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Alumnus Takes 'Opportunity of A Lifetime' Serving on White House Coronavirus Task Force

Kurtis Oakley

Kurtis Oakley MB'07, MT'08, associate director, regulatory affairs at Merck, was in the car with his wife when he got a call in March from the military asking if he wanted to take on “the opportunity of a lifetime”: joining the White House coronavirus task force.

“I didn’t even ask how long it was or where it was,” he says. “I got off the phone and my wife said, ‘You’re going to go, huh? I think you have to. Since I’ve known you, since I met you, this is all you’ve talked about – this is what made you go into the sciences and made you sign up.’ So that was it.”

Oakley in gearOakley is a graduate of USciences' microbiology and medical technology (now medical laboratory sciences) programs. It was what made him go into the sciences and become a microbiologist. Oakley found his calling after watching a team of scientists find a cure for a dangerous virus in the film “Outbreak” when he was in high school. “That moved me, and from watching that I said, ‘I’m going to be a microbiologist,’” he says. “And this mission that gave me strength and woke me up every morning to get where I am is literally happening now.”

In the months since that phone call, Oakley’s life has been a whirlwind. He was deployed in April as a COVID-19 microbiological operations officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) White House task force unit. Though he was hesitant to spend months away from his family, Oakley made the tough decision to move from Pennsylvania to Washington D.C. His primary task: increasing hospital bed capacity

“There are anxieties – I’m away from my family. How will they get groceries? I have the normal fears that most people have,” he says. “But if we don’t control this, it’s going to spin out of control and keep spreading. There’s pride and honor that comes with knowing that when I sit in that office with my team, I’ll be able to assist.”

Oakley and childOakley says even while on military leave, Merck has been there for him. In April, Oakley’s mother fell ill and was hospitalized. He says the support he received from Merck’s Veterans Employee Business Resource Group helped him stay calm and resilient. Kurtis’ mother has since recovered, and Kurtis has been able to stay fully focused on his mission.

During Oakley’s mission so far, the USACE worked with Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) and local officials in Washington, D.C., to convert the Walter E. Washington Convention Center into a temporary hospital in less than 30 days.

Oakley

He feels that his work at Merck has prepared him well – and vice versa.

Oakley recounts a task force meeting he attended to review previous projects and recommend best practices on building alternate care facilities.

“Like I would at Merck, I listened, I guided and I asked questions,” he explains. “From that meeting, we were able to find out what our biggest challenge was, and we utilized that lesson learned within days.” Oakley’s work in the USACE is all about agility.

This story was originally published by Merck and is republished with permission.

The Heart of the Matter: Alumnae Strive to Make OT Services Accessible for All Families

Offering quality care to their patients isn’t enough for Brittany Smith MOT’12 and Janki Patel MOT’12. As the founders of Jump Ahead Pediatrics, headquartered in Jersey City, New Jersey, the alumnae are on a quest to make occupational therapy and speech therapy treatments for children in need more affordable and achievable for families. 

“Therapy can be extremely expensive,” said Smith, who knows firsthand the high cost of out-of-network care because her son has speech delays. “I have experienced how expensive and how tedious it can be to get good care.”

Smith’s family is fortunate enough to have good out-of-network insurance benefits so that her son can go to speech therapy regularly in a location convenient to their home and his school. But she also knows that is very rare.

“I can’t imagine the pressure to spend that much money on something your child needs to be successful in their occupation of playing and socializing and getting ready for school,” she said.

Finding a Way to Make Care Affordable

Brittany Smith and Janki PatelSmith and Patel are cofounders on a mission to make pediatric occupational therapy treatments affordable for families in New Jersey, working with insurance companies to make sure treatments are covered.

“There were many parents that couldn’t afford out-of-pocket services. They borrowed money, took out loans, etc. We wanted to provide a service that was accessible and affordable for everyone,” said Patel. “Now we are one of the only clinics in New Jersey to take in-network insurance.”

Jump Ahead Pediatrics works with most major insurers, as well as their patients, to ensure children get the occupational or speech therapy they need with the lowest possible out-of-pocket expense. This means they have to put more time and effort into billing, but they say it is worth it to reach a population that needs assistance and is underserved in their community.


ALUMNAE ADVICE: Smith and Patel share their 5 tips for others looking to start an independent clinical practice

 


This mission has been a success for Smith and Patel, who have expanded to three locations in New Jersey since opening their flagship in Jersey City three years ago. And they have been awarded several contracts with various school districts to provide services throughout the state.

Janki PatelIn addition to their location in Jersey City, Patel and Smith have opened a clinic in Little Falls and Roseland. They employ more than a dozen other therapists and staff, are actively hiring, and are also looking to expand to include physical therapy services.

Despite the rapid growth, Smith and Patel are working to keep their growing business feeling small. They personally drop into the different clinics and work hard to train their staff so that the standard of care remains high and the quality is consistent.

“We want to make sure the kiddos are getting exactly what they are entitled to as far as the quality of service,” Smith said.

The Pathway to Partnership

The two met during their Introduction to Occupational Therapy course during their first year as undergraduate students at USciences, quickly becoming friends after carpooling to a fieldwork site. Both were enrolled in an accelerated master of the occupational therapy program and had an interest in pediatrics. They spent countless hours studying for their certification exam together. “We clicked right from the start,” said Smith. “We both had similar aspirations, similar dreams, and a wealth of knowledge.”

They started their first jobs together, but soon went off to work at a variety of different places and in different care settings, keeping in touch about personal milestones and consulting one another about particularly difficult patient cases.

Jump Ahead PediatricsBoth agreed that USciences provided them with a good variety of fieldwork experiences, which prepared them for their chosen fields and helped them to adapt to different care settings.

“I learned what I liked, what I didn’t like, and discovered the type of provider I wanted to be,” said Smith. “We both wanted to open a business for the independent aspects of owning our own business. We trusted each other and just did it.”

“We ended up opening a business very similar to a company we worked for in the past. We learned the ins and outs of working for a private practice,” said Patel. “That made things a lot easier when we decided to branch out on our own.”

Jump Ahead PediatricsSmith and Patel said they were scared to take the leap from working for someone else to starting their own business, but their confidence from prior experience and in one another helped them to become successful.

“It was the scariest thing,” said Patel. “I said to myself, I’m going to make a little bit less right now; I have to, I have to give all of my time and energy to this business. It was just something I had to do. It wasn’t an option because I knew that this business was what I wanted for my future.”

Smith has the following advice to others looking to become their own boss: “I would say just do it. That’s always been my motto,” said Smith. “It was definitely a struggle to get things off the ground, but we would have never done it any other way. You just have to give yourself more credit and know that you are capable.”