“Sari, you have to know that what you do makes a difference, holding that iPad up, being the messenger of love that people need right now is why you are so special. We wanted to give you a virtual hug but also give you the verbal thank you that you deserve, your tears are real and we cry with you but we celebrate the fact that people like you exist. ~~ Tamron Hall, ABC Talk Show Host.”   (See Sari’s interview –https://tamronhallshow.com/videos/advocating-for-covid-19-patients-without-families/)

I am honored to introduce you to Sari Shamah, a patient advocate at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, NJ.  She is on the front line daily, supporting and empowering patients and caregivers through the stress, fear, and frustration that accompanies a hospital stay.  Sari has become a lifeline to her patients’ family members since the pandemic hit NJ residents so dramaticaly.

Growing Up

Let’s step back to Sari’s roots to understand why she became the nurturing, fiercely passionate, strong, and loving woman she is today.  Sari was born in Brooklyn to a Syrian mother, Eleanor Heiney and an Ashkenazic father, Harvey Steinberg, a”h. Sari says, “I got the best from each culture!”   Sari lived in Texas between the ages of five and eleven. At eleven her family relocated to Long Branch, NJ and Sari considers herself a Jersey Girl.  An “A” student, Sari loved school and was the VP of her high school class for two years.

I asked Sari and her friends to choose five adjectives to describe her.  Sari’s friends responded with fun, energetic, kind, caring, generous, selfless, loving, and a thoughtful hero. Sari added nurturing, friendly, fierce, strong, and compassionate.

“I’ve always been a nurturer and enjoyed taking care of my younger siblings and others, even as a child.  My mother called me a ‘mitzvah girl’ and I said, ‘please don’t call me that or put me on a pedestal, I’m not perfect.’”

I noticed that Sari is a modest person who avoids the spotlight.  She confessed to being shy in a big crowd and she thrives when she connects one-on-one.  She lives her life purposefully and puts her heart and soul into everything she takes on, especially when it involves helping people.

Sari is often told that she does not just do her job, she gives 150%.  As we follow her through career and community work, we will see that it is Sari’s essence to do whatever she can and beyond!

Then Came Marriage

Sari attended Ohio State University for one year and then returned back East.  She first met her husband Ronald D. Shamah (“Ronnie”) at 17. Three years later they married, and lived in Brooklyn for 11 years. Ronnie is the Director of Sales for Perfect Packaging and is the coordinator of the Jersey Shore Hatzalah.  The couple moved to Oakhurst, NJ after their youngest was born and they have been ardently devoted to their community ever since. The couple has four children, David (Doctor of School Psychology), Florence (Doctor of Audiology), Alan (co-owner of Alda Cosmetics, LLC) and Joseph (an actuary).  Three live close by with their families in NJ and David lives in Baltimore.  Sari “lives and breathes her children and grandchildren” and is very hands-on. “I am passionate about helping people,” Sari says, “but my family always comes first.”

Exercising Her Kindness Muscle

While Sari was busy raising her children, she committed to carving out time to volunteer at Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) in Brooklyn and she continued her community and hesed projects in NJ for 30 years.  Sari took on various leadership roles such as heading the Chinese auctions, being an SBH captain (advocating for clients), and much more.  She recently retired from the NJ SBH Board but is still active on the crisis team.  Sari and Ronnie were also integrally involved in the Jersey Shore Hatzalah since its inception in 2003.  Sari retired as a Hatzalah dispatcher after 15 years, and Ronnie is the coordinator of Hatzalah. Both Sari and Ronnie are impassioned about helping to save lives.

Career

As a newlywed, Sari worked in clothing sales in Brooklyn for three years and she took a break when she and Ronnie started their family.  When their kids were older, Sari took a sales job in Oakhurst at Casablanca’s, a gift shop. In 2007, Sari joined Gem Time Inc., a wholesale watch company. At Gem Time she successfully landed an account with Bloomingdales and appeared on the QVC network and sold 1,500 watches in less than two minutes.

