Earlier this month, USC Thoracic Surgery held an unusual all-staff meeting. Instead of talking about best practices or quarterly plans, they started out with some stretching and then moved into a simple mindfulness activity.

The full-day event was a team retreat, with a focus on wellness.

“I have an amazing team, but the bottom line is that they need to be well to be able to care for others well,” said Division Chief Anthony Kim, MD, who credits clinic manager Kim Greene-Williams for the idea.

Greene-Williams said she knew Dr. Kim “wanted to do something where people would feel comfortable talking about concerns if they had them.”

She immediately thought of Keck Medicine of USC’s Care for the Caregiver program as inspiration. “It has been so helpful, from the ‘smile carts’ to all the psychological services,” Greene-Williams said.

As the thoracic surgery team entered the meeting, Greene-Williams took a moment to make sure that people who commonly worked together were spread out so that everyone could work with someone new.

And there was another advantage. “It helps for everyone to see that the surgeons are taking an active part,” Greene-Williams said. “If the doctors don’t support programs like this, they don’t happen.”

A group from thoracic surgery work on a poster at the Care for the Caregiver wellness retreat.

From left, Chanice Ugarte, LVN, clinic manager Kim Greene-Williams and Ariella Cohen, PA, present to the group. (Photo/Lex Davis)

Care for the Caregiver program director Dara Weinraub, MSW, took the team through a simple mindfulness activity to engage all five senses and to destress.

Each staffer then created a personal “coat of arms” using their values, strengths and favorite activities. The concept was later introduced into groups for creating a team coat of arms based on their achievements, values, and how they can support each other.

“At our last retreat, we came up with our mission statement and a motto: Patient First,” Dr. Kim said. “Everything we do has that singular focus.”

The team capped off the morning with a cumulative stress debrief with Jonathan Wong, PsyD, clinical director of the Care for the Caregiver program. A key part of the workshop was acknowledging that the pandemic brought new challenges and stresses to care teams — including interacting with patients who are sometimes more belligerent.

The afternoon was pure fun by design. “We all work together well, but I think it’s important to just enjoy each other’s company,” said Dr. Kim, noting that the group shared a meal and went bowling.

Dr. Kim hopes that more Keck Medicine teams will hold similar restorative staff gatherings. “You don’t have to wait for someone to tell you to do this,” he said. “As leaders, we have to initiate.”

Greene-Williams said she wants more people to know about Care for the Caregiver.

“They’re helping people on so many levels,” she said. “It’s an amazing program.”

Keck Medicine’s Care for the Caregiver program, including emotional and peer support, is available to individual staff members as well. Any staffer or family member who is over the age of 18 can call 323-865-9897 to get free, non-crisis support. The line is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

—Lex Davis