It’s often said that not all heroes wear capes. And when it comes to health care, not all heroes wear scrubs. While the list of this year’s Health Care Heroes does include doctors and nurses, it also features administrators, hospice providers and technology specialists.
During the pandemic and in the wake of Hurricane Ian, care providers in Lee and Collier counties constantly demonstrated their unparalleled commitment to health and safety. But these Health Care Heroes were recognized by their peers for their exceptional courage and compassion, as well as for their inspiration and innovation.
These are their stories.
NCH Physicians Group, Naples
Providing Health Care Everywhere
Whether he was volunteering for the Red Cross or serving at clinics for underserved communities in his native Ecuador, Jose Valle has always been a helper. In his work and his athletic pursuits, he’s always been a fighter. Those two traits both came to the forefront when, while visiting Mercato, he came upon someone who had collapsed after suffering a heart attack. Jumping in without hesitation to begin resuscitation efforts, Valle performed CPR until the paramedics arrived on the scene. Once the person was admitted to NCH, he continued to provide care while the patient was recovering in the intensive care unit.
In his role as an ICU physician, Valle also helped on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing compassionate care for COVID patients and often serving as a comforting, reassuring presence for many people in their most vulnerable hours.
Lee Health, Golisano Children’s Hospital
As the nurse manager of Golisano Children’s Hospital’s Transport Team, Nichole “Niki” Shimko oversees the day-to-day operations of transporting pediatric patients to that facility—the region’s only children’s hospital. But when the aftermath of Hurricane Ian left Golisano Children’s Hospital with no water pressure, Shimko was tasked with evacuating all of the facility’s patients to other hospitals across the state of Florida. Of the 80 children needing to be transported, 61 were neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) babies, some of whom weighed less than a pound.
Shimko left her family immediately after the hurricane and began orchestrating a fleet of ambulances and medical helicopters—including the addition of makeshift helicopter landing pads—to help safely transport the children. She then stayed at the hospital for 36 hours to ensure all of the patients had been transported to where they needed to go. Once the water pressure was restored at the hospital, Shimko then organized the return of all the pediatric patients to the facility. As she greeted each tiny patient as they arrived back at Golisano Children’s Hospital, it was the children’s grateful families who called Shimko a “miracle worker,” a “life saver” and a “hero.”
Mental Health Provider
Dr. Christine Biscardi, Psy. D, BCBA
Stepping Stone Kids Therapy
Stepping Up for Children
As the founder of Stepping Stone Kids Therapy, Christine Biscardi helps provide ABA, OT and Speech services to children with Autism and other disabilities. Beginning with one facility, Biscardi’s passion for helping improve the lives of children and families across the region has led to five additional Stepping Stone Kids Therapy clinics throughout Southwest Florida. In addition, she is currently in the process of opening SSkids Academy, a fully accredited school for children ages 6 through 12.
But the growth of her clinics hasn’t been easy, as Biscardi persevered through a fight with breast cancer. Even as she and her family endured difficult times during her treatments and a double mastectomy, Biscardi never wavered from fulfilling her dream of opening a safe space for kids to come for the services they need to thrive.
Biscardi’s compassion and heroism also extend to her staff and clients. Most recently, she promoted a GoFundMe campaign for some staff and clients who lost everything due to Hurricane Ian. That campaign raised a total of $6,400 in just a few weeks’ time.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of telehealth was considered primarily for rural populations that lacked nearby access to medical care. Since then, however, telehealth has proven to be beneficial to everyone. And in Southwest Florida, Jonathan Witenko has been instrumental in developing and improving access to care for any at-risk individual who lacks access to health care.
By designing and implementing the Lee Health Telehealth Services system, Witenko has helped create a valuable, vital safety net that provides health care monitoring services to vulnerable patient populations. That includes patients who lack transportation, patients with disability mobility challenges and those who may simply lack the technology needed to access telehealth services.
Witenko recognized the importance of telehealth services when the Lee Health program quickly ramped up to aid vulnerable populations during the pandemic. His work allowed health care professionals to safely monitor at-risk patients with serious conditions while also protecting the health of first-line responders at hospitals and clinics who were overwhelmed with in-person urgent care visits and emerging conditions. Witenko’s work to expand telehealth during the pandemic helped contain the possible spread of COVID-19 while also providing vital health care services to those who needed it most.
