A doctor. A nurse practitioner. An administrator. A CEO. The staff at a retirement community. What do they have in common? They are all among this year’s Health Care Heroes.
The following 10 health care professionals and teams from both Lee and Collier counties have all gone above and beyond the call of their day-to-day responsibilities at a time when the quality of health care was more important than ever. Recognized by their colleagues and communities, each of them, in some unique way, has helped to put the caring back in health care.
Here are their stories.
Mental Health Care Provider
NCH Physicians Group, Naples
A genuine rapport with patients
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, you could find Esther Mugomba-Bird, APRN, right where she ought to be—in her office, seeing patients.
This certified nurse practitioner for behavioral health medication management with NCH Physicians Group donned a mask and full personal protective equipment so she could offer her patients the care they needed, often for 10 to 12 hours a day. And during those days, Mugomba-Bird maintained her typically sunny disposition and caring attitude. She has a real and honest rapport with her patients, remembering little personal details of their lives: a new job, that big move or the latest milestone with their kids. And her positive point of view isn’t just reserved for her patients.
When coworkers and colleagues were having trouble balancing home life and work obligations during the pandemic, Mugomba-Bird adjusted her hours to help them cope with their conflicting responsibilities. In fact, she was a was a driving force in helping as many nurses and providers as possible to deal with the daily stressors that seemed to multiply during that time.
Mugomba-Bird often sees people when they are at their worst, so she feels an obligation to be at her best.
“Helping those struggling with mental health conditions live life to its fullest potential is priceless. This honor is a good reminder of why I do what I do,” she says, then adds, “I do not know what I would do without my staff, and I am grateful to each and every one of them.”
Working in both inpatient and outpatient settings, Mugomba-Bird has a unique ability to not only treat her patients with the medications they need, but also to counsel them with the support that they crave. She often finds herself laughing with patients during moments of triumph, and crying with them during their darkest hours. No matter the situation, she never loses sight of the person she’s dealing with. Sometimes, Mugomba-Bird finds herself having to have difficult conversations with patients. But in the end, she tries to make the experience as positive as possible for those she serves.
Along the way, she manages to genuinely touch the lives of almost all of those she encounters, and that makes her a real stand-out among her peers.
Health Care Prevention
Vice President of External Affairs, Healthcare Network, Immokalee
Serving the underserved
Julie Pedretti made quite an impression when she joined Healthcare Network in July 2020 as the COVID-19 community relations director. Tasked with organizing the Immokalee network’s then-new multilingual COVID-19 Response Team, it was her job to expand existing programs to include increased testing, and eventually vaccines, education and community outreach.
How did she do?
By the next year she produced such impressive results that she was promoted to the network’s vice president of external affairs. That gives you an idea of Pedretti’s hard work, tenacity and organizational talent.
The response team’s focus was Southwest Florida’s underserved populations, including Immokalee’s farmworker community, which at the time Pedretti took over the team had some of the highest COVID-19 positivity rates in the country. The team’s goal was to dispel rumors and build confidence in vaccination and testing, particularly in vulnerable communities where language and cultural barriers, as well as a historical distrust in health care, exist.
Healthcare Network’s COVID Response Team consists of 12 community health workers (called promotoras) that provide door-to-door outreach with culturally appropriate educational materials and messaging in Immokalee. In late 2020, the team canvassed 601 homes in 16 days, reaching about 1,500 people. From Jan. 1 through Oct. 20, 2021, the multilingual promotoras visited 4,932 homes. The team also helped connect families with local resources for physical and mental health, and food and housing assistance. “As a community health center serving vulnerable, medically underserved populations in Collier County for 45 years, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020, it was clear to Healthcare Network leaders that it would be critical to proactively address the growing health-equity issues,” Pedretti says. “We knew that cultural barriers and mistrust, language differences, low levels of literacy, lack of technology, little to no transportation and concerns about documentation of migrant farmworkers and others would create significant challenges in educating and protecting the community during a pandemic.”
