January 2012 Heart of MD Anderson
As a patient access specialist, it's Jay Thomas' job to guide patients who end up at the Emergency Center through the paperwork they need to be seen here. But he sees his job as much more. He's the kind of employee who'll track down patients missing signatures to another floor or clinic to save them a trip. On the way back to his workstation, he might notice cold patients in the waiting room and find them blankets. He's been known -- more than once -- to take a call on the drive home from work and turn around to lend a hand with a patient's account review. He's someone co-workers aren't afraid to call at 3 a.m. on a weekend for help navigating the intricacies of insurance precertification. "For us to have to make a patient wait until Monday to resolve an issue that's worrying them, well, I just don't want to do that," says Thomas. "Cancer is devastating physically, emotionally and financially. If I can take that financial piece off their plate, I've accomplished something." Thomas is January's winner of the Heart of MD Anderson Outstanding Employee Award. Thomas' colleagues say his willingness to work -- whenever he's needed, doing whatever's needed -- is one of his best qualities. He's had lots of practice. By age 10, he was cooking dinner for his younger brothers to help out his single mom. As a high school student in Victoria, he worked two jobs -- one sacking groceries and one slinging corn dogs -- and picked up extra money mowing yards and babysitting. He worked full-time as a manager at a credit bureau while attending Texas Southern University but took a break from college when he learned his mother had cancer and needed care at MD Anderson. He began working here 11 years ago during her treatment, eventually landing in the newly formed business center for the Emergency Center. Because of his mother's illness and later his grandmother's, college came in fits and starts, but he graduated with a bachelor's in health administration in 2010 while still working full-time at MD Anderson. Thomas believes that watching his mother and grandmother struggle and then die of cancer was as an important part of his education as his degree. "When I started here, I thought I was getting a job, but it turned out to be a mission," he says. "You have to be a person of extreme compassion to do this right. I've been through that darkness. I know that fear factor when you walk through that door the first time." Thomas is often one of the first employees a future patient meets when arriving at MD Anderson through the Emergency Center. Some people who show up need to be registered and assigned patient numbers. That's Thomas' job. So is tying up loose ends for patients arriving from clinics that have closed before their paperwork was complete. Sometimes he puts together cost estimates for patients without insurance. There are authorizations to obtain, payments to collect, financial counseling to offer, and even hotel and parking tips to pass along. Since he works afternoons and evenings, when most business operations are closed, the job is troubleshooting as much as anything. And those who work with Thomas say he's very good at it. "I'm always relieved to know Jay is on duty simply because my experience working with him has built up such respect for him," says Sherry Beatty, an off-shift administrator in Clinical Operations. "When his colleagues are in a bind and not sure how to proceed, they call on Jay for advice. Even though he doesn't carry the title of 'team lead,' he certainly functions like one." Those in the Emergency Center note he makes himself readily available to them, and he's a natural teacher. "He's approachable," says Christina Herrera, a Patient Services coordinator in the Emergency Center. "Jay doesn't even know what on and off the clock is, and he's pleasant no matter what time it is." Patients get the same treatment. Co-workers say that time and time again, they've seen him win over patients who are taking out their frustrations on him. Thomas himself recalls one patient who threw a credit card at him. Minutes later, they were laughing together. "All you have to do is listen, so they know you care," he says. "You don't throw policy and procedure at them. You don't talk about what you can't do. You try to figure out what you can do." To Thomas, there's nothing more satisfying than giving a patient his business card when they part ways, and then months or even years later meeting another patient with that same card. The original patient has sent someone he cares about to MD Anderson with instructions to look him up. "Their sister or their friend has told them, 'This guy will take care of you,'" Thomas says. "That's when I know I did my job right."