Registered Nurse Betty Cunningham was walking through the hallways of Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle on the way to her office Friday afternoon when a fellow employee turned the corner, masked and rubbing disinfectant on his hands.
“That’s what I like to see,” Cunningham said approvingly.
Cunningham is an infection prevention coordinator, someone who works with staff to help avoid hospital-acquired infections among patients. It’s a job that involves everything from ensuring doctors and nurses know how to correctly put on and remove personal protective equipment (PPE) to showing the janitorial staff how to correctly disinfect patients’ rooms.
It’s one of several jobs the Columbus native has held in the 40 years she’s worked at Baptist.
Growing up, Cunningham had never spent any time in hospitals and didn’t know much about health care. But she did admire one Baptist employee who attended her church.
“She wore her uniform to church every Sunday,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t know what she (did), I just knew she looked very professional. She always talked about her job at the hospital and she always said how much she loved working here, and it was like a family.”
Impressed, Cunningham applied for a position with Baptist — then Golden Triangle Hospital — in 1980 at the age of 20 and became a unit coordinator, which she described as “like a secretary,” in the hospital’s maternity unit. Despite her role, she did far more than clerical work.
“Nursing back then was totally different,” Cunningham said. “I would help take vital signs. I would go in and assist a mom when she called for assistance, just to hold the baby for a few minutes while she went to the bathroom or go and get her some food if she wanted something to eat. … It was just doing whatever needed to be done.”
She liked that every role at the hospital, from nurses to clerical staff to cleaning staff, was important.
She also felt like she’d been “adopted” into another family at work. It was the nurses in the maternity ward who encouraged Cunningham to enter East Mississippi Community College’s nursing program for her LPN in 1983. From there, Cunningham went on to the Bachelor’s nursing program at Mississippi University for Women, where she graduated in 1988.
In her time at Baptist, she’s worked in infection prevention, employee health, case management, education and nurse management.
Infection prevention is a department she first worked in shortly after graduating from MUW, and it was what she called a “hidden gem” at the hospital at the time. Many of her fellow staff members didn’t know what it was she did.
Over the years, she said, it’s grown in importance as the public has become more aware of patients getting sick from being in hospitals.
“The community now is really aware of hospital-acquired infections, and they look at those rates,” she said. “That also helps them decide, ‘Where do I want to go for care?’ So our focus is to make sure we provide the best patient care, help them have good outcomes.”
She stays up to date with national standards set by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and professional health care organizations to ensure staff at Baptist, from the doctors to the cafeteria workers, are using best practices for keeping patients safe.
“Betty is like a lifeline,” said Cunningham’s supervisor, Belinda Sanderson, quality director for infection prevention. “She is very, very knowledgeable about infection control. She has done it for many, many years. … She really takes pride in the work that she does, and she stays current all the time, reading, learning, making sure that we have the most current data and sharing that with other team members in the hospital.”
Awareness of hospital-acquired infections has been growing for several years, but the COVID-19 pandemic ramped it up. Now, Cunningham is one of those in charge of ensuring doctors and nurses not only have the correct PPE, but that they know how to take it on and off correctly.
For example, she said, health care workers have to be specially fitted to wear portable HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) units, large air filtration equipment involving a pump and mask for filtering the air for doctors coming into contact with highly contaminated rooms or highly infectious patients. Even those wearing the less cumbersome N95 filtration masks have to be aware not to touch the outside of the mask when removing it after leaving a patient’s side.
“If we go into an isolation room with that mask — and that mask is required — then remember, the outside of that mask potentially is contaminated,” she said. “… You’re going to pull the straps down one at a time and then you’ll remove it that way. If they have to touch the front of the mask, then they need to perform hand hygiene … which is usually going to be an alcohol-based solution. Then when you get to a sink, wash your hands with soap and water.”
Like many other nurses at Baptist, Cunningham also signed up to give vaccinations to patients when Baptist received its shipment of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. The first doses were given to doctors and other health care workers most at risk of coming into contact with the virus. Then the hospital moved to distributing them among members of the public 75 and over, who are at greater risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19.
It’s that age group that Cunningham was especially glad to be helping out. Many of the patients who went to the hospital to be vaccinated had been isolated in their homes, not spending time with friends or family and avoiding crowds to keep from catching the virus.
“They came out ready to get that vaccine,” she said. “And they were so thankful, so grateful.”
One woman Cunningham vaccinated Wednesday was 103 years old.
“103, and (she) said, ‘I still want to live. I still want to have a good life. I still want to get outside my home and be with my family and friends,'” Cunningham said. “And she was still in good health. … For us to give that vaccine to that group of individuals, that meant a lot.”
Cunningham said she’s extremely proud of the work she and the other employees at Baptist do to care for the community, but she also loves how close the staff are.
When she got married to a Columbus Fire and Rescue battalion chief, James Cunningham, it was her fellow nurses who planned and cooked for her reception, and who took photos, since she didn’t have a professional photographer. A year later, when she became pregnant with her first child (she now has three children), it was her fellow staffers who threw her a baby shower.
“Everything that’s really been important in my life, my hospital family here at Baptist helped play an important role in it,” she said.