To date, Pedretti’s team has conducted 27,758 COVID-19 tests, held 118 testing events in locations throughout Immokalee, administered 11,429 COVID-19 vaccine shots (with 3,434 in Immokalee), held 20 vaccination events in locations throughout Immokalee and strengthened partnerships with other agencies in Collier County. Impressive results like those stand as a testament to Pedretti’s leadership.
NCH Healthcare System, Naples
‘When you love what you do, it isn’t really a job’
A critical care and ICU charge nurse at the 713-bed NCH Healthcare System, Ellison Warner, RN, BSN, CCRN, TNCC, has seen all sorts of trauma in her 14-year career. But nothing could prepare her for what she saw and endured at Collier County’s largest health care system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her unit was simply inundated, and resources were strained.
Warner is a charge nurse who ran a 22-bed intensive care unit during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, meaning she oversaw all the planning, coordinating and evaluating of nursing activities for the unit. In addition, she was a clinical resource nurse and a lead of the code blue team, which deals with some of the hospital’s most serious cases.
“I absolutely love being an intensive care nurse and taking care of patients. Critical Care nurses and physicians are a unique group of people,” Warner says. “We are type-A, adrenaline junkies, who love the controlled chaos that the intensive care unit brings. I work alongside the most amazing, highly educated and caring critical care team. As cheesy as this is, it’s true: When you love what you do, it isn’t really a job.
“What I love most about my job is that I get to take care of people and their families at their most vulnerable time. I get to watch my patients get better. I get to educate them and their families about their condition,” she says. “I get to hold their hand when they’re scared. I get to pray alongside them when they ask. And if it is in their last moments, I get to make sure they’re comfortable and never alone. It is truly an honor.”
When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, she and the team of critical care physicians came up with a plan on how to safely treat, intubate and triage COVID-19 patients—no easy task. But her methodical and calm demeanor, as well as her caring manner, was not only critical to helping her team, but it was also essential in caring for the patients in her charge. And there were plenty. By the summer 2021, NCH’s COVID hospitalizations were up by 800% and by the beginning of the year, COVID cases seemed to double almost daily.
She became well-known for going above and beyond the call of duty, always assisting her team, ensuring safety precautions, picking up extra shifts during surges and educating nurses on other floors on how to best take care of COVID-19 patients.
In short, she helped save a lot of lives.
Chairman and Medical Director, Cape Coral Hospital Emergency Department, Cape Coral
What’s up, Doc?
They call Timothy Dougherty, MD, simply Doc.
They are the staff at the Cape Coral Hospital Emergency Department, where Dougherty, a toxicology expert, is chairman and medical director. He earned the nickname with his friendly demeanor, compassionate personality and caring ways. He clearly loves what he does. According to those who know him, Dougherty, who is also medical director of Lee Health Disaster Management, knows how to both listen and communicate effectively, creating a safe, comforting and healing environment for his patients and their families. And he has put his skills to good use in trying to improve the care provided by the departments he oversees.
When two patients presented in the emergency department at Gulf Coast Medical Center with COVID-19 on March 4, 2020, the staff there weren’t sure how to treat them. From that day forward, Dougherty, who has been medical executive president of Cape Coral Hospital for the past two years, has also been one of the medical center’s go-to experts on helping to find solutions on how to best care for COVID patients—especially in those early days when so much was unknown. He has been painstaking in evaluating new drug therapies and medical treatments to make sure the hospital’s staff was offering the best care. Since that first day, Cape Coral Hospital has seen more than 6,000 COVID patients.
Dougherty’s expertise and knowledge contributed to many improvements over the past 18 months. He has been intimately involved in critical decisions on treatment options, and he has spent countless hours providing education to the medical center’s physicians and nurses, all to improve care and create the most positive environment possible for patients.
“Our pandemic response required a creative and coordinated effort from everyone in the health system, and the tireless efforts of the entire team made it successful. Our main concern was the safety and welfare of both our patients and staff,” Dougherty says. “As variants continue to come through, we’re still adapting and fine-tuning, but we are just as dedicated now as we were when we started in early 2020. I am so proud to serve on this team.”
As the medical director of Lee Health’s Disaster Management Team, Dougherty also has worked to make sure everyone on that team remains current on changes in treatment options and best practices in emergency response. Those who work with him depend on him 24/7 to ensure they are providing the best care of their patients and community.
