‘This is home,’ says Valerie Suarez

It was her husband who pointed out the new hospital being built in South LA. Valerie Suarez had grown up in South Central, near the Coliseum, and spent weekends visiting her grandparents two blocks from the site of the old King/Drew hospital, but she hadn’t yet heard of MLK Community Healthcare (MLKCH). As soon as she did some research, she instantly knew it was the place for her.

Valerie’s roots run deep in South LA—both her parents were born and raised here, as were her and her three siblings. “I had a lot of aunts, uncles, cousins all around. I grew up around here. This community—it’s like home to me,” she says.  

She applied for multiple positions, looking for her golden opportunity. Her persistence paid off. When MLKCH offered her a job as a transporter in 2017, “I couldn’t have been happier,” she says. She knew she had landed exactly where she belonged.

Valerie Suarez

Inside transport

Working in transport, says Valerie, means something different going on every day. Transporters act as a circulatory system of the hospital, ensuring that patients are moved efficiently to wherever they need to be—whether that’s an inpatient room, down to the basement for x-rays, or heading out the front doors of the hospital with a new baby.

While pregnant with twins in early 2020, Valerie took a turn as transport dispatcher, overseeing the movement of six to ten transporters per shift. It was a difficult time for her, both in her personal life and at work. She was going through a divorce. And just as she was about to head out on maternity leave, COVID was quickly becoming the new reality.

“There were a lot of emotions,” she recalls. At five months pregnant, she knew she had to deal with her fear and uncertainty as calmly as possible, not just for herself, but for her babies.

“It was stressful,” she says. “There was so much uncertainty. Do we wear an N-95 mask? Do we wear a face shield? Things were changing every day.”

Transporters’ jobs necessitate not only that they enter patient rooms, but that they move widely around the hospital. Their department requires close coordination with other departments—nurses checking on where their patients are, EVS workers called in to clean rooms that patients have departed. During COVID, their specific roles necessitated discussions about appropriate PPE and infection control risks.

But as Valerie went on leave to care for her growing family, she was confident her MLKCH family would keep patients safe and moving smoothly.

“Even more compassionate”

By September 2020, when Valerie returned, COVID protocols had settled into place, even as cases began to tick back up.

The winter surge brought new challenges, but also greater opportunity to make a difference in a patient’s day. “I’ve always loved interacting with patients, because you learn how everyone has a different story,” says Valerie. “But [during the pandemic] I became even more compassionate for them.”

She saw how many struggled with feelings of loneliness when visitation was suspended. “There was one man,” she recalls, “who I was taking up to the [inpatient] floors. He was struggling to breathe and you could hear the wheezing in his voice. But he asked me for one favor. He said his phone died, could I please call his wife?”

She made the call, letting the patient’s wife know the hospital extension to call if she wanted to reach him and holding up the phone on speaker to let the couple exchange a few words. “I just thought, what if that was my dad? What if it was my mom? I would appreciate if someone took a little time to call us.”

It was a reminder of the little ways in which she could expand on the technical aspects of her role to make an impact on others—adding empathy and compassion for patients experiencing difficult times. 

Giving back

Valerie’s always on the lookout for ways to help patients out—whether it’s bringing a patient a blanket in the Emergency Department, or giving words of encouragement to women coming down from Labor & Delivery.

“I always try to make them feel comfortable, tell them everything will be ok. It gives them peace of mind, even if it’s just for that moment.”

The compassion she brings to her work is the same compassion she brings to giving back. As a new hire, Valerie learned about MLKCH Gives, MLKCH’s annual staff giving campaign, through a tabling event in the cafeteria. “I started reading the flyer and I thought ‘Why not show pride in where I work by giving back to the community?”

She set up an ongoing payroll deduction with the Foundation team. That was more than four years ago, and “ever since then, I haven’t changed it.” Every year, she notices her name going up on the Wall of Hearts with pride.

With her twins now more than a year old, Valerie’s definition of family has expanded, but her definition of home remains the same.

“It’s a different feeling, giving back here,” she says. “For me, this is home.”

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