WNY Frontline Heroes – Jillianna Wasiura

The Healthcare Executive Forum (HEF) of Western New York is very proud to recognize and award the following amazing individual as a “WNY Frontline Hero.”

Jillianna Wasiura: It May Be About Team, But It’s Also About Individual Heroes

Jillianna Wasiura, RN, BSN, CIC, Roswell Park Senior Infection Prevention and Control Coordinator

Jillianna Wasiura, RN, BSN, CIC
Roswell Park Senior Infection Prevention and Control Coordinator

“What a heavy burden for everyone,” Jillianna declared when asked just how much the pandemic is impacting everything in her life. Throughout our heart-warming conversation highlighting her amazing work in setting the tone for all Western New York health facilities facing the nearly unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, Jillianna kept repeating one word, “team.”

The team is led by an Infection Disease Physician, who is the Medical Director for the Infection Prevention and Control department and Jillianna, as the Senior Infection Control Coordinator supervises two other Infection Control Coordinators.

“COVID doesn’t care about nights or weekends, so it is an ongoing fight trying to figure out what is priority for our patients”

Jillianna aids with department operations consisting of creation, workflow, and implementation of policy and protocols related to Infection Prevention and Control. She works in a hospital packed with patients facing the most difficult of situations, and the most special of needs a human being can face. Jillianna mentioned that from the beginning of dealing with COVID, she and her team have been working 24 x 7, handling all eventualities that arise due to the pandemic. She said, “COVID doesn’t care about nights or weekends, so it is an ongoing fight trying to figure out what is priority for our patients and staff at Roswell, as well as throughout the community, while also trying to balance family life.” Jillianna admitted she and her team can really feel the wear and tear of a never-ending daily grind to just get communications and protective processes in place for a disease that is constantly evolving, especially with new issues presenting themselves every day. She said it gets harder to bear when she sees in the news that there is an uptick in positive COVID numbers in WNY, cutting at her team’s mental capacity to somehow just keep going, especially after everything they have done till now to keep people safe.

When asked about what a regular day looks like, Jillianna said, “For all us preventionists on my team or on the wider community team, it is always a bit different, while in many ways being monotonously the same—it’s a chaotic mix. Every day we have our normal duties from before, including the important education and prevention of infectious disease. However, now we have all the added tasks that COVID brings. Roswell Park has cultivated a strong safety culture, which has helped, but the focus has expanded now to include COVID triage scenarios for patients and family members, testing, exposure points, and embedding these daily learning processes into a comprehensive forward-looking screening system.” Jillianna expressed that the goal is to uncover where there may be high risk exposures through testing and contact tracing, increasingly minimizing any triggers for the further spread of the disease, and to immediately, yet compassionately, isolate those in need of help that could potentially cause spread. Yet, at the same time, she must think many chess moves ahead, creating a system that thoroughly computes all the variables when people are close to each other for things like vitally needed radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment, scans, and life-saving operations. It is a true modern battle and Jillianna already can be singled out as someone who at least deserves a medal.

“Universal protocols are great, but when creating a comprehensive system of control and treatment for COVID, you have to think about clusters, super-spreaders, and much more, including all the things that are relevant to our situation,” in caring for patients, staff, and the community, Jillianna said.

Jillianna noted that infection control is investigative work…it is really detailed. She said prioritizing is the biggest issue—trying to understand who and what presents the biggest risk. So she works with her team to divvy up the workload and make sure the important directives get out to those that need to know, including caregivers who are encountering the COVID virus first-hand by doing the testing, in the intensive care areas, operating on patients, and many others throughout Roswell Park. Its system of caregivers provides world-class compassionate care while also dealing with all these new challenges. Realizing this, Jillianna and her team dedicate nearly every minute of every waking day to making sure they stay on top absolutely everything that goes on throughout the whole organization—all to keep thousands of Western New Yorkers safe.

“It always comes back to the patients and their families,” says Jillianna.

