Q&A with Dr. Vivian Bruzzese, CrossOver Healthcare Ministry

Dr. Vivian Bruzzese is an infectious disease specialist who serves as the Director of HIV Programs with CrossOver Healthcare Ministry. CrossOver operates two charitable healthcare clinics that care for people who are uninsured or medically underserved in the Richmond region. We heard from Dr. Bruzzese to learn a little more about her position and how CrossOver is responding to the needs of their clients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does an infectious disease specialist do? 

Infectious Disease (ID) specialists help to diagnose, treat, and control infections. There are a wide variety of ID specialists, such as those who primarily treat HIV, those who treat patients with hospital acquired infections or help manage and prevent those infections (hospital epidemiology), those who specialize in infections of travelers, and those who primarily do research in the laboratory. I serve as the director of CrossOver’s HIV treatment and testing program, which provides comprehensive treatment for people living with HIV. This means overseeing all clinical aspects of the HIV program, as well as providing care to patients.

What drew you to working with CrossOver? 

I wanted to be able to help care for underserved populations, those who didn’t have many medical resources due to lack of insurance, for example. During my ID fellowship, I worked with two different mentors who independently connected me to Myrna McLaughlin, who started the HIV care clinic at CrossOver Healthcare Ministry. What many people don’t realize is that CrossOver’s HIV care program has been around since 1991 providing HIV testing and treatment. I initially worked in CrossOver’s HIV program one half-day a week through a grant at VCU then was able to increase that to half-time with funding through the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond. 

There have been challenges and I’ve learned a lot from our patients along the journey. It has really been fulfilling and an honor being part of the team trying to help the medically underserved in our community.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way that CrossOver supports its clients?

In mid-March, CrossOver adjusted its care delivery model so that now more than 50% of patient care is provided via telehealth - a telephone or video healthcare appointment. As most practices are doing now, we have been calling patients for their routine appointments or to triage more acute symptoms. Additionally, we’ve implemented a telehealth outreach program for patients that fall in the high-risk category (those with a chronic illness) for COVID-19, as well as patients who live with a mental health condition.   

It is amazing how much can be accomplished by phone calls. The patients understand why we are asking them to limit their exposure to our facility and appreciate the personalized triage and phone calls.  These phone calls give us an opportunity to answer questions, provide additional education about the pandemic and reduce exposure, reinforce the guidance from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), check-in on the health of our high risk patients, and refer these patients for a medical appointment with a CrossOver clinician as needed.

What challenges are clients and staff currently facing, and how are they being addressed? 

The challenges are multitude. Everyone is stressed, uncertain about the near future and beyond. We are currently working at reduced capacity as many of our volunteers age 65 and older, and college interns who have been sent home, are no longer able to volunteer in the clinics at this time. The staff are concerned about their own families but also aware that our patients need us. We know that many of our patients were barely able to sustain themselves before the shutdown. We understand that their lives are uprooted, too. Our Social Workers have been busy trying to connect them to community resources. 

CrossOver’s administration and board have been incredibly supportive during this time. They have addressed the concerns of staff, trying to keep all of us safe while still serving our patients. They have been proactive, following the CDC guidelines closely. Our administration is attempting to continue to find funding during this time of social upheaval. For example, we are currently seeking funding for COVID-19 testing and for medical care supplies. 

How has the community reached out to support CrossOver during this time?

Groups have been creative in trying to help the community, such as Richmond Academy of Medicine providing “Loving Lunches RVA,” which pays a local restaurant to send lunch to local clinics and hospitals. CrossOver was the recipient of one of these lunches and greatly appreciated it. Also a blessing are the weekly appreciation lunches that our board members are providing for staff. Donors have contacted us with generous offers to cover specific needs. Volunteers who are unable to currently volunteer in the clinic due to age (over 65) or their health are calling to ask how they can help from home. Members of the CrossOver Circulo de Costura (Sewing Circle), a partnership with River Road Church, Baptist, have been sewing masks for our patients, volunteers, and staff. Our faith and community partners, volunteers, and donors have been sending prayers and notes of encouragement to our clinics, including this message from one of our interns, Aiyah Adam.


Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Many of my colleagues have mentioned how patients express sincere concern and appreciation for us during this pandemic. This has been my experience, too. It is quite humbling. To our patients: Thank you.