Alumni in Action: Colleen and Brent Penhall ’98 on their two fields merging in a time of crisis

Colleen Penhall ’98, chief communications officer for UNC Charlotte, and her husband, Brent Penhall ’98, a family medicine physician for Novant Health, discuss crisis management within their respective fields and how COVID-19 has brought their professional lives together.

Colleen and Brent Penhall

Both Colleen and Brent Penhall ’98 are experienced when it comes to managing crises within their respective fields. However, this is the first time their fields have overlapped due to the same crisis. The two share insights into how the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 has turned each of their industries upside down, and they discuss how they have been affected by the pandemic and what gives them hope for the future.

How has COVID-19 impacted day-to-day life for you and for your community? 

Colleen: I’ve worked in crisis communications for more than 20 years and can honestly say this is the most challenging crisis I’ve ever had to deal with. There are several unique aspects: the length of this crisis, the uncertainty of the pandemic — there’s no clear no end in sight and the fact no one anywhere has ever experienced this. There is no playbook for what “good” looks like. We are making it up as we go along.

Brent: In medicine, we deal with a variety of conditions when it comes to patient care. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is so unpredictable that the day-to-day care of patients can change based on new information and constantly updated public health guidance.

In addition, this is the first time Colleen and I have had to deal with the same crisis situation simultaneously. As working parents with three kids in school, we can typically juggle all of our priorities. However, it has been more challenging to help our kids keep up with online learning, while both of us are trying to support our communities who are greatly impacted by this pandemic.

Industries across the board are experiencing disruptions because of the pandemic. How are you/is your employer responding to these massive changes?

Brent: I lead a family practice clinic and see newborns to elderly patients for a variety of healthcare needs. For the past several weeks, I incorporated virtual care visits into my practice. However, recently I was deployed to support a COVID-19 screening and respiratory assessment center because of the anticipated volume of positive coronavirus patients. I am also doing additional training for possible in-patient hospital work to prepare for a potential surge. We have conference calls every morning to understand the current situation from a local health perspective and ways Novant Health will deploy resources to meet the needs of the community. The teamwork has been incredible; people are putting the community’s health first as their priority, second to their own health and wellness.

Colleen: In higher education and at UNC Charlotte, the safety and wellbeing of our students and campus community is our highest priority. We constantly have that lens when making decisions while also staying true to our mission of quality education. But as a public institution, we also have a significant role to play in supporting our community. We were recently asked by Mecklenburg County to support a potential field hospital at UNC Charlotte based on the anticipated capacity needs of the hospital systems. My husband’s job and my job don’t typically intersect, so it was interesting working with the major health care providers and the county to prepare for that reality. For the first time, Brent and I could really appreciate each other’s role in a crisis. It does help that we’re all in it together and trying to pull in the same direction. At the end of the day, we care about our families, friends and neighbors and want to keep them safe and healthy.

What long-term changes do you think COVID-19 will bring to your industry?

Brent: I think there will be significant changes to the way we administer healthcare. I believe virtual care visits will become more mainstream and healthcare providers will need to adapt to those patient expectations. I think we’ve learned a lot of important lessons with this pandemic including the amount of resiliency we all have when faced with adversity.

Colleen: On a positive note, I believe that whatever industry you’re in, we’ve all been able to leverage different technology that helps us communicate and stay connected. I now use the Slack app to communicate with my peers and Zoom and Webex video calls are a constant practice. While I miss seeing my colleagues and team in person, it is really great to see their faces when we communicate virtually. If this pandemic happened 10 years ago, that would have been hard to do. Communications technology has been key in helping all of us around the globe manage this crisis together.

What have you learned about yourself or your community during the pandemic? Are there specific ways you’ve found you can make a contribution at this time?

Brent: I have learned to be very flexible because the only thing to expect is change. Just a few weeks ago, we were a family on the go traveling to activities or events and now I appreciate the simplicity of taking a family bike ride as our Saturday outing.

Colleen: It’s amazing to see so many people work together for a common goal.  There is strength in knowing that we are all dealing with similar challenges.

What brings you hope or joy in these uncertain times?

Colleen: There is so much sadness during this time that it can feel overwhelming. But my great hope is that when my kids look back at this time years from now, they will have fond memories of our stay-at-home time, trying new adventures like family yoga or putting handwritten notes in neighbors’ mailboxes letting them know we are thinking about them.

Brent: Planning (or rescheduling) our next vacation.  We have a lot of time to talk about it as a family so the possibilities are endless.  Often the journey is just as good as the destination.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.