Jillianna takes comfort that all her colleagues are supporting her team and each other, working as a big family. Jillianna’ s team works to think ahead on how to prioritize the urgency, with an ongoing risk/benefit algorithm, and ultimately an ability to reach out to others at Roswell Park for immediate help should the risk grow quickly.

Jillianna recounts: “For our first positive COVID patient, I had the displeasure of contacting the individual directly. Here I am as the one calling saying to someone on the other end of the line, ‘I am so sorry you are positive.’ This patient was understandably terrified.” Jillianna explained that it’s difficult enough having discussions about Cancer, but now you add COVID and it makes it even harder on patients.

She relayed  stories about patients who had been COVID positive at Roswell and how hard the visitation restrictions had been.  “It is hard to think about patients dealing with cancer, plus COVID, whose loved ones have restricted visiting”.

Jillianna seemed to take these incredibly emotional daily episodes in stride, but we could hear in her voice the toll it takes, especially when she spoke about her family. “My husband is a sheriff, but also does contact tracing for the Erie County Department of Health. We are both embedded in the pandemic. So many people are putting others before themselves. You start to feel the burnout.”

With boys of 15 and 9, and a girl of 7, Jillianna says she likes to work, but the work-life balance has been extremely challenging and  very difficult. Whether it is for her family, her teammates, or for the community, Jillianna says her thinking is just, “Oh god, please get them all through this.”

Why did Roswell have low COVID positive cases and good outcomes from the beginning? Jillianna again humbly credits her team and everyone in the hospital, but this time mentions one decision at the top, that made a tremendous difference. “We follow the same guidance as other hospitals nationally, but we jumped on top of the situation locally at Roswell Park when we prematurely mandated universal masking for all staff and patients, an idea that Dr. Mullin had presented and that made so much sense! Everyone saw the seriousness of the situation,” says Jillianna. She notes that Roswell took a very conservative approach from the beginning and was blessed to have testing on-site, so that when other labs were bombarded with longer turnaround times for result notifications, Roswell Park still found a way to have test results within a 24 hour turnaround time, crediting the Laboratory Medicine department for all their efforts.

“I have been waiting years for people to understand the importance of good hand washing. I have been trying to preach this for so long…we cannot get lax or backslide, we need to stay vigilant in our community Infection Control efforts.”

“One serious very good change that came out of COVID from the community is that everyone is doing Infection Control. I mean I have been waiting years for people to understand the importance of good hand washing. I have been trying to preach this for so long,” she said with a giggle. Then, with a more serious tone, Jillianna notes, “We cannot get lax or backslide, we need to stay vigilant in our community Infection Control efforts.” It is hard not to agree and not to do everything possible to help stop the spread of COVID, knowing that people like Jillianna need all our support.

When asked to give a message to others on the front lines in other facilities facing this terrible pandemic, you guessed it, Jillianna again stressed the importance of relying on each other. “All this is a team effort!” she says. “I couldn’t do anything without a team. That is what I always believe. It is not one person, but it takes hard work and collaboration from everyone to keep people safe.” I would tell my peers and co-workers, ‘take care of yourself. Don’t forget about yourself.’ Jillianna says it is comforting knowing that we are all going through this together, not just Western New York’s community, but our nation and the world. Jillianna’ s advice: “Stay positive, exercise, feed your own mental health and don’t forgot about you.”

In commenting on what healthcare leaders should be doing during the pandemic, Jillianna has an important suggestion. “Really take hold of your staff right now and talk with them individually. Really listen, and ask, ‘what do you need?’” She stressed that it is critically important to just ask, “How can we help?” This allows all the exhausted front- line workers know they are not “left alone in the dust,” as Jillianna puts it. “Asking your staff what they need goes such a long way and feeds directly into the emotional care demanded right now by patients and their families.” She says, “Burnout is a real thing!”

Just listening to Jillianna’ s incredible energy, compassion, vigilance, and professionalism, it is not hard to believe our community will pull through this pandemic thanks to people like her stepping up, in the face of all the monotony and exhaustion, to save us all.