They all know they can depend on Doc.
Volunteer Services, Lee Health,
Touching lives one smile at a time
Lee Health’s volunteers touch lives in so many ways.
They greet patients with smiles and warm welcomes. They escort them to, or from, their cars when they enter one of Lee Health’s campuses. They cuddle the tiniest of babies when their families can’t be with them around the clock. They answer phones, direct foot traffic, as well as handle all sorts of other responsibilities.
Lee Health volunteers serve patients, families, staff and the community every day with pride and great devotion—whether it’s answering questions, offering clerical help, helping locate services, staffing the gift shop, playing the piano in the HealthPark atrium, fundraising with the Lee Health Auxiliaries or interacting with patients.
“There is so much to reflect on over the past few years, and I couldn’t be prouder of the entire Lee Health volunteer team and the staff and leadership we have to support them,” says Teresa Frank, Lee Health’s director of volunteer services. “Whether it’s delivering snacks to health care workers, or taking therapy dogs to see patients, you can see the light and energy our volunteers bring to the hallways of our hospitals.”
Lee Health has more than 2,000 volunteers who donate more than 150,000 hours of time annually, directly impacting more than 20 departments within Lee Health and helping thousands of community members. They work with courage, integrity, trust, business expertise, knowledge and compassion.
During the pandemic, Lee Health’s volunteers helped deliver snacks, drinks and other refreshments funded by the community and Lee Health Foundation to front-line staff for six weeks straight to brighten their days and keep them running strong to provide the best possible care to all patients at the system’s four acute care hospitals, including those with COVID-19.
“The compassion our volunteers show, their drive to want to help others,” Frank says, “and their desire to give back and serve others make them health care heroes each and every day. This recognition is truly a team effort; it is for all Lee Health volunteers.”
CEO, Physicians Regional Healthcare System, Naples
Making things grow
Scott Lowe, market CEO of Physicians Regional Healthcare System in Naples, has a talent for making things grow.
Since taking his role there in 2015, Lowe helped to make Physicians Regional one of the fastest-growing health systems in Collier County. Under his open-door style of leadership, Physicians Regional expanded to three hospitals and tripled its staff.
This last year, the health care system opened a state-of-the-art medical office building on Pine Ridge Road and at Founders Square.
But the jewel in the health care system’s crown undoubtedly is the Heart Center at the Pine Ridge campus of Physicians Regional Medical Center, a project that Lowe first envisioned in 2016 and which became a reality on July 21, 2020. Lowe was so proud of the new center that he volunteered to be the “first patient” in a mock surgery.
Since then, the Heart Center has performed more than 200 successful cardiac surgery procedures, established a structural heart program that performs cutting-edge procedures and has expanded to perform elective and life-saving interventions. Then, in fall of 2021, Physicians Regional signed a long-term lease to take over operations of the 50-bed Landmark Hospital of Southwest Florida with plans to turn it into a general acute-care hospital. It’s all part of Lowe’s strategy for growth.
Lowe is known for his down-to-earth and approachable management style. Staffers often call, email or text him directly; he typically answers. He frequently makes rounds to ensure staff has all necessary resources both in the clinical and non-clinical areas. And Lowe is known to often pass out food and snacks to staff who may be too busy to break for lunch at each of the system’s hospital campuses.
“The real heroes are the staff at Physicians Regional who directly, and indirectly, serve the residents of Southwest Florida. We strive to have a culture of engagement and collaboration. I am very fortunate to work with over 2,000 employees and over 600 medical staff physicians who focus on delivering the necessary care to our patients,” Lowe says.
“The COVID pandemic has strained resources, but our teams continue to find ways and go above and beyond to help people get well and live healthier lives by providing safe high-quality care. I am truly honored to be part of the Physicians Regional team and look forward to continued service line growth to meet the growing demands of our community.”
A Southwest Florida native, Lowe has seen the region grow in leaps and bounds through the years. Now he’s doing his part to help it grow even further.
