First published in the Sept. 4 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
This is the fifth and last in a series of profiles on Glendale-area women who recently were honored by Congressman Adam Schiff as his district’s women of the year. To read the other profiles, visit glendalenewspress.com.
When Rebecca Berberian was recognized by the local congressman for her work during the coronavirus pandemic — and when she agreed to be interviewed for a profile story — she admitted to feeling “embarrassed” about the moment.
What she reflected, rather, was the proud humility of a hospital administrator and infection prevention expert who is acutely aware that there are teams of people who, in her eyes, have contributed just as much to Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital’s efforts to fight the pandemic. Berberian insisted that attention be paid to the rest of the hardworking staff at the medical center off Cesar Chavez Avenue in Los Angeles.
“I know I worked hard the past two years, but a lot worked hard,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s kind of embarrassing to get this award when we have nurses every day donning the PPE and attending to patients in their rooms.”
For her work as director of risk management and infection prevention at White Memorial — which included key decisions to create COVID-19-specific units during surge periods and volunteering at vaccination clinics — Congressman Adam Schiff included Berberian among the 2020 women of the year representing his district.
“Her passion for her job became even more evident during the coronavirus pandemic,” Schiff wrote in his announcement. “Specifically during the surge periods, she worked long hours supporting the hospital’s efforts in responding to the pandemic, including taking part in strategic decision-making about converting hospital units to accommodate high hospitalization rates, contact tracing infections among staff and securing personal protective equipment.”
Berberian, a 35-year resident of Glendale, has worked at White Memorial for more than 30 years. After working at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center, she joined her current employer as a surgical nurse. The San Fernando Valley native also has volunteered on many of the missions abroad with Adventist Health as well as with other organizations like the Armenian Relief Society.
As a student, Berberian earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Pacific Union College; she later earned a master’s degree in health-care administration from Cal State L.A. while working full-time.
Asked to look back at March 2020, Berberian recalled the way everyone at White Memorial coalesced once the initial shock of the pandemic wore off.
“It was just so new to everybody. We’d never been through anything like this, and we had to activate all those disaster plans and emergency management plans that we’d been practicing,” she explained. “It was really just the team that came together, seven days a week, all hours of the night to ensure that we had proper equipment for our staff and patients and to take care of our staff’s families.
“Then it became a routine,” Berberian continued. “It was a routine to have that 8 a.m. command center call every single day to go over the status of the hospital and supplies and how we’re going to convert a different unit. I don’t know where that time all went.”
White Memorial was one of the early epicenters for COVID-19 infections in L.A. County, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ultimately helped to bolster the institution by installing a field hospital to help take in more patients. It continues to be a large vaccination clinic in a countywide effort that has, so far, seen more than 65% of county residents be fully inoculated against the disease since December.
Back when it wasn’t clear if vaccines would become readily available, it was a more difficult landscape to confront, she noted.
“Everybody was just very worried about working in a COVID unit and what kind of exposure you had,” Berberian said. “I think it changed the life of staff members as well — how they came to work, how they worked, how they interacted with patients. They’re used to sitting at their bedside, talking and that changed.
“And then, it didn’t change,” she added. “We had to be bedside, holding a patient’s hand when they were passing, when their families couldn’t be there.”
Berberian, a second-generation Armenian American whose grandparents fled Turkey during the Armenian genocide, had in the years prior to the pandemic dedicated time to volunteering overseas in Armenia and at medical centers in the proclaimed Artsakh Republic. (She also volunteered in Peru.)In addition to distributing donations of new equipment and supplies, she also assisted with work at the different medical centers throughout those countries — Berberian observed that she got back into operating rooms this way. The Adventist Health system collaborated with the Armenia Fund in the volunteer endeavors.
“The medical missions that have been sponsored by Adventist Health there were just amazing,” she said. “When you see the dedication of people to mission work wherever it is — but for me, Armenia specifically — it really highlights the good in people.
“It is a faith-based institution,” Berberian added, “and there is a mission and vision for Adventist Health that drives a lot of why our physicians work here.”
Berberian also has held several leadership positions in the Armenian Relief Society, including two terms as the regional chairperson. In those roles, she led fundraising campaigns, oversaw the work of the organization’s Saturday Armenian schools and managed the organization’s social services network.
Asked about her hospital’s status during the Delta-variant driven surge in COVID-19 cases, she said things were steady and hoped daily new case rates would continue to eke downward. Still, until more people get vaccinated, Berberian won’t get comfortable.
“We have a consistent number of COVID cases. We’re not overwhelmed by it, but it’s not over,” she said. “For a lot of our staff, they can’t believe they’re seeing it all over again. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of those patients are unvaccinated.”