From the Frontlines with Lori Zillman, Alberta Health Services

Lori Zillman, Frontlines Episode 3

Lori Zillman explains why her communicable disease team at Alberta Health Services’ South Zone is the epitome of strength and compassion during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Show Summary

Welcome to From the Frontlines, a special Healthcare Change Makers mini-series. Healthcare providers and support staff have been on the frontlines, fighting for Canadians since the start of this pandemic. In this series we’re handing the microphone over to some of those amazing individuals.  

Today, Marc Aiello, Communications and Marketing Coordinator at HIROC, and Philip De Souza, Director of Communications and Marketing, speak with Lori Zillman, a Registered Nurse from Alberta Health Services working as a Communicable Disease Coordinator in the South Zone of Alberta.

As Lori mentions in this episode, her team is “small but mighty.” Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lori and her team at South Zone’s Communicable Disease program have been working hard to respond to all the challenges brought their way.

Key Takeaways

  • Lori speaks about growing up in Alberta, her family, her current role and the type of work her team does
  • Coordinating with Alberta’s provincial response team and other zones during the pandemic
  • Keeping morale up during these difficult times
  • How proud Lori is of her team’s passion for tackling challenges
  • Strong leadership and resources are necessary for operating a team during a pandemic
  • How Lori’s team effectively responded to an outbreak in South Zone
  • Lori’s best piece of advice for similar healthcare teams across the country
  • Working together and collaborating to support the communications process

Mentioned in this Episode

Alberta Health Services


Imagine you could step inside the minds of Canada's healthcare leaders, glimpse their greatest fears, strongest drivers, and what makes them tick. Welcome to Healthcare Change Makers, a podcast where we talk to those leaders about the joys and challenges of driving change in our complex and demanding healthcare organizations.

Marc Aiello: Hello listeners, I'm Marc Aiello, Communications and Marketing Coordinator at HIROC. And today I'm joined with my Director, Philip De Souza. First, I want to thank all of you for taking the time to listen and follow our podcast, Healthcare Change Makers. It really does mean the world to us. Over the past few months, we've seen how healthcare providers and support staff have been a driving force, fighting for the health for Canadians. And we're still very grateful. We've truly been inspired by your resiliency. And so we thought we'd hand the mic over to some of those very amazing individuals on the frontline. And today we have Lori Zillman, a Registered Nurse from Alberta.

Lori, thank you so much once again for coming on here to speak with us. And to start off, I just wanted to know, could you tell us a bit about yourself and about your team at Alberta Health Services?

Lori Zillman: I'm a Registered Nurse working with Alberta Health Services. I grew up locally in Southern Alberta, went to school locally and now I work locally. I graduated from the University of Lethbridge nursing program in 2007. I've been practicing as a public health nurse since that time. And the role I currently have is the South Zone Communicable Disease Coordinator. I run the communicable disease program for South Zone and I've been doing that for about five years now. My team, we're small but we're mighty. Mine is a provincial position so I'm a provincial employee given to South Zone to help run the program. I do that under our medical officer of health team. They are wonderful. They are strong, compassionate, just absolutely we're blessed to have them. Communicable disease is split into a couple of different parts. There's myself, I have an environmental public health counterpart. We kind of split the communicable diseases down the middle. And then we also have a tuberculosis coordinator as well that runs the tuberculosis team, just because that is such an extensive program in itself. 

We work in coordination with the province as well as with our local resources, our public health resources. I personally have before COVID, about four or five investigators that I had doing our notifiable disease work. With COVID, we've definitely had to expand. We are a coordinated team. We all kind of work together, just kind of pitch in and everybody kind of reports back up to kind of together just to get all our requirements met for the province and for our zone.

Marc Aiello: And Lori, do you at all work with the – I'm assuming you do – work with the other zones in the province? 

Lori Zillman: Yes, I do. With COVID there is a provincial response team. We do coordinate with them as well. I did spend some time on that team at the beginning. Learned a whole lot. We do coordinate with them on cases, kind of everybody travels. When things overlap, we coordinate that way. Every zone has a communicable disease coordinator like myself and we do have meetings and coordinate together to try and help improve the program and improve our outcomes for all over. Yes, we definitely do coordinate with the rest of the province as well. 

Marc Aiello: That's fantastic. That's fantastic to hear. You guys sound like you're doing a lot of great work, especially now during this time. This time is a tough time, I guess you could say for all Canadians, how do you keep morale up given the circumstances? 

Lori Zillman: Myself, well I have a little two year old at home so just getting out of the office and spending time with my husband and my daughter really, really helps me stay grounded. To be able to, now that the weather is nice, we're able to get outside in our yard and not feel we're cooped up and we're stuck. With work, really just checking in with each other is kind of the big thing. Because we know that personal life really does impact your professional life and vice versa. To be upfront and honest and up to speed with how people are doing, how they're feeling, what they're struggling with, what they're succeeding with, is really kind of what we try and focus on with each other in our team. Just to keep us all grounded and all going. 

Marc Aiello: Yeah, absolutely. And that kind of checking in on everyone, like you said, is so incredibly important. Just making sure everyone knows that there is somebody available to speak to. When you think of your team and how they've responded to all of the challenges that have been brought on by the pandemic, what makes you proud? 

