The VOICE of UPMC Shadyside Winter 2020–2021

“Change is our new normal.”

Denise Abernethy, MSN, RN, CEN
Senior Director, Emergency Services

When Denise Abernethy took on the newly created job of senior director, Emergency Services, in February 2020, she did not imagine that she was about to spend 90 percent of her time keeping patients and staff safe from COVID. “It’s been a big challenge,” admits Ms. Abernethy, who in 2013 was named the nation’s Emergency Department Nurse Leader of the Year.

“Emergency departments have always been very good at disaster management, and emergency nurses like thinking outside the box and quickly fixing issues or concerns. But with COVID, we’ve learned we need to keep adapting and adapting. For now, change is our new normal.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we immediately got together with a team of emergency medicine physicians and nurse leaders in Allegheny County to plan our next moves. How do we get through this? How do we screen people before they walk in the door? How do we separate patients and keep them safe? How do we at Shadyside, with a lot of emergency cancer patients, keep those immune-compromised patients safe from COVID?

“We quickly adopted a plan to screen every patient before they even entered the waiting room. Cancer patients went to one area and people with COVID symptoms went in a different entrance. 

"We are always looking for better, more efficient ways to do things."
- Denise Abernethy

“We did that screening for the first three months or so. Then COVID morphed a bit, and some patients were coming in without the earlier symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, and fever. It became harder to differentiate COVID patients who lost taste or had nausea and vomiting. So we decided to screen everybody at triage. We are always looking for better, more efficient ways to do things.

“At the beginning, too, we had no idea how much emergency space we would need. If the GI lab wasn’t open, could we use that area? Could we use part of radiology? We found empty space in the Aiken Building next to the emergency department, and within a week, the maintenance team converted that to overflow emergency space, just in case. Luckily, we never had to use it.

“From a nursing perspective, it’s all hands on deck. But having plans in place has made staff feel safer and more comfortable, at the hospital and at home with their families. Our whole world has changed, just like everyone else’s.”