Engel, Dr. Andy Agwunobi, Mary Louise Wadsworth, Margo Granger, Dr. Bruce Liang, Debbie Baril, Swapna Das, Ellen Cartun, and Ann Lazarek. (Photo by Defining Studios/Roger Castonguay)

Historic contributions include:

More recent contributions include:

  • Scholarships and student travel funding
  • Cancer survivors’ program
  • Patient assistance program
  • Web cams in the NICU (with the Farmington Rotary)
  • The UConn Health Auxiliary Patient and Family Education Center in the Outpatient Pavilion, including two interactive kiosks
  • Providing notebooks for patient education in both the Outpatient Pavilion and the UConn John Dempsey Hospital

New members and volunteers are always welcome!

Spotlight on Services: Day in the Life of a Dispatcher

Buildings and Grounds Patrol Officer Kevin Cabelus answers a call. (Kristin Wallace/UConn Health Photo)
Buildings and Grounds Patrol Officer Kevin Cabelus answers a call. (Kristin Wallace/UConn Health)

Our UConn Health dispatchers answer hundreds of calls each day – some of them routine – such as vehicle jumpstarts or door unlocks – others are a matter of life and death. One recent incident called special attention to the great work they do when Buildings and Grounds Patrol Officer Kevin Cabelus kept a distraught, suicidal former patient on the phone talking while dispatcher Stephen Ferraro figured out his identity and location. They contacted local police who rushed to the man’s home and found him clinging to life. Their fast action is credited with saving the man’s life.

Buildings and Grounds Patrol Officer Kevin Cabelus answers a call.
Buildings and Grounds Patrol Officer Kevin Cabelus and dispatcher Stephen Ferraro. (Kristin Wallace/UConn Health)

The Pulse wanted to learn more about our dispatch services here at UConn Health so we asked Stephen and Kevin to answer a few questions about the important service they provide.

How many dispatchers work at UConn Health?
UConn Health currently has five full-time dispatchers. There are 10 Buildings and Grounds Patrol Officers (BGPO) in the department who are also trained in dispatch to fill in absences on any shift as needed. There is always someone on duty – whether it is a dispatcher or a BGPO – our emergency and routine lines are always monitored by trained staff on campus.

What kind of training does it require?
The full-time dispatchers are sent to the same training course that municipalities send their dispatchers. We also take a course to be certified in COLLECT which is the Connecticut database for accessing everything from driver and license plate information, to stolen cars and wanted or missing persons nationwide. Additionally, dispatchers have specialized training opportunities in active shooter, crisis intervention, self-defense, and radiation. We are also CPR certified.

What types of calls do you receive?
Typical emergencies, such as medical/injury calls, car accidents, thefts, and personnel disputes and routine calls, such as people needing directions or escorts, vandalism, door unlocks, vehicle jumpstarts, wildlife reports, or just anything that people need to know and don’t know who else to ask. Though we strive to help everyone as soon as they call, you may be put on hold for an answer to your routine question when something of an emergency nature is on the other line. We appreciate your patience!

What is the most common call you receive?
This will vary by shift, but because I work at night we do a lot of unlocks in the building and escorts for employees after shuttle service stops. We also have a lot of calls for patients who are disruptive or combative. I send BGPO’s and police officers there to mitigate and isolate these threats and keep staff and the other patients safe and comfortable.

How is it different working here versus a town or city police dispatch?
Basically all the same things that occur in a town can and do occur here on campus at some point. The biggest technical difference is that we do not answer 911. While we have our in-house emergency line, only so many 911 centers are authorized by the state. Since we’re located in Farmington, 911 calls go there initially. If a call is pertaining to our campus, it will be transferred back to us when necessary. In terms of call handling, a big difference is that we are customer service oriented. Whether it’s a call from an employee or one of our many patients and visitors – we are here for everyone, to keep them safe and do what we can to help while they learn, teach, work, heal, grieve, or celebrate life.

Why did you want to become a dispatcher?
Being a dispatcher is a great way to help people, which I enjoy being able to do as a career. What led me to this position was a background in volunteer firefighting, giving me experience on the other side of the radio. I had already worked at UConn Health in Nursing Transportation so when this position became available I was very eager to jump at the opportunity to do something I love at a place I’d grown to love as well.

Kevin: I chose public service because I knew at a young age this is what I wanted to do. There are a lot of police officers in my family so it felt natural to get my college degree in criminal justice. Helping people is what I enjoy and there’s no better way to do that than with this career. When you go into any type of law enforcement or public service you build a bond with co-workers that is very strong because you depend on each other every day. For example, the call that Steve and I had, we’ve worked together for a little over 3 years now so when that call came in we knew what the other person needed to make that call successful. When you work with people like Steve and you mesh well together, it makes your shift and career a lot easier.

Any calls that really stand out for you and the dept.?
Collectively all of our dispatchers do great work handling serious calls, they’ve had accidents, they’ve had casualties, they’ve had people running around with weapons or being aggressive on drugs, they’ve had fires and gas leaks… It’s our job as dispatchers to quickly bring about resolution and minimize the impact these incidents have on those involved and the rest of the important things that go on here at UConn Health. Doing so, alongside our excellent team of firefighters, paramedics, police officers and BGPO’s, has been as much of an honor as it has been working with the other dispatchers here at UConn Health.

Coast to Coast Riders Racking up Miles

The UConn medical and dental students making their way across the country by bicycle this summer continue their progress home from Washington state, with some now having reached the Eastern time zone.

Zach Giaconne, Josh Goodman and Brian Leland, all going into their second year in the UConn School of Dental Medicine, make up the first of three teams on the 2018 Coast to Coast tour. They were the first to fly to Seattle June 4 and are leading the way home, having just reached western New York.

Five other students also are pedaling their way back to Connecticut. Proceeds this year benefit the statewide nonprofit Mental Health Connecticut.

Second-year medical students Pat Lau and John Sullivan make up Team 2; they left Connecticut June 9 and just reached Niagra Falls. Team 3 left June 12 and includes Christine Donat, Taylor Larese, and Curtis Xu, also medical students. At last check, they had reached Minneapolis.

The students are aiming for a mid-August return to Connecticut. So far they have raised more than $13,000 toward their goal of $20,000.

Team 1 is posting updates on Instagram, while Team 3 is maintaining the Coast to Coast 2018 blog.

Those interested in supporting this year’s ride can make an online pledge at http://mhconn.org/UCONN.