I got up early this morning and checked the weather. It looks like another hot one. Summer is coming. I don’t mind the hot days though. It’s the rainy days that are tough when your new office is located in a parking lot.

Nora Toncel
Nora Toncel loves her Converses.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started to affect our area, I was reassigned from my normal job as a neighborhood engagement partner with community engagement at Novant Health to help at one of our new respiratory assessment centers (RAC) in Waughtown, North Carolina. These centers have been set up to provide patients with a safe place to go for drive-up COVID-19 testing, masks and other resources if they need it.

And so I gladly traded my high heels for my Converse sneakers – I have a pair in every color – and went to work. My name is Nora Toncel and I work with a dedicated team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists. And while they’re busy with testing, my role is to interpret and provide assistance with social services. My goal is to connect low income residents with the help they need to stay healthy and thrive.

15 minutes to make a difference

The majority of the patients we see are Hispanic. And I’ve learned over the years that Hispanic or Latino families can be pretty shy and often unwilling to ask for help.

But just like the rest of us, they are worried about the coronavirus and how it might affect their families or their jobs. That’s why we are here. Some days we will see 25 to 30 cars pull up. Other days we don’t see anyone at all.

When patients pull up, I greet them like family. In many cases, they are already nervous and it can be a lot to take in when you see medical personnel approach your vehicle with masks on, not to mention the language barrier. And so I roam from car to car to say hello in their own language and to interpret for our medical providers.

Thanks to rapid testing, the patient only has to wait for 15 minutes for their results. That’s when I really go to work. If left alone, the mind can easily wander down the path of worry. Instead, I try to use that time to engage with each patient to find out if he or she needs anything. Some families need food and housing. Others, diapers and formula. I do my best to connect them with community resources that can help.

I have been building these community relationships for years in this job. In fact, the mobile “healthcare on wheels” unit that I’ve been working out of for the last few weeks is a partnership vehicle between Novant Health and Winston-Salem State University. It’s been inspiring to see so many organizations pulling together to help meet the needs of our community.

Tools for success

Nora Toncel checks on patient in their car
Nora Toncel greets patients with a smile.

For those patients who are screened as presumptive positive, you can truly sense their concern.

In those moments, I try to reassure them that most cases are mild and that the majority of people are able to recover at home. I then explain that they will receive a follow-up call within 48 hours from one of our Spanish-speaking medical providers. I also offer to help them download the Zoom app, so they can do future video appointments, and Novant Health MyChart, our secure, online connection to your medical information.

I also introduce them to Novant Health MyCommunity. This tool allows participants to plug in their ZIP code and search for free or reduced cost services like medical care, food, job training and more.

And although these patients are always welcome to come back to the RAC for follow-up questions, most won’t. So I see each encounter as my one-time opportunity to make a difference. I guess you could say that is my reason for being out here in the parking lot.

My goal is and will always be the same: I want to empower others with the tools they need to help themselves.

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