13:45 PM

UST Graduate Nursing Student Serves Vulnerable Homeless Population amidst COVID-19

Toni Cotton (far right)  visiting with front line nurses screening patients for COVIDUST graduate nursing student Toni Cotton sees her work as Chief Nursing Officer for Ambulatory Services at Harris Health System as a healing ministry. Pre-COVID-19, she and the Harris Health nurses in Ambulatory Services care for greater than one million cases a year in Harris County. Now, with the COVID-19 Pandemic, Harris Health’s services are a vital lifeline for Houston’s most vulnerable populations including the homeless.

Nursing Leadership Skills a Must in Unknown Times

Before the pandemic, Cotton wanted to advance her nursing career so she chose University of St. Thomas Doctorate in Nursing Practice as that vehicle to enhance her nursing leadership capabilities at Harris Health System. Cotton felt that the mission of UST, its Peavy School of Nursing and Harris Health System aligned. “It aligned with me personally too – a perfect union,” she said.

Now she absolutely knows that the DNP program’s goal to enable professional nurses to expand their abilities through the practice of transformational leadership is critical in this changing world.  

Nursing is Cotton’s Personal Calling

“Becoming a nurse was a personal calling,” Cotton said. I am a Christian and prayed a long time about my career. The Lord used the words of my late husband who clearly stated, “You should be a nurse, you are such a caring and compassionate person the Lord could use you in the nursing field.” I was immediately convicted by the calling to be a nurse and never questioned or regretted the direction. Previously, I was on track to be a veterinarian. Over the past 25+ years, the Lord has used nursing as a personal mission field to serve those hurting and most in need,” she said.

Reaching Out to this Vulnerable Population

Reaching this vulnerable population is critical. Patients learn about Harris Health System services by word of mouth, the City of Houston, The Health Department and general community messages. In addition, Harris Health does seek patients by way of our mobile van.

“We have a medical mobile van and a dental van that travels to the homeless sites for ease of access,” Cotton said. “Furthermore, if the patient has access to a phone, we have a program called “Ask my Nurse” and it’s a 24/7 hotline patients can call for any questions or follow up as needed. The “Ask My Nurse” program is an existing Harris Health program, which has expanded to meet the needs of the community for the COVID pandemic. In a 3-4 week period, we have received nearly 8,000 calls,” she said.

"Our most recent activites include a massive effort to train ambulatory care nurses," Cotton said. "There are over 500 to work at the hospital. These nurses are specialized ambulatory care nurses who are now undergoing rigorous training to support Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson Hospitals. The mobilization of this emergency effort will serve much needed help and support to the inpatient nursing teams. The nurses undergoing this training are inspiring everyday heros," she said.

Cotton is Proud to Serve the Team as a Leader

Harris Health nursing is committed to do whatever it takes to serve Harris County’s most vulnerable population.

Cotton says that if Harris Health nurses did not serve this community, they would not get the necessary help needed.

“I am so proud to serve the team here at Harris Health, they are everyday hero’s putting their life on the line caring for these COVID patients, she said.

Peavy School of Nursing Salutes Cotton and Harris Health System Nurses

“We are very proud of Toni and our nursing colleagues at the Harris Health System,” Dean of the Peavy School of Nursing Poldi Tschirch, said.

“She is also leading initiatives to create appropriate supportive care for homeless COVID-19 patients post-discharge so that they move from hospital care into a clean, safe and supportive environment for recovery,” Tschirch said. “They are helping to create healing environments for the most vulnerable among us under the incredibly difficult circumstances posed by the COVID-19 epidemic.”

Cotton’s Request to Houstonians: Pray for the Front-line Healthcare Team and its Patients

“First we ask that our community pray for the front-line healthcare team and the patients we serve,” Cotton said. “The support of the community would be appreciated to follow the stay at home mandates as outlined by our City Officials. The better we follow the recommendations, the less people will get sick and need medical care. In addition, the public can check on elderly neighbors and friends offering help and shopping support as needed. All these measures will help keep people well during this pandemic. For Harris Health nursing specific.”