Grassroots Giver: Former emergency department nurse leads a community-wide movement to feed ‘her people’

April 30, 2020

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The distressing effect of COVID-19 on overworked health care professionals at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital (SPAH) roused more than sympathy. It led to an outbreak of grassroot organizers like Pam Moss Blais.

Blais, a former Emergency Department (ED) nurse didn’t realize how much she missed bedside nursing, and her fellow workers, until COVID-19 put them in extreme danger.

“I’ve been a nurse for 27 years. Eighteen years in emergency nursing, two years in pediatric intensive care. Here I am with all that direct patient experience just sitting in my office talking to Medicaid patients on the phone, while my people are in crisis. It’s like I’m in a cocoon,” says Blais. “It was tugging at my heart. I wanted to go back in, but when I mentioned it to my family, they expressed their concerns over the lack of personal protective equipment.”

Aware of Blais’ extensive nursing background, Ilene Lipton contacted her in March to brainstorm ways they could help frontline responders whose tight and taxing schedules left them depleted. Their plan was to help the restaurant community, which was adversely affected by the virus, by purchasing food and coffee, and delivering it to the nurses in need.

Blais approached Coastal Café owner Barrie Engel. She asked for a quote for meals for 30 people, split the cost with Lipton and delivered turkey wraps and chips with handwritten notes of gratitude to workers at SPAH ED. Their overwhelming gratitude was so rewarding that Blais got hooked on moving forward with a win-win for local businesses and hospital warriors.

Around the same time, a local “Meal Train” delivering meals to ED workers at SPA grabbed Blais’s attention. The Meal Train was initiated by Christina Caro, who put her moxie in motion when she saw the need for help through her neighbor, an ED nurse.
Jews love to feed people and this calling had Jewish values written all over it. It played a pivotal role in Blais’s next moves. “As a former ED nurse, who knows what it means to be too busy to eat or use the bathroom, I felt a call to action,” says Blais.

Coincidentally, a former ICU colleague mentioned the ICU workers’ need for food and coffee. Blais got crafty and created her own page on the platform she named, Meal Train Plus. She set up a Go Fund Me component (which Caro advised her to do) and filled in a void by focusing her food-foraging efforts on ICU workers.

Blais went on to the Meal Train platform and plugged in how many nurses and nursing assistants worked per shift and came up with a plan. She sent Meal Train Plus/Go Fund Me as a message to FB friends. Her platform allowed people to view the Meal Train Plus schedule and pick a delivery date for a specific outlet, or they could just donate $2 and up for general use.
Donations flowed.

“There is nothing more important to a healthcare professional than coffee,” says Blais. “I knew about Roast Rider because my kids loved it and got me hooked.”

Blais used funds collected to deliver bottles of cold brew, hot coffee and pastries several times a week to SPAH ICU. For an independent shop like Roast Rider, impacted nearly 100% by the virus, that micro spike in sales can mean the difference between a really bad day and a terrible day.

What started as a gift to local restaurants and coffee shops like Coastal Café and Roast Rider, evolved into a gift from restaurants.
Blais continued and called Avi Eli, the owner of Mr. Shawarma, seeking a quote for 30 meals.

“Avi said to me, ‘I’ve been waiting for someone to call me.’ He insisted on feeding as many people as possible. So, we decided to feed two emergency departments, the intensive care unit and 5B at Sentara Princess Anne.

“On delivery day, he came through with flying colors. It was such a high to know we are bringing food to people that really need it, and it was extra special to do it as a family,” says Blais.

“This experience has been amazing for me,” says Blais. “I had kids late in life. I have to work, and it can be hard to find your place in this community with a hectic schedule. This puts me out there in a good way. The really amazing thing is my parents told their friends via e-mail. Not social media. Then their friends got involved and everyone’s response was ‘what can I do?’

Blais found many more food fairies and they found her. Jonathan Friedman co-owns three local IHOPs with his father-in-law Amos Berkovich and brother-in-law Danny Berkovich.

“Again, I asked for a quote for 30 meals. Jonathan’s response was, ‘No. We want to donate.’”

IHOP donated pancakes weekly to SPAH. Then, he came back and committed to extending their short stack pancake outreach to Sentara Leigh and Sentara Norfolk General throughout April.

The list keeps growing. Recent additions include Bubbas, Tropical Smoothie, Mission BBQ, Duck Doughnuts, MOM’S Kitchen, Crackers, and Baby Izakaya. Outlets for delivery coverage have also expanded.

Turns out, food and rest weren’t the only basic survival needs the ICU was lacking. One nurse was completely distraught over the shortage in proper personal protective equipment, particularly masks to wear when treating her patients. Her text to Blais triggered more than concern.

Blais put a new plea for help on Facebook.

She got a response from Jean Wadill Cummings, mother of Cabell Cummings, formerly of the Simon Family JCC. Barbara and Juan Gelpi, two retired physicians who live in Virginia Beach and have been making and refining masks and button headbands for professionals working in area hospitals, also responded.

Tehilla Mostofsky, travel and event coordinator for Harbor Group International in Norfolk, responded to Blais’s request with an offer of 100 N95 masks. Prior to that, Harbor Group donated masks to Sentara, CHKD, and hospitals in New York. Blais gave 60 to the ICU at SPAH and 40 to Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center, when Blais learned of their urgent need for N95 masks.

In keeping with reports that Tidewater was poised to become a COVID-19 hotspot mid-April, Blais began to redirect GoFundMe dollars from personal deliveries to stocking a sustainable healthy snack pantry. A call by Sentara’s director of Patient Care Services to Hall Automotive on behalf of Meal Train Plus, put the Pantry Program on track and resulted in its first delivery to SPAH/ICU/5B/ED. “Often times, nurses, techs, doctors, and other ancillary support staff are just too busy to eat a meal. These are individually wrapped snacks designed to stave off hunger and replenish energy on those really tough days,” says Blais.

Blais hopes her colleagues in the trenches get the message. “This could be just the beginning, but no matter how long this goes on, I’m on board to help as long as you need me.”

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