Manager of Emergency Preparedness, Lee Health, Fort Myers
When emergencies hit, he acts
Greg Fisher had only been on the job as Lee Health’s manager of emergency preparedness for about six months when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
On an average day, the manager of emergency preparedness administers Lee Health’s disaster readiness, response and recovery. It involves a lot of prep work, just in case a disaster should hit the area. But the coronavirus presented a disaster for which very few ever really could be prepared.
At first, the volume of patients was small. By the end of March 2020, Lee Health was caring for 30 COVID-19 patients across its four acute-care hospitals. By the end of April, the count was 83. Following the Fourth of July holiday, the number had skyrocketed to more than 350 patients. By the beginning of this year, Lee Health had seen a total of 25,083 COVID-19 cases. During those early months, however, Lee Health’s team was doing everything it could to learn more about the disease, best practices in how to treat it and procedures on how to keep patients and employees safe.
Though relatively new to his job, Fisher, a Navy veteran, rose to the occasion. He put in place a new disaster management infrastructure to help Lee Health with long-term COVID-19 management.
Fisher developed a systematic response based on well-established emergency preparedness best practices. In short order, Lee Health had a well-defined incident command structure where everyone knew their roles and knew where to go when they needed additional assistance. He helped establish a clear chain of command and, under his leadership, communication gaps closed and a cadence of situation reports and incident action plans were developed to boost proactive planning and keep everyone updated on what was happening at all times.
“As the leader of the incident command at Lee Health, I—along with my team—work to stay ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure operations continue to run smoothly at our hospitals,” Fisher says. “Every day, the incident command team receives requests throughout the health system, and we use our processes to resolve any issues. What’s most important to our success is we work as a team.”
In the end, Fisher, who also works part time as an emergency management specialist/logistics officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, streamlined Lee Health’s disaster management program so that staff can act more agilely in the face of emergencies. He helped forge mutually beneficial partnerships with outside agencies such as Lee County’s Department of Health, the county governmental infrastructure, EMS and others.
Skilled and assisted living facility
Gulf Coast Village, Cape Coral
Health and safety are
When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020, the staff at Gulf Coast Village, a continuing care retirement community in Cape Coral, took action.
Gulf Coast Village offers a full continuum of care, including independent living, assisted living, specialized memory support, skilled nursing, home health and rehabilitation services, so clearly the health and safety of residents are top priorities.
That led to Gulf Coast Village’s decision to protect residents from COVID-19 by immediately limiting access to the community, starting March 12, 2020. This decision came days before COVID-19 forced professional sports leagues to shut down, a week before the Florida Department of Health banned visitors from assisted living communities and two weeks before Florida’s “safer at home” order took effect.
Staff members also took steps in their personal lives to protect themselves and their families from the virus. For months, they were the only non-residents granted access to the community. As part of the community’s “universal source control,” staff wore personal protective equipment at all times, underwent frequent testing and practiced good hygiene and social distancing.
While COVID-19 spread in senior communities nationwide, Gulf Coast Village remained unscathed for five months without a single confirmed case reported among residents.
Strong communications helped residents understand what was being done, and why. An initial town hall meeting allowed residents to hear the community’s action plan and ask questions. Family members also were brought into the fold and received frequent email updates about policies, safety protocols and statistics. Gulf Coast Village created an online database that tracked COVID-19 cases among residents, staff and contracted workers.
Gulf Coast Village staff stepped in to develop a program whereby residents or their families could request video visits using technology provided by management. Over the next few months, Gulf Coast Village facilitated nearly 1,000 Skype and FaceTime calls to keep residents in touch with their families. The staff also arranged lanai visits and helped residents learn to shop online, assisting them with ordering groceries, gifts and other items.
“Everyone from the health team to housekeeping to those answering calls from loved ones, our associates at Gulf Coast Village have offered support, companionship and great care when our residents and families needed it most,” says Greg Anderson, Gulf Coast Village’s executive director.
Because of the quick action and comprehensive policies, Gulf Coast Village was able to keep its residents as physically and emotionally healthy as possible throughout the pandemic, reporting a total of only 70 cases of COVID-19 among its 400 residents across all levels of care and communities.
