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TUCCOM class of 2015 grad James Ponniah was doing what many young professionals do, which is following wherever the path took him.
With his service in the Army, Ponniah had worked at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas and later at Madigan Army Medical Center outside of Tacoma, Washington before a unique opportunity arose to work as a hospitalist with his wife, Prathyusha Naidu, a TUCCOM Class of 2016 grad.
With life settling into place, with Ponniah and Naidu each working at Capital Medical Center in Olympia, Washington, things were sailing along pretty normally.
But then COVID-19 struck and Washington was one of the first states to feel the full brunt of the pandemic. Ponniah experienced first-hand how the lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) affected physicians and other healthcare professionals.
“Together, myself and two childhood friends were discussing how it was shocking that we were not able to provide proper equipment to those who were on the front lines,” Ponniah said. “When we started seeing physicians, nurses and residents becoming fatalities from COVID and the associated lack of PPE, it did not sit well.”
Part of the issue driving the lack of PPE is that most of that equipment is purposefully designed to be disposable. Ponniah and his friends started thinking about ways to help address the problem of both the supply and reusability of PPE.
“Thanks to the strong work of our lead engineer and the vision from our team we have been able to conceptualize a reusable silicone respirator,” Ponniah said. “We have provisional patents and our next steps are mass manufacturing. We also have started supplying 4 ply masks with a subscription service for general public use and have provided a separate venue for bulk purchasing for hospitals, universities, schools, etc.”
Reusability helps address the availability problem for healthcare professionals and also addresses the issue of cost – and most healthcare professionals understand costs are always a concern for the healthcare industry.
Of course, bringing an idea to life isn’t as simple as it seems sometimes. Ponniah and his partners dealt with the types of issues that get talked about in business school and less so in medical school.
“Simple things such as storage of product, actual delivery and setting up a functional website were challenging but fortunately we have been able to network and identify people who have helped strategize as new setbacks present themselves,” he said.
This ability to adapt was a strength fed by his time at Touro, Ponniah said.
Some medical schools have partnering medical centers, but Ponniah spent much of his third and fourth years at Touro – as is the case with most all COM students – “year living out of a suitcase and staying in hotels or air bnb’s for prolonged periods of time.”
“I would implore students to keep an open mind, be comfortable being uncomfortable, and view obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow,” Ponniah said.
SEAL trainers have an expression they like to use that states, “it pays to be a winner.”
With the STAR project partnership between Touro University California (TUC) and University of San Francisco Xavier (USFX) in Bolivia, that concept was literally true following the awarding of a grant from USAID.
The grant was one of just four of its kind awarded by USAID and for the TUC/USFX partnership, it will help in the development of a Research Ethic Committee which is similar to an Institutional Review Board (IRB) at USFX..
Sarah Sullivan, an Associate Professor at TUC, has been involved with work in Bolivia for nearly a decade through the MPH program and – Navy SEAL instructors notwithstanding – has been facilitating a lot of winning in that time.
“We won a small NIH/Fogarty grant in 2013 to support RECs in Bolivia and I also won a Fulbright Scholar award in 2017 to do the same,” Sullivan said. “Then in 2018 we won this USAID/STAR Collaboration Laboratory grant with the university in Bolivia.”
TUC has highly respected research capabilities and an REC at USFX will help bring a high standard for research work being done in Bolivia, as well.
“A well-functioning REC will facilitate the Bolivian university researchers to conduct quality research, where the human participants are protected and standardized research processes are in place,” Sullivan said. “Hopefully they will also conduct more research with international partners and publish more in scholarly journals, too. So my work supports the research infrastructure of universities in Bolivia.”
The STAR project is interested to know more about the successes and challenges of partnerships and exchanges between “first-world” institutions and universities in low and middle income countries (LMICs), such as Bolivia. TUC’s MPH students often travel to Bolivia for field work and a strong REC is hoped to not only benefit USFX, research subjects, and researchers in Bolivia, but also continue to support the field work of MPH students from TUC.
Administrators at Sutter Health have sought a solution for an ongoing issue that affects numerous healthcare systems throughout the country, which is the increased reliance by patients with chronic ailments on the emergency medicine departments.
In a partnership with Touro University California’s DREAM (Diabetes Research Education and Management) Team, Sutter has funded a pilot program, managed by TUC professionals, known as Pharm2Home Initiative, which aims to reduce the burden these preventable emergency visits create on ER departments, with the double benefit of improved health for these patients with chronic conditions, as well as potentially alleviate pressure for emergency staff and people suffering trauma and other emergency situations.
The Pharm2Home Team has been working with Sutter Solano, with a particular emphasis on two zip codes in south Vallejo, and targets individuals with a few of the following chronic illnesses, including asthma, type 2 diabetes, COPD, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, and heart failure.
Rather than taking over patient care, the Pharm2Home Team will co-manage patient care with primary care providers to ensure these chronic conditions are managed as effectively as possible.
Pharm2Home is hoping to serve as many as 100 patients during the 12-month intervention phase of the program, but the two-person team is trying to focus on 25 to 30 patients at a time so nobody gets lost in the shuffle.
Depending on the severity of the condition, the Pharm2Home Team will follow up with patients for 4 to 6 months following the initial referral to ensure plenty of time to implement an effective plan.
