Digging through the garbage usually doesn't bring recognition or an award at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
It just depends on what you retrieve and how important it is for patient care.
Dr. Chunli “Claus” Yang, a physicist and associate professor of radiation oncology, and Dr. Andrey Markovich, a physics resident in radiation oncology, were the latest to be recognized by the AWARDS Team for their night-long trash vigil and trash-picking adventure the cold, windy morning of February 4.
“Their actions helped us provide the best and safest care to our patients,” said Dr. Srinivasan Vijayakumar, Cancer Institute director and chief of the Department of Radiation Oncology.
It started with what should have been a simple call. The linear accelerator on the UMMC campus, used to give radiation oncology therapy to hospitalized adult and pediatric patients, needed a repair. Parts arrived in late afternoon. An engineer came in after hours so patient care would not be interrupted. Mid-repair, the parts went missing.
In hindsight, maybe setting the $26,000 in parts near the area for garbage pickup wasn't the best idea. That became clear after housekeeping did its job, placing the boxes in the dumpster.
Yang, whose job includes keeping the equipment in working order, received a late night call from the engineer, telling him the parts were missing. Rather than pointing fingers, Yang sought a solution that would not delay patient treatment or cost the department thousands of dollars.
With information from the housekeeping supervisor, he and members of the department traced the parts to a campus trash compactor, hoping to be able to open it and retrieve the parts.
“The engineer had given up,” said Yang. “He said that the parts were gone and that there was no way to get them back. He didn't want to dig through the trash because it was hospital waste.”
About midnight, Yang realized he had to come up with another plan.
Early the next day, Yang enlisted the help of Markovich. The two stood “babysitting” the dumpster for three hours, waiting for the truck that was to take it to the landfill.
“It really was a group effort from many different parties working together,” said Yang.
With help from the Medical Center's garbage contractor, the two followed the truck to a landfill where the load was dumped in a cleared off spot, not mixed in with the other trash. There, they sorted through debris looking for the equipment.
Markovich, left, and Yang were surprised with balloons and candy by coworkers and members of the AWARDS Team.
At first they thought they should look in every bag, but as they began, they realized that there was just too much garbage to search each and every bag. They had to have a strategy. If they opened a bag and it contained kitchen garbage, they quickly set it aside for the next bag.
“I think we were lucky that housekeeping did not put the parts into a bag with other garbage,” said Markovich. “If they had, we may never have found it.”
“It took us about two hours to find the parts,” said Yang. “The smell as we dug deeper into the garbage became worse and worse. Andrey was the one who actually saw them first.”
Terrence Shirley, Radiation Oncology administrator, nominated Yang and Markovich for AWARDS Team recognition. The team is a group of 25 people from across the Medical Center who meet once a month to review manager and peer submissions and recognize deserving employees.
“These two gentlemen followed the EVS truck driver to the landfill and waded through mounds of debris and retrieved the two packages,” Shirley said in his nomination. “[They went] well above and beyond the call of duty.”
Yang and Markovich were surprised by the AWARDS Team and coworkers last week when they gathered in a conference room for a meeting with Vijayakumar, led to believe that the physics residency program was ending so that they would be sure to attend. Markovich is a resident with the Physics Residency Program in Radiation Oncology.
Members of the AWARDS Team, standing from left, are Yvette Galloway, Driscoll Devaul, David Keeney, Maria Smith, Connie Suber, Megan Wylie, Cammie Breedlove, Charlotte Cockrell, Gladys Peters, Terrence Shirley and Chris Morgan. Seated, from left, are Markovich and Yang.
Instead of receiving devastating news, the extremely relieved pair were awarded balloons and candy in celebration.
“I was just scrambling about thinking what to do next, because you cannot get into another residency program,” said Markovich. “It's relatively new, and the admission process is complicated, so there's no way to transfer between programs.”
“It was the only way I could get them to come to the meeting together,” said Vijayakumar. “I love these guys. They are the best of the best.”
Yang and Markovich are unsung heroes who work behind the scenes to ensure that patients receive the correct dose of radiation needed, and no more.
“Radiation oncology is not like giving aspirin. If you overdose with aspirin, it will be washed from the body,” Vijayakumar said. “If you give an overdose of radiation, you can't take it back. These guys make sure we give the right dose at the right place and at the right time. They help us every day, constantly. They do a fantastic job.”
“When I walk through the department, I see patients, and they don't know me, but I know their names,” said Markovich.
Although visiting a landfill to dig through garbage is not on their job descriptions, Yang said that it is all part of the job.
"It is truly what we are supposed to do. We should do it. Andrey did a good job."