A Personal Touch from a Distance


Nathalia Davis’ desk is steps from the office of Rhonda Brandon, Duke University Health System’s chief human resources officer and senior vice president. 

As Brandon’s executive assistant, proximity matters to Davis, who manages Brandon’s busy-but-balanced schedule and anticipates her needs with quick face-to-face chats throughout the day.

“I need to know what’s in her head,” Davis said. “I need to understand where she’s coming from so I can stay ahead of things.”

Since mid-March, when COVID-19 forced many Duke employees like Davis to work from home, Davis has had to figure out how to do her job from farther away.

“Our days are still a lot like they were at the office – we’re just virtual,” Davis said.

From executive assistants and professors to physical therapists, here’s how some colleagues have adjusted to carrying out hands-on jobs from a distance.

Reaching Students in New Ways

Thomas Pfau, the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English, was teaching a poetry seminar for first-year students last spring. He said students in the class embraced the material about the intersection of poetry and faith and had been a joy to teach.

When the pandemic forced the semester to go virtual, his connections with students suddenly had to travel through Zoom teleconference.

“In a class, you want to make sure everybody is fully engaged,” said Pfau, who has been teaching in the Duke English Department since 1991. “So when you have 14 little boxes on a screen in front of you, the main challenge becomes making sure their attention is still holding and they’re not losing focus.”

While he never taught virtually before, Pfau kept students engaged. He prepared detailed notes for students prior to class. He figured having more background information and tangible material to reference would be beneficial. He also created more open discussion in each class by paring down introductory statements and posing more questions.

He missed teaching face-to-face, but the semester finished on a high note as the stimulating conversations continued online.

“We had already built a good rapport in class,” Pfau said. “So switching to this new format did not seem quite as alienating as it might otherwise have seemed.”

Virtually Hands-OnDuke Sports Medicine Clinic’s Kristina Wulff speaks with patient Caroline Garrett during a virtual visit. Photo courtesy of Kristina Wulff.

In February, Caroline Garrett, then a senior at Bradford Academy in Mebane, tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her right knee playing basketball.

She had surgery at Duke and faced months of physical therapy to ensure her reconstructed knee healed properly.

When COVID-19 curtailed most in-person functions at the Duke Sports Medicine Clinic, she wondered what would happen next.

“I thought, ‘How is physical therapy supposed to work when the therapists can’t actually feel my knee?’” Garrett said.

Physical therapy, which relies on therapists watching patient movements closely and often manipulating bodies with their own hands, seems uniquely challenging to be done virtually. But with the clinic only seeing in-person patients with urgent needs during the pandemic, the therapists and patients have found ways to deliver effective care virtually.

This spring, roughly 40 percent of Duke Sports Medicine Clinic’s visits were virtual, said clinical director Robert Bruzga. By summer, around 8 percent were online. 

Across Duke Health, the use of telemedicine grew dramatically during the early days of the pandemic. In March, April and May, Duke Health had 53,230 virtual visits, up from a total of 302 over the previous three months.

And telemedicine is in the clinic’s future plans as physical distancing limits the number of people who can be in the clinic.

“It started out as being nice to have in our back pocket if we needed it, but now we do need it because we can’t all fit in the clinic at the same time,” Bruzga said.

For Kristina Wulff, Garrett’s physical therapist, virtual visits took some getting used to. During video visits, she’d often play the role of cinematographer, instructing patients how to move laptops and adjust lighting.

Wulff also got creative by incorporating exercises into the home environment, often getting patients, like the now mostly healed Garrett, to do exercises with the help of chairs, stairs and stationary bikes.

“It went smoother than I thought it would,” Wulff said. “I think patients understand.”

Keeping Partnerships Close

Brandon, Health System senior vice president, leans heavily on Davis, her executive assistant, and Chief of Staff Katie McKittrick to help manage priorities and keep Duke Health System’s vast human resources operations sound.

Brandon said the reason her team works well during the pandemic is simple.

Since March, Nathalia Davis, shown here, has been assisting Rhonda Brandon, Duke University Health System’s chief human resources officer and senior vice president from home. Photo courtesy of Nathalia Davis.“It starts with relationships,” Brandon said. “My relationship with Katie and Nathalia is very strong. We’d already established a good rhythm pre-COVID.”

Communication is at the heart of those relationships. In addition to weekly virtual meetings with the three-person team, Davis and Brandon start days with a phone conversation, laying out that day’s plan. The same goes for McKittrick and Brandon.  Throughout the day, they communicate with each other by email and text message.

“There’s not as much of a need for me to be in the office as long as we can stay in contact,” Davis said.

And not every conversation is about work. Both Brandon and Davis said it’s important to check in on where each other is emotionally to better meet needs.

Meanwhile, Davis’ skillset has grown as she’s embraced technology such as Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams.

“The assistants that I know have it in their heart to make sure their leaders are cared for,” Brandon said. “They are going to figure out what it’s going to take to care for their leader no matter what. I think it’s a testament to their ingenuity and genuine desire for their leaders to be successful.”

Help share the proactive and extensive work being done by all Duke community members during the COVID-19 outbreak. Send ideas, shout-outs and photographs through our story idea form or write working@duke.edu.



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