Mary Virgallito visited her former teacher Mark Ewoldsen and some of his AP biology students on Monday, delivering a presentation meant to inform and inspire.
The La Cañada High School graduate brought an important, powerful friend with her.
“We wanted to come out to schools for two reasons,” said Virgallito, director of Patient Safety at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. “One, to show that we’re working toward patient safety every day, and two, to spur interest in technology and careers.”
The purpose of Virgallito’s visit centered on the germ-zapping robot name Gerrard stationed in the middle of Ewoldsen’s classroom, one of three it would visit in the area on Monday.
“This is an ultraviolet disinfection robot,” Virgallito said. “We’re harnessing the power of science and using that to actually keep our patients safer.”
Virgallito explained that Gerrard (on loan from Xenex, the company that made it) is a replica of the disinfecting robot that started work at USC-VHH two weeks ago. The hospital’s $100,000 investment, she explained, will use UVC rays to kill micro-organisms, so bacteria-caused infections such as pseudomonas can’t strike vulnerable patients.
Ewoldsen told his class that, following surgery a few years ago, his daughter dealt with a bout of pseudomonas that caused her white blood cell count to plummet and for her to be hospitalized for a scary week.
“This possibly would have made sure that would not have happened,” Ewoldsen said.
The germ-zapping machine, which looks like a relative of a push floor cleaner, with the addition of a purple lid that rises to reveal a light stick that would — were it activated — pulse 67 times per second at an intensity 25,000 times more intense than the sun. Call that photodimerization, Virgallito said.
“Your parents will probably have a serious problem if I ran this in your presence,” Virgallito told the students, who were invited to participate in a naming contest for the hospital’s new robot. (The winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift card; some candidates: Jondren, Xavier, Fourth Bean Light and Violet.)
USC-VHH’s so-far-unnamed robot is being used to disinfect operating rooms and patients’ rooms, said Virgallito, who made sure to mention a series of safety procedures for the machine, which is to run nightly for five minutes in two positions in each room, for five minutes in a bathroom and for 10 minutes in two positions inside the operating room.
There’s an orange cone to warn people not to enter a room where the robot is working, and if, for some reason, that warning isn’t heeded, a second cone equipped with a motion sensor that will automatically turn off the machine.
“It’s one of those technologies that you don’t really think about needing very often,” said Morgan Bowman, an aspiring veterinarian. “It’s one of those background technologies that wouldn’t be the first thing you think about in the hospital, but once you do start thinking about it, then it actually is pretty critical.”
Nor, Virgallito guessed, would most students have given much thought to her job at the hospital prior to Monday’s lesson, which also played out at Rosemont Middle School in La Crescenta and Fremont Elementary School in Glendale.
“Everything I do in my job is geared to implementing technology, procedures and protocols designed to prevent the spread of infection,” said Virgallito, who’s also a nurse practitioner and is the acting president of the Greater Los Angeles Association of Professionals in Infection Control.
“Lots of patients come in, and they have lots of different infections and organisms affecting them and it’s my job to work with our staff, the physicians and nurses, to make sure we don’t allow the transition of infections from patient to patient.”
She said visitors who came to her science courses — including her physics class with Ewoldsen — motivated her to consider a career in medicine.
“I love what I do,” she said. “So I’m here to share a little of what we do with you, and get you excited about a possible career.”