Seeing and believing in the mission
Yaw Blu Soe has a complicated commute to University of Colorado Hospital. The 21-year-old takes two buses and treks across campus to the critical care wing basement where a trove of supplies awaits delivery. He discards his white, scuffed cane, grabs a metal cart from a messy jumble of them and gets to work.
Yaw is blind. Born in Myanmar and raised in a Thai refugee camp, he can see some shadows but relies on hearing, touch and willful independence to navigate his surroundings. He begrudgingly uses the cane so people don’t bump into him.
Yaw is also driven to do anything he can to assist his coworkers, and ultimately, to improve the lives of patients at the hospital.
He’s a graduate of Project SEARCH, a school-to-work transition program for young adults with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. Interns spend a year rotating through hospital areas to gain independence, learn new skills and grow as a person.
“The intern’s resiliency and the social and emotional progress and growth that you see is incredible,” said Stephanie Crookston, Project SEARCH program manager.
Staff are trained on how to meet interns where they are – rather than setting unrealistic expectations. Yaw, who is also on the autism spectrum, spent his first semester stocking nurses’ stations in the ED but had his sights set elsewhere: the kitchen.
You might think it’s the last place a blind person would want to work. It’s chaotic and noisy. Knives, open flames and boiling water abound, but Yaw was determined. Each day, he’d negotiate the turbulent environment where trays of eggs and veggies are cooked and cookies bake in the glow of mighty ovens.
“He’s as capable as anyone else,” said Richard Sprague, a catering department chef.
In fact, on one occasion, Yaw and Damon Phillips, another chef, were delivering an order when Phillips turned the wrong way down one of UCH’s byzantine basement hallways. Yaw gently corrected him and steered him the right way.
“Yeah, I got directions from the blind guy,” guffawed Phillips.
Following the internship, Yaw was offered a job with UCHealth in supply chain. He now stocks isolation carts with blood pressure cuffs, thermometers, sterile gloves, procedure masks and more. He appreciates that what he does helps to keep people from getting sick.
“I think it’s a pretty good job,” said Yaw, who diligently loads 20-30 carts in a shift, with the help of a few subtle adaptations: bungee cords stretched between tall, metal shelves mark where size small gloves end and boxes of size medium gloves begin. Plastic bags for patient belongings are thicker and have a different closure than sample bags.
“I just feel them,” said Yaw. “I know what to do.”
Always dedicated and driven to do more, if he runs out of carts to stock, he’ll search the hospital for more carts – by himself.
When he graduated from Project SEARCH, friends and family gathered in the packed UCH auditorium. His catering team wanted to make sure he knew they were there.
When his name was announced, a chorus of cowbells and cheers rang out from the back of the room. Yaw couldn’t see the teary-eyed, bell-ringing posse clad in chef garb stained with fruit and spinach, egg and colorful kitchen crumbs, but he smiled. He knew his friends were there. Hearing them was just as good as seeing.
It’s difficult to estimate how many patients, visitors and staff members Yaw has benefited since his graduation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolation carts he continued to stock became one of the main lines of defense to prevent the spread of the virus. Yaw says he is proud of this work and excited to play a role in making extraordinary possible for the staff, providers and patients he serves.