Though she spent much of her life as a real estate professional, Glenna Hayhoe’s true passion was nursing. After volunteering at a local hospital, at age 52 she put her real estate career aside to take classes to become an LPN. From there, it was Hayhoe’s passion for caring for those at the end of life that led her and her husband Bruce to find volunteers and funding to establish the first hospice in Naples in 1983.
Because of Glenna’s spirit and resilience, Avow Hospice is the longest-serving and only nonprofit hospice in Collier County, offering palliative care and grief support for children and adults. Today, at 91 years old, Hayhoe still volunteers at Avow, sitting at the front desk, hugging a patient’s family member or wheeling the cookie cart through the hospice house. And, as Avow celebrates its 40th anniversary, Hayhoe continues to motivate volunteers to be caring and compassionate while also inspiring staff. She continues to give families respite or makes sure a patient isn’t alone. She listens to their stories, reads them their favorite book, helps with their pets and more, all with a hospice heart.
Health Care Prevention
Sajan Rao, M.D
NCH Healthcare System
As a cardiologist, Dr. Sajan Rao is trained to recognize the symptoms and signs of illness. But when he recognized the strain that practicing medicine was taking on his fellow NCH physicians, he stepped forward and initiated the NCH Physician Wellness Committee. Rao’s efforts, along with those of his fellow physician committee members, focused on fighting burnout, improving connection and streamlining workflow. Their goal is to make practicing medicine less about overcoming obstacles and more about holding the hand of the patient and actually delivering care. The work of Rao’s committee had made tangible differences to improve the lives of the physician workforce at NCH, the lives of their patients and the community to which they deliver care.
The work of Rao’s Physician Wellness Committee was especially timely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The extreme strain of the pandemic left most health care workers burned out, professionally and personally, and many considered leaving the profession entirely. Through the volunteer steps taken by Rao and the committee, NCH was able to keep its health care heroes in the workforce and the community so that they could continue delivering the highest quality care.
Health Care and Hope
As President and CEO of Hope Healthcare since 1991, Samira Beckwith has grown the not-for-profit into a model of health care for the future by bridging hospice with other long-term care programs. Under Beckwith’s leadership, Hope has evolved from a hospice provider serving 100 patients a day to a nationally acclaimed organization with more than 900 employees and over 1,000 volunteers. Providing innovative programs such as Hope Hospice, Hope Palliative Care, Hope PACE, Hope Parkinson Program and Hope Kids Care, the organization now serves more than 3,000 people daily across five Florida counties.
Most recently, Beckwith was instrumental in preparation and recovery efforts during Hurricane Ian. She guided the team through evacuations prior to the storm and offered shelter to staff members, those in Hope’s care and their loved ones. People in Hope’s care who lost their homes were able to remain at Hope Care Centers with access to medical care, food and supplies. Staff members affected by the storm were also offered shelter, food and showers. Additionally, clothing and household items were provided to those in need through the Hope Chest resale stores, and no-cost Ian support groups were offered to the Hope staff and community.
Health Care Staff
Working as a rehabilitation specialist for 22 years, Angela Puchalla has come to understand the limits of traditional injury rehab treatments. But, in her role as Head of Rehabilitation for Matterhorn Fit, she works to rehabilitate injuries faster than traditional methods, while also addressing the compensation patterns and neurological breakdowns that can lead to further injury. Focusing on Matterhorn Fit’s seamless integration between rehabilitation and performance at the highest level, Puchalla has successfully treated more than 60 professional athletes, 11 Olympians and thousands of active individuals in Southwest Florida, many in as little as two weeks.
“Angie approaches pain, injuries and movement dysfunction from a neurological level,” says Ryan Vesce, Co-founder and CEO of Matterhorn Fit. “Once she identifies the root cause of someone’s problem, she applies our neurological rehabilitation process to help retrain and reconnect brain patterns. Equally as impressive as her clinical results, Angie has a real passion for helping people of all ages and levels. She has been a tremendous asset to both the growth and culture of our team.”
