Most of us remember how sudden the pandemic felt, and Brittany Nesbit is no exception. One minute the UW Health Digestive Health Center procedural nurse was speculating with colleagues about how this new virus might impact their workplace in the distant future, and the next — two nights later, on March 15 — she got notice that her center was closed. In the morning, she was to report to the administrative building to learn how to test UW Health employees for COVID-19, and to help create a drive-thru pop-up site that didn’t yet exist.
“They essentially considered us deployed,” Nesbit says. “We had no idea what we were walking into.”
Staff members were understandably fearful. Little was known about the virus, information changed rapidly and news from around the world was bleak. That first day they donned hazmat suits left over from the Ebola epidemic, unfamiliar and scary to most — except Nesbit, who had worn the suits and N95 masks 11 hours a day working with smallpox in a research lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“I was like, ‘You guys, we’ve got this, it’s fine,’ ” Nesbit says. Just like that, she became a standout leader with a calming presence, quickly promoted to lead RN. As the months unfolded, Nesbit innovated in ways that made life easier and more positive for everyone.
“When I met Brittany, from day one in the tent, I was like, ‘You are amazing,’” says RN clinical staff educator Tracy Crowley, adding that inefficiencies became immediately apparent. “But nobody had time to stop and think about it and put something new into place,” says RN clinical staff educator Staci Hubbard. “Brittany really took it upon herself. And it was because of her testing things out and making it happen that our whole drive-thru has changed.”
In the beginning, testing was labor intensive; a team of 20 to 25 staff members called patients in their cars, filled out paperwork and ran back and forth between the administrative building and patient vehicles. When testing ramped up and clinics reopened, forcing employees back to previous positions, innovation became critical. Nesbit implemented electronic forms to replace paper. She borrowed the color-coding system used in clinics (those flags flipped outside patient room doors) to create a dot system for wordless, instant communication. Patients used to park and wait for a cell phone call; Nesbit’s innovations eliminated the need for that parking lot. She also created her own electronic system to manage all staff scheduling — ultimately, 103 different employees worked the COVID-19 tent. By late summer, it was so streamlined that just seven people could do what dozens had done before, and faster. She made it fun, and staff felt appreciated.
“UW really should be grateful for the work she did. Here she is a procedural nurse who just came in here and became the COVID testing site expert,” Hubbard says, but Nesbit credits her fellow nurses. They were just doing their job.
“Innovating on the fly is pretty natural for nurses,” Nesbit says. “Being efficient and safe and going through your days without taking extra steps can be huge because you have so much to do.”
Maggie Ginsberg is a senior editor at Madison Magazine. Her long-form features have garnered numerous honors since 2006 including from the National City Regional Magazine Association, the Milwaukee Press Club and the American Society of Journalist and Authors. In addition to helping edit the work of Madison Magazine's contributing writers, freelancers and essayists, she writes features and the monthly Looking Back historical photo department page. Online, Maggie conducts monthly author Q&As and covers the local literary scene with her Sunday Reads monthly e-newsletter. Her own debut novel, "Still True," was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in September 2022 and was the honorable mention selection for the 2022 Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award, as well as a 2023 Midwest Book Award honoree.