Ideally, Pharm2Home would engage with patients in an initial home visit and follow up with phone calls and additional home visits. COVID-19 has complicated that matter. Dr. Clipper Young, who initiates and manages this program at Touro, said the Pharm2Home Team will work around it as best they can.
“The home visits are really important,” Young said. “We get to know the patient and their environment, as well. In a clinical setting, they (patients) often just tell clinicians what they want us to know.”
Young noted that the patients targeted for Pharm2Home are already sick and the team didn’t want to take needless risks that could potentially introduce COVID to them.
A major goal of Pharm2Home, aside from showing Sutter that this method of patient care can be effective and beneficial – thus encouraging them to scale up the project – is to give patients the confidence to manage their own conditions only with scheduled healthcare provider interactions.
“We’re hoping to change their behaviors, so they feel comfortable and confident managing their chronic conditions themselves,” Young said.
Part of the plan to meet that objective is to also help patients reduce their exacerbating factors through offering smoking cessation plans for smokers and providing vaccinations, for example.
Another major key is to manage the psychological aspect of these chronic conditions, as well.
“In order to make a real impact, we can’t just treat the numbers,” Young said. It works hand-in-hand with Sutter’s larger goal of improving the overall quality of life for these patients.
Call it fate or anything else, but Andrea Garcia, Associate Vice President of University Advancement, and Touro University seemed destined to be together.
Both got their start in New York and, by the 1990s, had journeyed west to California.
As Touro has its firm foundation in justice and social service, Garcia is cut from the same cloth, embarking on a career in journalism to undertake these same values.
“It didn’t take long before I realized I wanted to help and support the people of our community through words, action, and involvement,” Garcia said.
After years working in a vibrant newsroom, the award-winning journalist was recommended to Touro University, understanding Garcia and the institution were closely aligned in values.
“From the moment I walked up the steps in Wilderman Hall, I felt a connection; I knew I belonged here,” Garcia said. “My personal mission aligned with Touro’s and I truly believed in the people of Touro.”
Garcia has been engaged with Touro’s mission, “To Serve, To Lead, To Teach,” away from campus a great many years, serving as a youth mentor to many, as well as serving as chair of Fairfield Suisun Chamber of Commerce; chairing Leadership Vallejo; serving on the US Youth Soccer National Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee; serving on the Solano College Educational Foundation board; serving on the Vallejo Economic Development Committee; and having served as President of the Solano Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; and as Honorary Commander at Travis Air Force Base.
This background isn’t for resume glitter. It’s part of Garcia’s value structure.
“A motto I live by is this: Volunteering is not an option; it’s our duty to the community,” she said.
The sense of service is part of what drives her dedication to her department. University Advancement touches all areas of campus life and allows her to connect with many people in the TUC community and those from the surrounding community.
“It’s extremely gratifying to know that the work we do in Advancement is helping the campus – that is beyond stellar for me,” Garcia said. “Yet, there is nothing more gratifying than working with a department that believes in your vision, contributes with creativity, and is completely supportive of one another.”
Humility prevents Garcia from basking too long in her own accolades, but that doesn’t stop those accolades from coming.
Just recently, she was one of a handful of constituents honored as Woman of the Year by Congressman John Garamendi’s office.
Garcia appreciated the recognition but owed much of that praise to those around her.
“All my work, everything I do, is not about me,” Garcia said. “It’s about being a conduit to their successes. It’s creating opportunities that will make people thrive.”
It’s the first part of Touro University California’s mission of, “To Serve. To Lead. To Teach.”
The idea of service is at the heart of Touro Student Services Corps (TSSC), which formed shortly after the appearance of COVID-19.
COM student Katherine Farley, who is one of the student leaders of the group, said the students, in collaboration with school officials, saw an opportunity to help provide volunteerism through the safest means possible for students.
“Our main goal is to prioritize student safety while matching students with volunteer opportunities in their area that align with their interest and level of training,” Farley said. “We hope this allows our University to contribute to our local, state and national communities in a safe and meaningful way.”
COVID-19 forced an abrupt change to student activities, many of which revolve around student-facilitated volunteerism. The students also had to adjust clinical interfaces as a result of the pandemic, which left the once active, vibrant student body suddenly isolated in a way that most weren’t accustomed.
“Our day-to-day life is difficult and often isolating,” Farley said. “I find volunteering to be an excellent reminder of why I am putting in this work. I can't wait for my everyday job to be caring for people in my community, but in the meantime, I can volunteer,” she said.
Students are matched to volunteer initiatives based on their interests and their ability to quarantine should an exposure to COVID-19 arise. The projects range from helping improve the quality of video visits, compiling and distributing resources for the recently incarcerated or those on probation, Project Room Key, which is a re-housing project in Vallejo that places homeless individuals in housing and provides wellness checks and resources, and assisting with COVID screenings in Solano and Alameda counties.
Like many colleges, students come to Touro from various locations and aren’t longtime residents of the local area in most cases. Volunteerism provides an opportunity to learn more about the region, and for most students in an era of virtual classrooms, a needed opportunity to interact with others in person.
“Throughout my four years, I have gained a lot of personal and professional growth from involving myself in the community, learning from those that I hope to one day care for and thinking about how I can continue to contribute,” Farley said.
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