Skilled & Assisted Living Facility
‘The right care in the right place at the right time’
Joe Velderman, Vice President of Innovation at Cypress Living, believes that innovation is the key to successful aging services. To deliver that innovation to the company’s Cypress at Home in-home services agency and the Cypress Cove luxury retirement community, Velderman often says, “We want to provide the right data to the right caregiver so that they can provide the right care in the right place at the right time.”
When COVID-19 forced Cypress Living to accelerate its existing telemedicine program, Velderman and the Cypress team quickly embraced robotic technology. That led to the introduction of a pair of telemedicine carts, as well as several next-generation, remote-controlled “doctor on wheels” robots that operate independently without a nurse to guide them through the skilled nursing facility. Velderman also helped outfit the telemedicine program for Cypress at Home providers via iPads and Teams. In addition, a fresh-salad-on-demand robot was added for the employee break room. Many of the practices Velderman developed during the pandemic have been improved and are still being used today, and as a result of Velderman’s efforts, Cypress Living was recognized with the Innovation Award by LeadingAge Florida in 2022.
Urgent Care Operator
Golisano Children’s Hospital—Naples Clinic
Keeping Kids Close to Home
Lee Health and the Golisano Children’s Clinic in Naples have been steadfast leaders and innovators in the Southwest Florida community. Their goal? To keep children and families together by providing world-class care right here in our own backyard.
The facility’s new Chemo Immersion room is the only one of its kind in the state of Florida and one of just a few in the United States. A child dealing with cancer is difficult enough, but having to separate them from their siblings and parents to receive the treatment they need is even harder. By creating a safe, comfortable experience for children going through treatment close to home in Naples, the Chemo Immersion room will help ease the burden on families and make a life-changing difference for patients during a scary, uncertain time.
In addition, with a goal of keeping health care providers, families and our communities safe. Lee Health and Golisano Children’s Hospital now open their facilities for continued treatment and have added services such as mental health care for students and families stuck at home. While these programs were developed during the pandemic, they have proven especially vital in the wake of Hurricane Ian.
Health Care Prevention
Remote Patient Monitoring
Better Care Through Biometrics
Your blood pressure and oxygen level say a lot about your overall health, and most patients must visit a doctor’s office to have those readings taken by a medical professional. But now, thanks to Lee Health’s Remote Patient Monitoring program, patients can have their vital signs assessed without leaving home.
“The goal is to keep you safe in your home and allow management of your condition,” says Virtual Health Medical Director Dr. Zsolt Kulcsar. “[Patients] get a kit delivered to their home, and the kit will be able to collect vital signs with what we call biometric data. What our nurses will do is check every single day, pick up the subtle changes early, be able to intervene early and potentially keep you safe in your home.”
The program, which focuses on patients with heart failure, COPD and high blood pressure, collects data from patients daily and records it in their medical records. That allows an individual’s entire care team, including cardiologists, lung specialists and primary care doctors, to access the information and work together to make changes to help patients manage their chronic conditions from home instead of the doctor’s office.
Advocate Radiation Oncology
Treatment Without Leaving Town
For years, cancer patients often traveled from Southwest Florida to Tampa, Miami, Orlando or Jacksonville for treatments. Doing so meant hours on the road and weeks in hotels in pursuit of world-class cancer care. However, since 2019, the team of radiation oncologists at Advocate Radiation Oncology has been offering the same level of treatment in Southwest Florida. Opening with one location in Port Charlotte, Advocate has grown to six locations across the region and thousands of patients have been successfully treated without having to leave town.
While Advocate uses the newest, state-of-the-art technology to help reduce side effects and minimize negative impacts on patients’ daily lives, the clinic isn’t resting on its laurels, according to Dr. Arie Dosoretz, managing partner at Advocate Radiation Oncology.
“[We] are preparing to launch a next-level proton therapy center in Estero. Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation that uses proton beams to target tumors and cancer cells more precisely, improving outcomes in combination with reduced toxicity and side effects,” he says. “Again, this will keep patients close to home and eliminate the need to travel for medical treatments.”