Hospital in good shape for virus second wave

  • Driving force: Venetta Symonds will retire as chief executive of the Bermuda Hospitals Board at the end of the month (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

    Driving force: Venetta Symonds will retire as chief executive of the Bermuda Hospitals Board at the end of the month (Photograph by Akil Simmons)


Bermuda’s acute care hospital is “well positioned” for a second wave of Covid-19, its outgoing chief executive has said.

Venetta Symonds, who will retire from the Bermuda Hospitals Board on July 31, added that the organisation’s 1,800 employees had pulled together to get the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital ready for an influx of coronavirus patients and to care for those who tested positive for the virus since March.

She said: “I am not sitting here saying that everything is perfect at BHB, but this is what I know — when there is an issue, the team will come together. It always does.

“It happens every hurricane and it happened in an incredible way with Covid.”

Mrs Symonds said the $247 million acute-care wing, which opened under her leadership in 2014 and was her “pride and joy”, gave her a high degree of confidence and proved its worth during the pandemic.

She added: “Because Bermuda has that building we did so much better and now, if there is a second wave, we know exactly how we are going to deal with it.

“We have the acute-care wing and ... we have the rooms that can be converted to negative pressure and have been.

“We have the operating rooms and the recovery area that we turned into additional intensive-care space because we weren’t using our operating rooms during that time, other than for emergency surgeries.

“That whole building was designed that, if we needed to, we can set up disaster tents in front of the emergency area. We can use the lobby area for beds if we need to. All of that was anticipated when we set the criteria for what that building needed to be.”

She added: “It had to last for 30 years and we had to anticipate, to the point that we could, where those challenges would come from.

“Our 2016 to 2021 strategic plan gave us that perfect foundation and the framework, the infrastructure, that we needed to respond.”

Mrs Symonds asked: “How does a CEO know that what they are doing and the decisions they are making are the right ones unless they are tested?”

She said: “Everything was tested. Our employees were tested, our governance was tested, the buildings have been tested.”

Mrs Symonds added that she was tackling a list of priorities before her retirement when the coronavirus became global news.

She had started a training course to be certified as an executive coach as a “bridge” out of the organisation and had just attended her first session at Henley Business School at Reading University in Britain when she realised the enormity of the crisis.

She said: “I’m looking at the TV in the evening and the individuals that had been on a cruise ship were coming back home to England. And I’m watching it and I’m going ‘oh my goodness, oh my goodness’ ... I knew that life was going to change.

“That was the end of my bridge plan because at that point I came back home.” She wrote in her journal at the time: “This is a leadership moment.”

Mrs Symonds gathered her executive team for daily summits on how to prepare for the crisis and had the BHB’s infectious disease specialists Michael Ashton and Linda Rothwell make a presentation to the board.

She said: “It’s almost like ‘do you go right or do you go left?’ I’m supposed to be leaving, but this is the most important thing that I could do in my career.

“Here is this threat that is so huge. I knew ... I felt the earth shift on its axis.

“That was the degree of seriousness that I attributed to all of the news and everything that I was hearing. I felt it shift.

“I said ‘OK, Venetta, well you are the CEO, you are supposed to retire. So what. You have a job to do.’”

KEMH has had 42 people with Covid-19 as inpatients and seven people with Covid-19 who received treatment in the emergency department, but did not need to be admitted. The highest number of Covid-19 patients the hospital has had at one time is 16.

Mrs Symonds said she was pleased with the way the BHB had handled the Covid-19 crisis so far. She added: “We are not through it, but we are well positioned and it’s all been tested.”

She said the experience on the executive team and across the organisation was central to success, as well as the ability to “let the leadership come out of each person”.

Mrs Symonds said her clinical background as an X-ray and CT scan technician and first responder also played a part.

She added: “If you have an accident or if you are acutely ill you come in and there’s a certain part of the team, the emergency department, the diagnostic imaging and labs, that are taking care of you and trying to find out what’s going on and I worked on call for years in diagnostic imaging.

“I think it set me up a certain way to be wired to deal with the unknown. Straight from the patient level, I’ve had to come in and respond. This, to me, was the same.”

Mrs Symonds said: “It was the most complex issue, yes, that I’ve ever dealt with it, but it was able to be managed because ... we have this deep experience and if you look around, which we did, there are so many people with so much experience.”

She said a key aspect was to have a support plan for professional staff, mostly non-Bermudians with family overseas.

Mrs Symonds said: “The Mid-Atlantic Institute opened up their doors to staff because do you know what it’s like that everybody else gets to go home and shelter-in-place, but you are having to leave your loved ones and come in here?

“Every single one of us had every single right to be scared and to challenge. When people were scared and did challenge, they found support.”

She added the outbreak meant those at the hospital had to “tap into something deeper”.

She said: “Probably all of us, in the whole of Bermuda, have had to tap into something a little bit deeper and so we are a little bit more self-reliant now than we were pre-Covid.

“Am I leaving it in good hands? I say absolutely, without a doubt.”

Mrs Symonds’s replacement is still to be named.

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Published Jul 14, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 14, 2020 at 8:13 am)

Hospital in good shape for virus second wave

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