Potato to the Rescue
For more than a year, Amber Fontenot’s office was in her family’s dining room. Light shone through the house’s front windows and the sliding glass patio doors in the rear as Fontenot, Pitt Med’s registrar, helped students schedule courses and meet academic requirements.
Often unsung heroes, office employees like Fontenot have been guiding Pitt Med through the pandemic. In the 2020/21 academic year, many worked from their home offices, scheduling video conferences for administrators and connecting students with faculty—some while also caring for children.
“I think working remotely was an interesting opportunity for the staff, but I don’t think everyone welcomed making their home visible in the same way,” says Ann Thompson, vice dean of Pitt Med.
Fontenot, who won the Best Staff Member award from the Class of 2021 at Scope and Scalpel last spring, didn’t shy away from letting people see into her home life. She found it helpful. When talking to third- and fourth-year medical students who felt anxious after a rotation was cancelled or rescheduled, she related to them on a personal level. Sometimes, she had no choice. Her 6-year-old daughter made regular appearances in video conference calls.
“Life was going on around us. So I made that part of my work life,” Fontenot says.
During moments when she didn’t have answers for students, she turned to her cat, Potato, for help. “I’d say, ‘Sorry I don’t know right now but tell me where you want to go for residency; and here’s a picture of Potato.’”
Emily Mosher, a fourth-year student who faced scheduling issues last year, says that receiving pictures of Potato always brightened her day.
“It was funny to see him pose, looking like a human,” Mosher says. “That personal touch after a bad day was really great.”
From 2000 to 2007, Fontenot worked in Pitt Med’s admissions and financial aid office. She left the medical school to start a family, and then in 2016, after giving birth to three children, she returned to Pitt Med to work in student affairs. She eventually was promoted to registrar; that job started at the beginning of this year.
With more than a decade of experience at Pitt Med, Fontenot knew that being registrar during the pandemic would be a seven-day-a-week job. She allowed students to call her in the evenings and on the weekends:
“I’d send out an email that said I’d be ‘working between these hours on Saturday if you want to reach me, but after that I have to feed my kids.’”
Fontenot says she bonded with several students during the pandemic. “Normally, I would not have made these wonderful relationships,” she says.