In over 15 years as executive director of the Valley Medical Center Foundation in Santa Clara, Chris Wilder has never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We train for disasters all the time, like earthquakes, fires, terrorist attacks and even, God forbid, a plane crashing into downtown San Jose,” says Wilder, a Los Gatos resident. “We’ve never specifically trained for contagion, but what we learned from those drills has been applied. We will get better at it.”

Wilder points to the emergency preparedness training they did in advance of Super Bowl 50, played at Levi’s Stadium.

“We were chosen as the disaster response team from the area and flown to Georgia, where we were drilled to anticipate what happens during a mass disaster,” he says. “Typically, communications are lost, so ‘sneakernet’ becomes the order of the day. You rely on your team to take charge.”

He credits Valley Medical leadership, and CEO Paul Lorenz in particular, for setting the right tone.

“He’s been here for 15 years and is the perfect person for the job,” Wilder says. “His style of leadership is well-suited for situations like this.”

His team includes events team manager Julie Surjan, who has been with the foundation for six years. When it became apparent that the need for disinfectants at Valley Med facilities was becoming mission critical, Surjan sprang into action.

“She’s completely amazing,” Wilder says. “The combination of her Google skills and her ability to sweet talk anybody is incredible. I am in awe of her ability to get anything we need from the darkest corners of the Internet.”

Surjan recalls a score early in the pandemic that is still paying benefits today. “It was around midnight my time, so around 3 a.m. on the East Coast, and I emailed someone in New Jersey about getting sanitary wipes. I was shocked to get an immediate response. When I offered to wire the money, we went right to the head of the line.”

She says the foundation is a preferred customer now, and often gets items in short supply due to that midnight bonding.

Hired to help fundraise, Surjan is used to throwing posh gala events that bring people together to enjoy food, wine and music and bid on auction items. She adapted last year’s fundraising to pandemic restrictions.

“Julie dreamed up an amazing drive-through gala,” Wilder says. “I never thought people would go for it, but it turned out to be incredibly successful.”

The theme was “A Tribute to Heroes,” and everyone who attended was among the heroes, including first responders as well as donors. The event was held in a five-story parking garage.

The foundation is charged with supporting Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s hospital and clinics, including Valley Medical Center in San Jose (the only level 3 trauma center in the region), O’Connor Hospital, De Paul Health Center and St. Louise Regional hospital, as well as 11 clinics throughout the area. Wilder says he and his 16 fulltime staffers are there to raise money to meet unforeseen needs and to expand services as donations allow.

“We are first people to get the call when our hospitals are in need of something,” he adds. “Essentially, our job is to raise and spend money faster than the county.”

Among the items that stand out are the 700 iPads they obtained for staff doctors to practice telehealth early on in the pandemic, as well as loads of PPE for low-income people in the community.

“And Bank of America keeps sending us disposable masks,” Wilder says. “We’ve received over 100,000 of them now.”

Wilder and team are currently working on purchasing state-of-the-art testing equipment for VMC’s labs.

“If we don’t come up with the money ASAP, we lose our place in line,” he says. “Everyone wants this stuff.”

Surjan points to a recent purchase of equipment that does group temperature scans of VMC staff. Previously, employees had to be screened individually, causing long lines at each shift change.

“People had to be pulled off their regular jobs to screen,” says Surjan. “Now they can keep doing what they were hired to do.”

That job gets tougher as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb. In three weeks in December, Wilder says the number of COVID-19 patients at VMC facilities more than doubled, from 300 to 715.

As for the slow pace of the vaccine rollout, he thinks it’s actually going fairly well here. Most of the Valley Medical Center staff had already been vaccinated as of Dec. 31.

“We have actually gotten more doses than we anticipated for Santa Clara County,” says Wilder. “While there has been no federal leadership whatsoever, at the local level, we have the right people in place to guide us through this. We are ready.”

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By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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