In January 2020, Rebecca McCormick-Boyle, BS ’81, a recently retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, nurse and educator, began working for Catholic Health, one of Western New York’s largest health care systems.
Two months later, as tentacles of the novel coronavirus started spreading across the U.S., McCormick-Boyle was visiting her son in California when she found out through a phone call that her job description had drastically changed.
Hired as Catholic Health’s chief integration officer, McCormick-Boyle, a Western New York native who last year received a SUNY Honorary Doctorate in Science, thought she was returning home to coordinate the health care system’s maze of information, people, ideas and processes. Instead, she found herself with a new role amid the uncharted chaos of a global health crisis.
In early March, Catholic Health’s CEO, Mark Sullivan, tapped McCormick-Boyle to lead the transition of the Sisters of Charity Hospital at St. Joseph Campus, a community hospital in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, into New York State’s first dedicated COVID-19 treatment facility.
Why McCormick-Boyle? Few have the wide-ranging background she does, in nursing, human resources and health care administration. Deputy chief of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine, Education and Training, and director of the Navy Nurse Corps, before her retirement in 2018, she is as comfortable in a hospital or a boardroom as she is in a military organization. And she’s managed crises before, having worked on the Navy’s medical response to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
What McCormick-Boyle and her staff at St. Joseph Campus accomplished in less than a month is remarkable. On March 26, within a week of closing the hospital’s ER, they re-opened the building as a direct-admit facility, taking patients with confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses directly from other Catholic Health locations.
“We initially planned for a surge of up to 60 to 70 critical care patients,” says McCormick-Boyle, adding that they continued to expand the number to keep up with potential demand, swapping regular beds for ICU-level environments as needed. “We dealt with multiple levels of care, and that changed every day.”
The intent of the project, she says, was to help build capacity for the Catholic Health system. “We were able to take the bulk of Catholic Health’s COVID patients. This concentrated our COVID skills and resource requirements at one site and allowed our other CHS ministries to focus on other essential patient care needs with less service disruption.”
When it first opened as a COVID treatment center, St. Joseph Campus faced the same obstacles as other medical facilities around the country: shortages of personal protective equipment (PPEs), trained staff and testing supplies. It also required ground-up planning and design. At her team’s first meeting, McCormick-Boyle told everyone, “We have a phrase in the military: ‘If you want peace, you plan for war.’”
So they pulled up the building’s blueprints, creating three color-coded zones mapped off with tape and temporary walls. Green was safe, where groups could meet and wear normal clothing. The tightly restricted red zone housed patients and their medical teams and critical medical equipment, reducing possible COVID exposure in other areas. Between red and green areas, a dispatcher sent runners shuttling medicine and supplies through a yellow “transport and transition” zone.
McCormick-Boyle’s office was green, but it was anything but relaxed; her leadership team held twice-daily meetings to plan and assess how the transition was going. Like the virus itself, their work remained a moving target.
“First, we planned,” she says. “Then we asked ourselves, how are these functions and teams working? Behind all that work was the large cadre of staff that carried out the plans every day.”
She worked with hiring agencies, Catholic Health’s regional health centers and other medical facilities to staff the new facility. In addition to a small army of physicians, RNs and nursing assistants—including many from the UB School of Nursing—she brought in janitorial and facility maintenance crews, dietary and IT professionals, and infectious disease specialists.
“Our infection control team put together an amazing plan … but it was the environmental services folks who carried it out,” says McCormick-Boyle. “We all worked together from the ground up to protect the patients and staff.”
Training continued as St. Joseph’s needs evolved. Nurse anesthesiologist students were brought in from North Carolina to shadow staff, while physician assistants used the facility’s lobby as a simulated training environment to teach nurses critical care.
Then there were the creative ideas to boost morale. “We took pictures of docs and nurses to put over their uniforms, so patients and other staff could see their faces,” says McCormick-Boyle. “We played music and clapped over the intercom when someone was released.” She also came on the same speaker for daily pep talks, and suited up to visit the yellow zone.
By the end of July, Catholic Health had treated and discharged 900 COVID patients at all of its facilities, including 500 at St. Joseph Campus. McCormick-Boyle officially “stood down,” in military parlance, as incident command leader there, returning to her former role as Catholic Health’s chief integration officer, and in early August the hospital began a phased re-opening of its former operations, including the emergency room, elective procedures and select outpatient services.
The infection control protocols and safety zones first developed at St. Joseph Campus—now considered by McCormick-Boyle to be a “center of excellence for COVID care”—have gained local, state and national attention, and were duplicated at other Catholic Health facilities, including the St. Joseph Post-Acute Center, a treatment center for patients recovering from the virus.
“The first lesson is about leadership and decision-making,” she says, crediting Mark Sullivan and Catholic Health for “leaning forward” to make the bold decision to establish a COVID-only facility.
McCormick-Boyle herself is recognized for managing the crisis as a compassionate team player, yet she’s modest about the lessons she learned in those tense first months of the pandemic. Responding to the needs of her staff was a major one.
“We weren’t perfect, but we were fast learners, because we were a team,” she says. “We had a constant huddle; when something wasn’t working, we fixed it together.”
McCormick-Boyle agrees that the crisis illustrated the importance of nurses and other previously unsung essential workers. It also revealed a need to recognize and quickly address mental health issues among those workers, especially as the pandemic wore on. “Hanging around in PPE for 12 hours is no mean feat,” she says.
Cooling stations and refreshments were made available to staff, who typically worked in hot environments, while safety officers scanned the building to help them deal with emerging physical and emotional issues, from skin breakdowns from extended PPE use to mental stress from long, arduous shifts.
Nonetheless, McCormick-Boyle recognizes she didn’t quite realize the levels of staff safety that would be required. “People reach the peak of the mountain and then they get tired. If you’re not careful, they can get disillusioned.”
So again, she and her leadership team took action, holding a series of town halls with staff during night and day shifts, involving team managers in top-level decisions and making sure to listen to people’s needs. At these meetings, McCormick-Boyle told everyone, “my goals are that you always feel proud of what we have achieved here for our community, and that we take care of one another.”
If infection rates rise and St. Joseph Campus returns to an all-COVID treatment scenario, McCormick-Boyle’s personal faith and loyalty to her new employer could send her back to the front lines, this time with a new mantra from her years in the Navy: Don’t drop your pack. She says she’d be honored to serve again, both as a former military officer and as a devout Catholic.
“I think it is time now to strengthen social norms for safety, for taking care of each other and for kindness,” she says. “There are people who are really suffering and anxious. It is important for those of us who are more optimistic or resilient to do what we can to help and encourage others.
“We can do this.”