Lifesaver: Cooley Dickinson doctor is the Gazette’s Person of the Year

  • Dr. Khama Ennis is associate chief of the emergency department at Cooley Dickinson and president of the hospital’s medical staff. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dr. Khama Ennis of Cooley Dickinson is also working to adress systemic racism in the health care system at large. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/8/2021 9:35:41 AM

From childhood, Khama Ennis knew she wanted to one day practice medicine professionally. Now, she is being recognized for her lifesaving work as this year’s Person of the Year, a distinction awarded since 2015 by the Daily Hampshire Gazette in partnership with United Way of Hampshire County.

“I decided very young in elementary school that I was going to be a physician,” Ennis said. “Health care is one of the professions where your only job is to help people regardless of who they are, what they’ve done. There is no judgment in taking care of people.”

Ennis, who has worked at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton for the past 15 years, is a longtime resident of Amherst and the associate director for the hospital’s emergency department. 

The Person of the Year award honors a Hampshire County resident who has gone above and beyond to make the Pioneer Valley a better place. A committee of Gazette, United Way and community leaders review all nominations in order to select a winner. The Person of the Year award comes with a $500 prize, half of which is donated to a charity of the winner’s choice.

Ennis was instrumental in the planning and execution of the respiratory emergency department, a temporary annex that helped the hospital system cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients in the early months of the pandemic.

“For people in health care, data is everything,” Ennis said. “Evidence is everything, and we didn’t have much because (COVID-19) was so new.”

Ennis and her colleagues realized that the hospital’s emergency department could not physically accommodate non-respiratory patients in a space when the level of risk of the airborne virus was not entirely known.

The building that houses the hospital’s emergency department, built in the 1970s, was slated for renovations even before the pandemic, Ennis said, but changes were needed to address the COVID-19 emergency – and quickly.

“With nursing input, provider input, we were really able to craft a functional space in a week or two,” Ennis said. “It was just crazy to be able to stand it up, staff it, and figure out a schedule. We are a small community emergency department, and we don’t have a huge bench in terms of staff. People stepped up to take extra time to be able to keep the area staffed.”

An important aspect became how the airflow in the annex would work.

“I spent a few sleepless nights figuring out how it could work,” Ennis recalled. By creating a negative pressure space where air would flow in, but not out, the annex could protect patients outside of the emergency respiratory unit.

 She added, “It was a scary time for all of us because we didn’t know how COVID-19 was going to evolve,  especially in the early days. Anyone who showed up was putting themselves at risk, and their families, when they went home.”

Hospital staff took many precautions to minimize the risk of bringing the virus home. Ennis would shower at the hospital and put her clothing into a bag that stayed separate from her other belongings. She noted how others decided to move into apartments away from their families to eliminate the risk of spreading the virus.

More recently, Ennis and her team have concentrated their efforts on addressing vaccination concerns, both in the community and among hospital staff.

“A lot of getting people comfortable with vaccinations is taking their concerns seriously and validating those concerns,” she said. “It’s hard to trust some information online sometimes, and most headway is made when we just take a beat and listen and don’t dismiss the worries that some folks have. It’s reasonable to wonder and understandable to question what seems like a new technology, but really, it’s been in the works for over a decade.”

Beyond dealing with the fallout of the pandemic, Ennis has worked to address systemic racism within the health care system itself. Mass General Brigham, of which Cooley Dickinson is a partner, launched a campaign that was already in the works before the murder of George Floyd, a campaign called United Against Racism, Ennis said.

“We recognize that racism isn’t just calling someone a name, but how systems, structures and policies enforce inequity that may seem invisible and benign, but that we all have an impact on,” she said. There is currently a council on diversity, equity and inclusion at Cooley Dickinson working to dismantle system racism, according to Ennis.

Doctors are collecting data on social determinants of health “to find where the needs are,” Ennis said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control defines social determinants of health as conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life risks and outcomes, according to its website.

“We are doing the work to look at the race and ethnicity data collected in the system to capture data for our patients and look for inequities,” Ennis said. “It’s natural to think we are providing equitable care, but if we are not, we have to dig for it. Or else we can’t implement change.”

Overall, Ennis believes that “we have to make sure that our system and policies are reflective of our values. And I think diversifying our workforce so that our teams reflect our community is incredibly important.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.


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