Sari attributes her sales savvy to her knack for building relationships.  Her Bloomingdales contact confided, “I am giving you a chance because I like you.”

She became an entrepreneur when she launched Sweet Cheeks Diaper Creations in 2014.  What sparked this venture?  Sari’s friend admired a Mr. Mets centerpiece made of rolled receiving blankets and other accessories that Sari had created for her own grandson’s brit milah.  The orders started rolling in!

Community Liaison

Sari’s opportunity to work as a patient advocate came quite unexpectedly six years ago.  Shiri Zimmerman, Sari’s friend who is in SBS Career Services, called with the perfect job, as a Community Liaison for the Sephardic Friends of Monmouth Medical Center (“MMC”).  Given the influx of the Sephardic Jews to the Jersey Shore during the summer, MMC needed a community representative to provide a friendly face to patients coming through its Emergency Room doors.  Sari quickly prepared a resume, first thinking that she did not have the appropriate skills. “I totally forgot about all the SBH volunteer jobs that I had done over the years!”  It was no surprise that Sari was hired, and she did so well that the position became a permanent one and expanded. Sari was now working as a patient advocate, not only in the ER but for the entire hospital.  There are currently four other advocates.

When I asked Sari if she was excited when she received the job offer, she shared, “I said to myself, ‘I’ve been doing this job my whole life, you mean I could have been getting paid for it?!’”

Sari’s role is essential in normal times (pre Covid-19) and in particular when a patient cannot advocate for himself or has no family member to advocate for him.  Patient advocates troubleshoot on behalf of patients and caregivers and help them to navigate hospital logistics.  Sari is often asked to investigate why a surgery has been delayed or when a patient will be discharged. Sari also supports hospital staff by resolving non-medical concerns. A friendly visit or the offer of a warm blanket can make a big difference to a patient.

Covid-19

During the pandemic, when everyone is potentially contagious, Sari may not enter patient rooms, and  family members are not allowed to visit.  Wearing a mask and gloves, Sari is on her feet five days a week, working six-hour shifts. She intercedes for worried family members who call the hospital, desperate for patient updates.  With an iPad in hand, one of Sari’s key tasks has become facetiming with families outside the patient’s room.

MMC created a new position on each unit, that of the nurse liaison, who handles the high volume of requests for medical updates for Covid-19 patients. The nurse liaison is responsible for obtaining updates from the doctors and then calling the designated family member on the patient record with these updates.  Unfortunately, many concerned family members are not aware of the timetable at the hospital and the steps required to acquire updates. They do not realize that the liaison can not call back multiple people who inquire about the same patient.  Yes, you guessed it!  These anxious loved ones then call Sari.  Sari is socompassionate, and her heart breaks each time she holds up her iPad to the window and witnesses the most intimate and private moments with family members, begging their parents to fight and to not leave them.  However, Sari does have to comply with hospital regulations and has to set limits.  She explains the HIPPA rules, and gently urges the family members not to call every contact they have in the hospital and flood the nurses’ station with calls. She encourages family members to be patient and to be respectful of nurses and doctors who are busy saving lives.  Although Sari is not permitted to relay medical information, she checks in with the nurse liaison, and assures the family that she knows the patient’s nurse and that the patient is in good hands.  Sari calms nerves by  telling the family members that the nurse will call with an update ASAP.

To give me an idea of howthe staff and patients are protected at MMC, Sari explained the steps and time it takes a nurse to put on her personal protective equipment (PPE). Another nurse assists the one donning her PPE, and makes sure everything is on correctly, and that she has spent enough time to secure her PPE properly.  When the job is finished,  the PPE is removed according to special procedures to avoid contamination.

Self-Care

To maintain her strength and emunah, Sari seeks out the beach and writes poetry.  It’s imperative for her to put her feelings down on paper.

Her advice?  Be true to yourself;  don’t be afraid to be who you are!

Connect with Sari at Sshamah.tolife@gmail.com

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach.   Ellen works part-time as an entitlement specialist at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. She can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com (www.lifecoachellen.com).