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Toby's Take: When the Phone Rings Christmas Morning

Food was temporarily moved into the gym

January 11, 2023

I hesitated when I shouldn’t have.

It was Christmas morning 1995 and the phone rang. Early. It was a supervisor at WSET-TV, the ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Virginia, which shared the market with 2 stations in nearby Roanoke on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I had joined the news team in the spring of that year and been reporting in what I still think is one of the prettiest areas in the nation. As a lifelong Kansan, my 3 years in central Virginia were so good I wasn’t sure I wanted to live anywhere else. Until the opportunity came to do TV in Kansas City.

These many years later, I thought of that phone call when I read an incredible, and pretty typical, story about employees from The University of Kansas Health System. The story described how employees jumped in to clean up our Marillac facility when the water pipes burst during the recent polar blast. It was Christmas morning.

When duty calls on Christmas

Back in ’95, the call I received was about a fire reported in Lynchburg, and I was “sort of” on call. It was a loose arrangement between a few of us who were staying in town for the holiday. There were no newscasts that day, but someone needed to check it out. When the supervisor asked me if I could go, I answered, “Well, we’re about to have Christmas.” He knew that, of course, since it was DECEMBER 25! But he also quickly said, “You know, I’ll just do it.”

I don’t remember if it turned out to be anything, but I did learn a valuable lesson through some guilt that apparently lives on. When duty calls, just go.

Here, at the health system, several people on Christmas morning just went. The meteorological Polar Express that battered Kansas City – and much of the country – busted pipes all over the place. That included the Urgent Care at T-Mobile Center downtown, several other locations and The University of Kansas Health System Marillac Campus. Marillac is a behavioral health facility in Overland Park that provides acute psychiatric hospital care and outpatient care for young people dealing with mental illness and behavioral challenges.

Focused on feeding the children

The bursting pipes meant a recent shipment of food in the walk-in freezer had to be ditched and replaced. Somebody had to repair damaged walls and keep things moving at a facility that never really stops. Several angels came down from atop the tree to report to work - without being called in.

“My mindset is always on the patient,” Felicia Evans, Marillac’s dining services manager, told us. “I’m a workaholic, and all I could think about was how I was going to feed the children.”

Evans says she thought they were in trouble at first, then co-workers just started showing up. She called out several colleagues, who are named here:

  • Robert Austin, behavioral health operations manager
  • Naomi Hausback, behavioral health tech supervisor
  • Scott Kurzen, maintenance
  • Eric King, Evans’ boss, who is assistant director for dining services and culinary operations
  • Blake Hough, the dining services manager at our Indian Creek Campus, who joined others in getting food to Marillac from other health system locations

I decided to do Jeff Novorr, vice president of hospitality services, a solid and list him last as he would prefer. Actually, he’d prefer I not mention him at all because he’s invariably going to give total credit to the staff.

His exchange with Lana Goodman, operations manager of housekeeping services, makes this story even better:

“I saw Jeff Novorr coming through the doorway with a cart of food that he needed to take to the dumpster, and he looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘What are you doing?’ When there’s a need, we just show up. We just go. We just do.”

I have not ever seen anything like this, holiday or not, no animosity, no pushback. Everybody stepping in asking, ‘What do I need to do?' Felicia Evans

Dining Services Manager

Showing up and setting an example

This is so typical of how people operate at The University of Kansas Health System. And you’ll notice, not one of Santa’s elves in this Christmas story has a medical degree. This is hammered home here, that nonclinical support is every bit as important as those positions that directly treat patients. They did it with humility and anonymity, if we hadn’t decided to write about it.

“I’m going into my 6th year. I have not ever seen anything like this, holiday or not,” says Evans. “No animosity, no pushback. Everybody stepping in asking, ‘What do I need to do?’ You are not going to get this anywhere else.”

Important note – the patients at Marillac had little idea any of this had happened. No interruption in services.

I can’t go back and answer that phone call on Christmas morning 1995 differently. But I can learn from my colleagues, and I do every day. They’re already on my holiday card list for next year.

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