“The staff have gone above and beyond to keep us safe,” says resident Margaret Djerf. “They reached out to us with entertainment—games, puzzles and activities as well as meal delivery, even a Mother’s Day tea. These are just a few examples of the ways they helped us stay occupied and connected during the initial pandemic shutdown and we are grateful.”
Health care staff
COVID Strike Team,
Millennium Physician Group, Fort Myers
A winning team
Made up of a small group of registered nurses and clinical administrators from Millennium Physician Group, one of Southwest Florida’s largest primary care groups, the practice’s COVID Strike Team was born on New Year’s Eve 2020. That’s when Millennium, headquartered in Fort Myers, received its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Under the direction of the group’s practice manager, Amy Washinsky, the team—which has three full-time members, one part-time member and a variety of nurses and volunteers cycling in—quickly designed and tested workflows and perfected and implemented strategies to get as many people scheduled and vaccinated as safely and quickly as possible. During this time, it was important that the team closely adhered to social distancing guidelines and strict storage and distribution protocols for the vaccine doses.
Since the early days of the pandemic, the team also has staffed COVID-19 testing sites. As the coronavirus vaccine became more available, they administered hundreds of vaccinations a week—often during nights and weekends in addition to their normal daily workload. At the height of the pandemic, Millennium grew its COVID-19 Strike Team concept to 12 locations across Florida.
“I don’t take credit for any of this,” says Washinsky. “It’s all the team that we have in place.”
Team member Amanda Simone, RN, adds: “We all work together to help the community.”
Millennium’s COVID-19 Strike Team is still serving on the front lines of the pandemic, and its exhaustive efforts are helping to protect Southwest Florida and beyond. Millennium’s COVID-19 Strike Team has administered more than 3,500 COVID-19 rapid tests and more than 6,000 vaccinations statewide.
During a Boston Red Sox spring training game against the Minnesota Twins last year, the group’s front-line workers were honored. Hugo Myslicki, Millennium’s senior vice president of business development, praised the COVID-19 Strike Team’s efforts: “I’m very proud of those nurses who are the backbone of our company, alongside with our providers.”
TeleSpecialists LLC, Fort Myers
Dialing in for quality care
Telemedicine may be growing more common these days, but when TeleSpecialists LLC—a physician-owned, physician-led management service organization in Fort Myers committed to providing telemedicine care for hospitals nationwide—first started in 2013, receiving medical treatment over the phone was still something of a novelty.
Back then, the TeleSpecialists’ five founding physicians served on the medical directorship of the stroke program at Lee Health. They were also taking calls and treating patients themselves. These founding physician partners struggled with seeing the poor patient outcomes and inefficiencies within the system. They knew there was a better way to save more lives, and, ultimately, the TeleSpecialists model was born.
Stroke patients require quick care with clot-busting medicines to ensure recovery. However, it can be exceedingly difficult to see patients across large health care systems efficiently. That was the problem that TeleSpecialists was established to solve. The company proposed using teleconferencing technology on robotic carts to provide immediate access to stroke specialists throughout the United States. Through this process, TeleSpecialists was able to connect patients with neurologists from around the country who could recommend treatment in collaboration with the specialists at Lee Health.
“For a patient suffering from stroke, time is brain,” says Nima Mowzoon, MD, MBA, TeleSpecialists’ founder and CEO. “Now EMS can transport those patients quickly and efficiently to a local community hospital, providing them with the highest national standard of care under the supervision of one of the top stroke specialists in the U.S. With state-of-the-art technology, we bring our exceptional expertise to all of our patients at a moment’s notice.“
Eventually, TeleSpecialists would expand to 240 hospitals around the nation and employ nearly 90 physicians, offering 24/7/365 comprehensive coverage via telemedicine. Those board-certified doctors work alongside hospital teams to ensure quality care, often being able to see a patient before an in-person doctor could reach them. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that became pretty handy. Doctors seeing patients via teleconferencing could hold off the spread of disease and treat the ailing without having to use personal protective equipment. Using the methods it developed over the last nine years, TeleSpecialists has been able to cover 33,000 hospital beds across the United States and has helped more than half a million patients to date.