Serving the Front Lines

Rebecca McCormick-Boyle in front of St. Joseph COVID-19 hospital in Cheektowaga, NY.

Rebecca McCormick-Boyle, BS ’81, stands in front of New York State’s first dedicated COVID-19 treatment facility.

School of Nursing alumna and U.S. Navy leader returns to WNY to help steer the fight against COVID-19.

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 WNY native, 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.

She recalls the call in early March from Catholic Health’s CEO, Mark Sullivan. She was the ideal candidate, he said, to lead the transition of Catholic Health’s Sisters of Charity Hospital at St. Joseph Campus, in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, into New York State’s first dedicated COVID-19 treatment facility.

“I had experience working on the Navy’s medical response to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan,” says McCormick-Boyle, who was 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. With her wide-ranging background in nursing, human resources and health care administration, she’s as comfortable in a hospital or a boardroom as she is in a military organization.

Managing the surge

What McCormick’s leadership team and staff at St. Joseph Campus accomplished in less than a month is remarkable. Within a week after the hospital’s ER closed, the building reopened as a direct-admit facility, taking patients with confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses directly from other Catholic Health locations.

“We planned for a surge of up to 60 to 70 critical care patients,” says McCormick-Boyle, adding that they continue to expand the number to keep up with potential demand, swapping regular beds for ICU-level environments as needed. “We deal with multiple levels of care, and that changes every day.”

The intent of the project, she says, is not only to serve the Catholic Health system but to build capacity for the entire region. “We’re able to take the bulk of the area’s COVID patients and allow other hospitals, when the time comes, to manage any new surge of medical cases coming in while keeping their staff safe.”

Hoping for peace, planning for war

When it opened, 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 is safe, where groups can meet and wear normal clothing. The tightly restricted red zone houses patients and their medical teams; this is where PPEs and critical medical equipment are concentrated. Between red and green, a dispatcher sends runners shuttling medicine and supplies through a yellow “transport and transition” zone.

McCormick’s office may be green, but it’s anything but relaxed; her leadership team still holds twice-daily meetings to plan and assess how the transition is going. Like the virus itself, their work remains a moving target.

“First, we planned,” she says. “Now we ask ourselves, how are these functions and teams working? Behind all that work is the large cadre of staff carrying out these plans every day.”

McCormick-Boyle 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.

Training continues as staffing needs evolve. Nurse anesthesiologist students were brought in from North Carolina to shadow staff, while physician assistants use the facility’s lobby as a simulated training environment to teach nurses critical care.

We play music and clap over the intercom when somebody is released."
Rebecca McCormick-Boyle, BS '81

Then there are the creative ideas to boost morale. “We take pictures of docs and nurses to put over their uniforms, so patients and other staff can see their faces. We play music and clap over the intercom when someone is released.” McCormick also comes on the same speaker for daily pep talks, and suits up to visit the yellow zone.

As new treatments are developed, whether they are plasma infusions from recovered COVID-19 patients or a future vaccine, McCormick says her infection control team will “weave those into patients’ discharge instructions.”

At the front lines of the pandemic, health care workers have become heroes, and McCormick agrees that the crisis has shown the importance of nurses and other previously unsung essential workers.

“I am a nurse, and this highlights the sheer number of nurses helping people in close proximity,” she says. “But it has been a team effort. It’s also the people wiping counters and floors, and of course the physicians—the partnership between the providers has been extraordinary."

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

Published April 28, 2020