MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project
Chapter 06:  COVID and the Global Pandemic


Chapter 06: COVID and the Global Pandemic



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Mr. Coffee talks about the institution's first response to the COVID-19 pandemic - working from home, adjusting communication preferences, and shifting job responsibilities.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed., Oral History Interview, June 30, 2021


Nina Nevill

That sounds like a very affirmative approach to patient care. Now, talking about resources and again, bringing us back to the pandemic and this past year everything that occurred on a global level, as they say, hindsight is 20—20, but I have to ask, what would you or could you have done differently in terms of managing the crisis as it unfolded over the past year? And again, this could be in the pandemic aspect of COVID-19, or in terms of racial disparities in health or however you see fit.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

That’s a great question. I want to just ad lib to the question about spirituality, because you said that’s great for our patients. But it’s important for you to know that we had a panel with five different participants, one was a Christian, one was Jewish, one was Hindu, one was Muslim, and there’s a fifth person. And we’d also invite an atheist. One was a Sikh. And what we did was ask each panel member—and this was for our staff. It was 90 minutes long. We asked each panel member, “Tell us one thing that’s a myth about your faith, and then tell us one thing that you think we should know about your faith.” And there’s a woman named Nyma Shah, her and I cofacilitated this, and it was probably one of the richest discussions because when somebody asked one of Hindu members, “Please tell us about reincarnation,” and this person’s simple answer was, “I’ve been a Hindu all my life. I have never met anybody that has been reincarnated. Have you?” (laughter) And it was like, “Oh, really?” So, I just want to say, we do this with both groups. I just want to put that out there. So, is that okay?

Nina Nevill


Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

So, the question was, if I’m clear, if I could go back what would I do to prepare myself or the staff members about or for the COVID-19 experience, what would I do differently?

Nina Nevill

What would you do differently once events started unfolding and the crisis was underway? Not necessarily beforehand, but whether that be policies or practices that you believe could bring equity to employees, or something along those lines.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

I’m going to be very biased in my answer because I’ve been dealing with leadership for a lot of years and leaders communicate and over communicate during a time of crisis. And our leaders very quickly stepped up to the microphone and began to communicate in middle or early March. And I, Lee, was going through a personal crisis because my older brother of two years, he’s two years older than I, died of kidney disease February 26th of last year. And so, my birthday is March the 5th, we had his funeral March the 7th. When I came back to the institution, my brother and I had had a vacation planned for March the 14th through the 18th. I had never cashed the ticket. We were going to go to Orlando, Florida, and just kind of goof off and love on each other and whatnot. He’s a bishop and he was a bishop in the church. So, he’s a good, sweet hearted person. And I needed to give him a break and get him away from what he was doing, and same with me. So, when I came back from Ohio, which is where I’m from, after the funeral, we were just starting that work two days from home, three days on site. The week of 14 to 18 that I was supposed to take off as a vacation, I took those same days to do some more healing. But when I came back to work the very next week I was told, “We’re going to go home and work from home beginning on the 25th of March.”

And so, our organization started, very early, putting people offsite and communicating why we’re putting people offsite for protective mechanism, and very early on that we are going to not let patients have their family members come to the institution to visit unless the patient was terminal, so that we could protect our staff from exposure as well as protect the patients in their immunosuppressed condition. And that was communicated every Thursday. And there were communications coming out through our electronic emails. And it was cascaded down from Dr. Pisters to other leaders in the institution. And they were pulling in data from the best and brightest scientists across the globe. And continually—and this is what leaders do. In the midst of a crisis—and I had somebody call me and say, “What do I do?” And I’d say, “Keep your people informed and then encourage them. Tell them they’re doing a good job. Be supportive.” And this person who called me said, “Wow, I never thought about that.” I said, “Just make sure that you are informing people,” and what I told the individual, “Our leadership with Dr. Pisters’ leadership and his executive team, we’re doing that.” And so, for me, it’s really hard for me to find fault with what I saw them doing because in the midst of this crisis they created the opportunity to say, “We’re going to put people offsite. We’re going to figure out ways to make sure those who can work from home, work from home. The nurses can’t work from home. That’s just a reality. Doctors can’t work from home. They’ve got to be at the bedside. But for those people—patient escort, tighter down a little bit. Valet services went away. But what they didn’t do—and this is important—they didn’t fire people. What they said is, “If you were in a job that we’re eliminating because we don’t need valet because we’re not driving buses, we’re going to find a job for you in the hospital doing something, something productive, something that’s going to continually help make cancer history but we’re not going to lay you off or furlough you.”

And that meant the institution went through a major metamorphosis to be able to come out—when things like that butterfly when they say that just when things look the worst, we came out as a butterfly? They did that. So, it’s hard for me to say—and I thought about it many a time. I looked at the leadership at the national level, with the previous administration’s leadership, and I saw many flaws on how they communicated and how they made it a political football, and how they turned the mask, which could—we still right now have people who don’t really believe that COVID was real, and we’ve had people on their dying bed saying, “I didn’t think this thing was real and now it’s too late and I’m telling you all it’s real.” And that was some of their last statements because of the mixed messages the national leadership was putting out. But our leadership at MD Anderson, I think, did what was reasonable, what was prudent, what was forward-thinking, and they took the best—they made the best of a really bad situation. So, I would have to really stretch my imagination. And I thought about this because I’ve managed 500 to 600 people for over a 12-year period. So, when you’re in that leadership position you have to make the best-informed decisions with the data that you can collect, and then, keep people informed about it. And sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of being able to explain your rationale. But our leadership, every Thursday, “Here’s where we’ve been, here is where we are, here’s where we’re going, this is the reason why we going, here’s how you can help,” when you can have somebody who continually does that and then asks you, “Stay safe, stay home, follow this science, this is what we’re doing to keep you safe, here’s how we’re going to resource you if you need it,” they turned one MC to a place for people who needed computers, you’ve got to get a mask on, come in, we’ll take your temperature, we’ll get you your computer so those of you that don’t have computers or if your computer is not functioning, or you need equipment to make it function better. So, I think our response was spot-on.

Nina Nevill

It sounds like it. And it sounds like the communication is such a big part of it. I think with the reactions to the pandemic a lot of people think of the physical actions, what steps were taken to create equity, for example, but just the communicative aspect it seems like is incredibly important, making sure that everyone is on the same page and is in the loop. And so, that’s good to know that that was the process of the past year.

Lee Coffee Jr., M. Ed.

Well, yes. And as a warrior and a warfighter, when you go to battle, the first two things you try to cut is a person’s communication lines and their supply lines. Because if they can’t get beans and bullets to the front line and if they don’t know what’s happening, they start creating their own stories. And so, our leaders were communicating exactly what’s happening and then they were providing the supplies and that equity you talked about, they created conditions for people to keep their jobs even if they worked as a short-order cook and there was no longer need for the short-order cooks in the cafeteria, but they found a job where people could still contribute.



Publication Date



The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Conditions Governing Access


Chapter 06:  COVID and the Global Pandemic