An Interview with KJ Upshaw at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, is arguably the best pediatric hospital in the United States. It boasts some of the country’s finest doctors and facilities, and parents from all over the world bring their children here for the best possible care.
Healing isn’t just about medicine, however. It is also a function of happiness—something that can be difficult to create in the confines of a hospital, no matter how highly ranked. Everyone at Cincinnati Children’s knows how important a smile can be to the healing process, and works overtime to make them happen.
Ki-Jana “KJ” Upshaw, one of Crothall’s outstanding EVS associates, took it a step further. He chose to help two young patients, Keegan Atkins and Cohen Bramlee, find friendship—and smiles galore—in the bone marrow transplant unit.
“Our world is pretty small right now,” said Cohen’s mom, Carrie Bramlee, in the video above. Cohen was in the hospital for three long months.
“We’re in that room. Everybody who enters that room is part of our journey and our world. When you see someone who didn’t have to take the time to engage and make you feel a little bit brighter about your day, and they do, it just means a lot.”
KJ, who takes care of 82 rooms on the most prestigious floor of the hospital, noticed that Cohen loved Legos and would often stop pulling linens to talk about what he was building. When another patient who was about the same age, Keegan, moved into the room across the hall, KJ saw that he was also working hard on different Lego kits.
“I walked into the room and saw that their windows faced each other,” says KJ. “It made me wonder if they had ever noticed each other. It made me intentionally want them to show each other their Legos,” says KJ. He suggested that they open the blinds in the windows of their rooms, so they could see and interact with each other.
Although they couldn’t play together, due to isolation restrictions in the cancer unit, KJ “introduced” them through the glass. They showed each other what they were working on each day, and shared a smile when they showed off their Lego creations. Soon, their shared interests developed into a friendship.
After Keegan went home, KJ and Cohen continued to spread those smiles around the hospital. “I had a new patient in Central, and Cohen gave me jokes every day for him,” KJ remembers. “They traded jokes back and forth through me.”
Cincinnati Children’s isn’t the only place KJ brings his talent for connecting kids and creating happiness. “I’ve been around kids my whole life,” he says. “Outside of work, I’m a basketball trainer and mentor. I mentor younger kids, older kids, a variety of people. Most of them come from Over-the-Rhine.”
Part of Crothall’s commitment to diversity and inclusion means reaching out to communities like OTR, to find and help develop the careers of the exceptional people who live there. We currently employ some 17,000 EVS professionals, and some of the most empathetic and successful come from neighborhoods like OTR. Some people look at our inclusion programs as a way we help others, but when you look at the data, it’s clear that Crothall has been the biggest beneficiary.
KJ is just one of the wonderful people we’ve been lucky enough to hire from OTR, and his talent for bringing joy to patients and caregivers, during what may be the toughest time of their lives, makes us all grateful that he has chosen to work with us. He’s earned his GEM award (GEM stands for “Great Employees Make Magic”, and it’s our primary frontline associate recognition platform) many times over, as well as the gratitude of so many healthcare professionals, parents, and children.
We interviewed KJ, along with Operations Managers Sarah Petrey and Santangelo Lackey, and Human Resources Manager Karen Brunsman, about Cohen, Keegan, and Crothall.
How long have you been working for Crothall?
KJ: Since the beginning of February 2019
What attracted you to this kind of work?
KJ: Being around new people. I am very much a people person, and I thought it was a good environment.
Karen: KJ came to use through the Sherwin Anderson Skills Academy. He started as a mentee and is now a mentor.
KJ: I got into it through my brother; he was the first one in the family who was trained by Sherwin, through the program. I started hanging out there a lot and picked up a basketball. Sherwin mentors kids through sports, in particular basketball. OTR is notoriously impoverished, and Sherwin believes that by mentoring kids, they can help raise them to be productive members of society. It has been instrumental in assisting OTR, helping mentor people to do the right sort of things.
Karen: I knew KJ was good with kids because he had trained my niece and nephew.
Share a time when you recognized you were impacting families or guests of a hospital.
KJ: I walk into the rooms, and the kids’ faces light up. I can see that they are feeling down through the window before I walk in, but as soon as they see me, their faces light up. When I come in after my days off, and the kids say they miss me.
Karen: When KJ and I talked about this, he reflected on his mentor here, Brian Thomas, who was also a GEM award winner. Brian, who trained him here at the hospital, then moved onto another position at Cincinnati Children’s General. We also talk about the managers who segued KJ onto this floor. This is the highest-profile floor we have here, the number one cancer unit in the country. These managers were instrumental in building those relationships, building opportunities for communication, and making the entire unit successful.
Sarah: Patients are here for long periods of time. Cohen was here for three months. Everyone who works on this floor has to be on their toes. We try to find people who have good personalities, who can handle seeing patients really sick, having a tough time. We find people who do the job correctly and efficiently.
Tell us about a time when you created a welcome experience for a nurse, doctor, or another caregiver.
KJ: They have to work together as a cohesive unit—doctors and all caregivers, interacting throughout the day. They call me personally, the doctors and nurses. With compliments and concerns. When the patients need furniture, or anything moved, when Cohen didn’t want to leave the bed and walk around on his daily workouts, the nurses and doctors would bring me in to help get him out of bed and in a better mood.
How did KJ react to winning the GEM award?
Santangelo: When I talk to KJ, he doesn’t think he’s above and beyond, it’s just who he is and what he does. This award is a bit a little bit of a whirlwind; it’s like winning the Super Bowl a little bit. It’s not only reflective of KJ but the whole staff, all the housekeepers. They can see that what they are doing is meaningful; the world can see it. That’s what it’s all about. His mentor taught him how to work on that floor. He just filled in that position as smoothly as it could have gone. Recognition is for everyone.
Karen: I have to say, KJ is a very humble person. He came to us from Over-the-Rhine and has become one of our best employees. His mentor, Sherwin Anderson, was here to speak yesterday. It was very moving. I truly believe that KJ has grown as a person and has benefited from his relationship with Keegan and Cohen. He is very touched by all of this!