On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Anthony Fortenberry, the chief nursing officer at Callen-Lorde, a New York City-based community health center that provides services to the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV/AIDS. They discussed how LGBTQ health care aims to address the medical discrimination queer and trans people face, how helping patients with HIV/AIDS shaped Callen-Lorde’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what lessons he hopes we will take as we return to “normal” life. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: One of the reasons why I really wanted to have you on Working is because creativity isn’t bound by a particular job. It strikes me that your day-to-day life is filled with all sorts of creative challenges. Is that how you see it, or am I totally wrong?
Anthony Fortenberry: Yes. I feel like the last year of my life has been waking up to see what random, out-of-left-field problem are we going to have to solve today? When you talk about having to get creative and come up with strategies that are totally outside of the box of our everyday lives, no one trained us on how to convert a hotel into an isolation clinic, right? The things that have come up in the past year, I’ve had to lean on any creative juices that I had. I think everyone in the health care field has.
Let’s go step by step through some of those creative challenges. If we could whisk back in time to late February, early March 2020, when it’s becoming clear how bad things are going to start getting, what were the challenges you were facing, and how did you face them? How did you figure out what to do?
It felt like a lot of the areas that were really important to ensure we maintained operational were all my areas. Triage at the front desk: we needed an RN who was going to make sure that no one came in who had symptoms. Occupational health for our staff who were becoming infected with COVID. All of the supply chain issues. We were running out of masks; we were running out of everything that we needed to keep people safe. We did not have a robust telehealth program. So you think, That’s fine, they could do some telehealth and video conferencing, but not everybody had a laptop at home. Not all of our patients have smartphones. Many of our patients don’t have stable WiFi.
It was just a lot of moving pieces. At the same time, many of our staff really wanted to volunteer at the hospitals. Primary care had essentially paused, outside of medication support, so it’s all urgent care. Then this opportunity arose where the city came to us and said, we have patients that are homeless, and they have been diagnosed with COVID but they’re stable, and we need them to be isolated rather than going back to congregate housing at the shelter, because they didn’t want them to infect everyone else. They essentially handed over this hotel in Long Island City, and we had 24 hours to turn it into an isolation clinic.
How did you even begin to figure that out? What was the creative process of, “Oh my God, we have a hotel, and we have to turn it into an isolation clinic?”
My process in problem-solving is always prioritization. What is the most important thing to come out of this when we’re done? Getting buy-in from people to build a vision for what you’d like to see happen. Then it’s just one decision at a time until you build that larger picture. I think that strategy—at least in coming up with a creative way to solve each individual question—is always something that at the end, you look back a week later and you’re like, I don’t know how I did that.
This is so fascinating, because I’ve worked in the past as a theater director and that is actually not that different from what a theater director does. The thing you’re trying to do is not save lives, but you have a group of people, you have to get them to buy into it, and then you break the show down into its component parts and the questions of those component parts. And you try to go through them in sequence until the whole thing comes together. It’s amazing that it’s the same in your line of work.
That totally makes sense to me. At the end of the day, it’s never exactly how you thought it was going to be when you started. There are people that love it, and there are million little decisions that you might’ve done slightly differently.