It was an unexpected convergence of events on a Friday afternoon in February. The usual organized flow of patients through the COVID vaccination clinic at the Champlain Valley Expo was disrupted due to another event at the sprawling 26,000-square-foot building. Traffic was tied up outside, causing many people to arrive late and flustered for their vaccinations.
Standing in front of Welcoming Specialist Kelly Sargent was a 90-year-old woman, sobbing at her check-in. She’d come by herself for her second shot because the first time had been so easy. Now she didn’t know what to do.
“I thought of my own grandmother,” recalls Sargent today, “and I did what I would have liked someone else to do for her.”
That meant stopping what she was doing to comfort the woman, walking her through every step of her vaccination, from check-in to check-out, and accompanying her back to her car before returning to her regular duties.
It’s hard to tell just how many people Kelly Sargent has greeted at the University of Vermont Health Network’s vaccination clinic at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex. As the clinic reached a peak of 998 people vaccinated on Tuesday, March 30, all the administrative assistant could do was shrug and smile, like she’s done thousands of times to make each person come in for a shot feel at ease. And it works. Comments from patients, about how smooth the process is, how fast, how organized, how it pout them at ease, are a minute-to-minute occurrence at the clinic.
“There are very few people you can send into a situation that is so fluid and feel confident that things will be better just by having that person involved,” says Lisa Goodrich, vice president of UVM Health Network Medical Group Operations, who has helped lead the vaccination clinic effort. “Kelly is one of those people. She is capable, competent, compassionate, and magically solves problems before most people even realize there is a problem.”
Further, says Goodrich, Sargent also has an intense ability to connect with human beings. “Whether it is a patient or a coworker, you walk away from an encounter with Kelly a little lighter, a little happier and feeling like someone really cares about you. Her arrival allowed me to sleep at night knowing she’d be there to take care of our patients and our team.”
Sargent, who was asked to join the clinic team in addition to her full-time job as an administrative assistant has, since January, been responsible for “whatever’s needed,” as she describes it. That includes staffing, creating workflows, training people and stepping in when there’s a gap to be filled. Despite a busy schedule, she feels privileged to be a part of it all. “This is the work that has to happen for all of us to move forward. It is, no question, the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Serving the 75-plus age bracket may have been the most emotional phase of the work, Sargent says, often reducing team members to tears.
“It was just so moving to see grandmothers and grandfathers crying, having little dance parties after their second shot; to hear them say, ‘I can’t believe I’m finally going to be able to see my family.’”