GSE alumna and psychologist Tawanna Gilford with colleagues.

GSE alumna and psychologist Tawanna Gilford, PhD ‘12, leads the “Compassion Cart” project throughout the Harlem Hospital campus, assessing mental health needs and offering solace, snacks, water and, on this day, thanks to a generous donation from Milgro Nursery, flowering plants. (Photo courtesy Harlem Hospital)

On the front lines: Shifting the mood from tension and mask hoarding to peace and sharing


When COVID-19 hit New York City, GSE alumna Tawanna Gilford, PhD ’12, felt more certain than ever that she’d found the right profession—a psychologist helping stressed out people find peace and calm as they work at a hospital during a pandemic.

“It affirmed that I am truly doing what God put me on this earth to do,” said Gilford, as she spoke by video call from Central Park during a break. “I think I was battle tested. It pushed me to my upper limits. Being a psychologist is my calling.”

As virus-sickened patients filled the hospital, the staff of about 3,000 needed relief and understanding. Gilford, a peer support trainer, was in a perfect position to guide hospital volunteers and lead the launch of a new virus-provoked effort: wheeling “Compassion Carts” filled with supplier donations like Norwegian water and gourmet nut bars. From April through June, workers trained by Gilford made rounds to every floor at all five of the hospital’s buildings, offering snacks, bottled water, toiletries. Most importantly they listened, gave perspective and helped transform the work atmosphere for employees at the hospital.

One telling example of the early struggles: When the pandemic first struck in March, people were panicking, hostile and hoarding face masks when they were in short supply.

To help with these struggles, the “Compassion Cart” project developed from a hospital initiative she began leading in 2018, a year after she was hired. She had been training staff to become peer counselors for the Helping Healers Heal program. Designed to offer emotional support for whenever staff needs, it was set up throughout the 11 hospitals in the NYC Health + Hospitals system. “Healing doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a pill,” she said.

By May, Gilford’s “Compassion Cart” team was making rounds and visiting each unit at the same time each week, assessing mental health needs, asking if people needed relief from burnout or to talk about an experience, like the loss of a patient. 

For one surprising and unexpectedly busy day, they lifted spirits as they gave away 1,275 yellow, white and pink flowering plants donated by a nursery.

“Healing doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a pill.”

“That was an amazing experience … Everyone was so grateful. No one was expecting flowers. Their faces just lit up,” said Gilford. “People weren’t expecting tokens of appreciation. They feel seen, they feel heard. They feel acknowledged. It goes a long way.”

Soon, the hospital’s atmosphere had changed. People showed greater concern for each other. Face-mask hoarding stopped. 

“We observed a sense of peace across the hospital,” said Gilford. 

In June, the cart project stopped. The hospital felt more like its old self. Departments were fully staffed. People’s pre-pandemic work patterns resumed. “It was time for them to have some semblance of normalcy,” Gilford said.

Gilford has been especially grateful to land at Harlem Hospital on Lenox Avenue, where she was born.

She was aiming for a career that would take her back to her roots. Now she lives in the neighborhood where she grew up, an eight-minute walk from work.

“My mission when I went away to school was to go back and serve my community,” said Gilford. “I’ve never felt more needed professionally. I think COVID-19 made me realize the importance of being a psychologist.”

The story above is a feature on our Pandemics 2020 timeline:

At first, 2020 seemed like a straight-forward, normal year, new and full of promise.
At UB, research made news, enrollment grew.
Before spring broke, whatever we had in mind for 2020 changed.