Debra Wilson finds the repetition of counting relaxing.
Every day, her job here at UTMB is to count the supplies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Labor and Delivery to help ensure that the doctors and nurses can take care of the tiniest of patients. Wilson is a materials handling technician by job title, but she’s more than that. She’s the person the doctors and nurses go to when they need to make sure they have everything they need to do their job in the supply cabinet.
“They’ll call down to the storeroom looking for me if they
need something,” she says.
Wilson has worked at UTMB for 40 years. She’s been a materials handling technician for most of that time, but she also worked as health unit coordinator for 13 years during her tenure.
Wilson starts her day at 7 a.m. in the storeroom, where she picks up her list of assignments. They are usually the same unless someone is out and she must cover another employee’s shift. From that moment on, she’s constantly in motion. She heads to the John Sealy Annex, to the NICU, to the surgical wing, to the 10th floor of the John Sealy hospital tower, where she works her
way down the floors. From Omnicell (a supply closet in which all the supplies for the unit are stored) to Omnicell, she’s stealthily in and out, scanning the bins that are stocked with everything from diapers to wet wipes to sutures to socks to breast pump kits to drinking mugs.
She can tell just by looking in the bins about how much needs to be reordered. She knows, for example, that nurses will go through a lot of diapers. Optiflex, an inventory-collecting computer attached to the Omnicell, knows when it’s time to refill the bin. If someone puts an extra two items in a bin, Debra pulls those items out.
“They know there’s only supposed to be six of those there. That’s why the door won’t shut,” she says of an extra package of diapers someone put in the Omnicell.
The Omnicells are a finely tuned tool. Each cabinet is divided into dozens of bins, and more cubby holes are regularly added as the nurses determine there’s a need for new supplies. The bins are topped off to the maximum amount daily. If there are supposed to be 45 packages of an item in a bin, Wilson makes sure that’s what’s there, every day.
Although her work is behind the scenes, it gets noticed. The nurses and doctors see her and stop to say how critical her job is and how good she is at it.
“Debra is a great asset to the department,” says her supervisor, Dwayne Wilkins. “She’s always willing to work that extra mile, and she’s excellent at training new people. In cases when we’re short, she’s willing to work overtime. (The employees) can learn a lot from her.”
Midway through her morning count, she’ll send her request down to the storeroom in the Clinical Services Wing through a pneumatic tube. Her colleagues there will begin gathering up what she needs, and if there’s a problem, such as if an item is on backorder and they have to make a substitution, the staff can make a call to the floor in need and discuss options with the unit. And if something happens during the day and there’s a rush on supplies, then the doctors or nurses call Wilson or the storeroom and ask for replenishments.
There are 22 other materials handling technicians on the Galveston Campus who work across three shifts to ensure 24-hour coverage. In addition, there are nine technicians working on the Clear Lake Campus, three on the Angleton Danbury Campus and four on the League City Campus.
David Callaway, interim director of Supply Chain, says, “(Materials handling technicians) aren’t caregivers, but they aren’t inventory clerks. They are health-care workers. Without this staff, clinicians don’t have the tools they need to do their job. We’re all working together as a team to help patients get better.”
Wilson says her job has changed a lot over the years—and for the better.
“Back in the 1980s when I first started, we had booths on the units. We would hand out supplies to the nurses. We had to count the supplies by hand and carried everything up to the floors. Now we have one central location. It’s so much better now,” she says.
“In the 1990s, we started bringing supplies up in carts, and we started using the Omnicells. In 2016, the Optiflex computer came, which we still use. Last year (2019), we started using PeopleSoft for inventory,” Wilson says.
While Wilson and her colleagues still count and restock the bins, technology has made the process smoother. Wilson’s day is a routine, to be sure, but she says she enjoys it. She knows that people—especially the infant patients—depend on her to keep the supplies replenished.
After 40 years, retirement is on Wilson’s mind. But what will someone who is in constant motion do with so much free time once she’s retired? She won’t be sitting still, that’s for sure.
“I’ve never been on a plane, so maybe I’ll do that. Or maybe I’ll take a cruise,” Wilson says. She likes to sew, and she used to make clothes for a few customers and surgical caps for the nurses and doctors. She thinks maybe she’ll start making clothes again. She’s also considering taking classes at Lamar University in Beaumont.
She’ll probably do some fishing, too.
“I can’t sit in my house,” she said.
As for Callaway, he’s effusive in his praise for Wilson’s significant contributions during her tenure at UTMB.
“Debra is the type of employee we’ve built the department around. She is rock steady and reliable. Whatever you need done, whenever you need it done, you look to these types of employees. Floods and hurricanes don’t keep them from work. Their dedication to UTMB’s success and our patient’s well-being motivates them at their core,” Callaway said.