Lori Zillman: Just seeing and hearing the people that I work with every day makes me proud. The thirst and the hunger they have for their job and the compassion and passion that they have to do this work is inspiring and keeps me going every day. We're very lucky to be able to do what we do because we love our job. We love the work that we do. It's necessary and it's fulfilling and it's challenging. And so just the fact that everybody is here, ready to dig in, ready to help, ready to ask what needs to be done, just makes me incredibly proud of the people that I get to work with. 

Marc Aiello: Yeah. No one's shying away from these challenges. Everyone understands, what their role is and yeah, that's pretty incredible. With this experience, what will you be taking away from it when it comes to delivering care and leading a team? What are some of the lessons have you learned from this experience? 

Lori Zillman: Well, with this experience, I'm definitely learning that you do need very strong, very capable, very organized leaders to run the show, to guide what you're doing. Our MOHs, our medical officers of health, are just the absolute epitome of strength and compassion and willing to teach and willing to bring along to learn. The fact that we have such strong leaders on our team is really something that I think is a very necessary requirement for running a team during a pandemic and during a crisis. That's a big thing. 

And then I would say resources is definitely also another thing that we have learned that we need just because you have so many people with their hands in the pot. People coming on learning and people going off on vacation and all those things. To have standardized documents for how to do what we do so that communication is done seamlessly, efficiently so that people are taken care of. Nobody gets falling through the cracks and everything is very important. We have a really good working relationship with our counterparts in the hospital, as well as in the community. We talk freely amongst our South Zone teams, between occupational health and infection prevention and control and public health and environmental public health. That really, really helps us stay efficient and effective and not go under with all the cases and the questions that are constantly, constantly coming in.

Marc Aiello: Right. And is there a particular event or experience that's happened during this time that you could call on to say, "Hey, we really responded in a great way here." 

Lori Zillman: There was a point probably back at the end of April, beginning of May, when we had quite a few cases coming into South Zone. We had a large outbreak in one of our communities here and it was crazy. There was a point there where I think our disease rate was rivaling the entire country. We were struggling to keep up and trying to keep everything together. And just the whole, there was one point where we all just kind of stopped and had to reflect on what was working, what was not and how we need to get through this. 

We revamped our schedules, we revamped our team makeup and just started to dig in to the mountain of work that was before us. It was really promising and really hope to see. Everybody kind of just chip in and get away a little bit of that mountain of work so that we could get back to that breathing space that we had before. That one moment where we all kind of just sat down, everybody was spitballing ideas on how we could try and make things a little bit better. It really was just, that was one point where I was very, very proud of our team and very, very proud of our program here. 

Marc Aiello: I could imagine, especially under the circumstances of this pandemic where you really do need everyone to pull together in the same direction. It's great to hear that your team did, when everyone pulled together and took on this challenge together. Is there anything for individuals throughout the healthcare system throughout our country? Is there anything you'd like to say, any piece of advice you'd give to someone that's probably, or probably is or was in your position at some point? Is there any piece of advice you'd give to them?

Lori Zillman: Just keep going. If you hit a wall, take a break. It's not a failure to take a five minute walk or a five minute breather to gather your head and process all that information and understand that you're just one person, one piece of the team or one program or one area, and you are necessary, you are useful and you are making a difference, but you do need to give yourself that permission to grieve. And to know that you've done a good job at the end of the day and come back the next morning or come back the next evening and begin again. We're in for the long haul. That is for sure.

Philip De Souza: I did have a follow up question for you. It's Philip here. I love the fact that you talked about self care, but you also talked about the communication process and how that's really helped not just your team but all teams. Is there one thing that you've noticed when it comes to how everyone communicates that's really helped keep the flow of communication going and to ensure transparency so that, like you said before, things don't fall through the cracks?

Lori Zillman: Yeah, we've worked really hard here in the South to build our relationships. To not be possessive of What is ours and to just work together. Between my office mate and myself, my medical officer of health, our occupational health services, IPC, we all work together. As soon as somebody comes in, some issue or some client or some report comes in, if there is somebody else out there who can help and make an impact, that person is brought into the conversation immediately. Communication, management, everybody. And it's an honest, sit down conversation as opposed to sitting and waiting or going through channels. It's just, everybody get to the table, let's figure out what's going on, what needs to be done and let's go forward. And that really, really does kind of set us apart and really makes our program, in my opinion, very efficient. 

We definitely rely on our medical officers of health as kind of our top of our pyramid. Everything kind of goes through them. They really do link in a lot of people. We do use instant command structures quite strongly here in the South so it really is having those strong leaders at the top. Everybody knowing what they're doing, who's reporting to who and you get your job, you head out and do it and then you come back to report. Those little pieces really do help us in this situation and in every situation that we come across.

Marc Aiello: Thanks so much, Lori, for coming on and speaking with us today, really appreciate that.

Lori Zillman: Thank you.

Thank you for listening. You can hear more of our interview on our website, Follow us on Twitter at @hirocgroup or email us at Healthcare Change Makers is recorded by Ellen Gardner and Philip De Souza and produced by Podfly Productions for Please rate us on iTunes.