Christine Flaherty normally oversees capital improvement projects, preventive maintenance and efforts to reduce NYC Health + Hospitals’ carbon footprint.
The past year has been anything but normal. Instead, she spent the better part of 10 months finding ways to handle surges of COVID-19 patients. But she insists she didn’t do it alone.
“This was not a one-woman show. This was a show of all of our leaders,” said Flaherty, who has been senior vice president of facilities development at the 11-hospital public health system since May 2019.
In the spring, when New York experienced its first surge, Flaherty’s teams tripled, then quadrupled ICU capacity. Within three weeks, they created a 350-bed temporary hospital for low-acuity patients in long-vacant parts of their campus on Roosevelt Island, which lies between Manhattan and Brooklyn, to free up space for critical patients in their other hospitals.
“Our facilities team is really the unsung hero of our COVID-19 response,” Flaherty said. “We did enormous, miraculous things, I think, during our first wave.”
Many of the system’s hospitals are several decades old and were built when tuberculosis was a threat. They were outfitted with things like isolation rooms to help prevent transmission of airborne infectious diseases.
“They were built for a different need but, actually, it helped us here,” Flaherty said. “I’m very hopeful that as we work toward a solution to beat this terrible virus and come out of the other side … that we can continue to identity the opportunities to invest in public health systems.”
To handle the surge of patients, Flaherty’s team added windows to walls and doors of existing rooms to reduce how often clinicians would need to enter COVID-19 patients’ rooms; they set up remote oxygen monitoring; they created more negative pressure rooms.
“We were able to find creative ways to surge,” Flaherty said. “We got three years of work done in three months.”
It was a 24/7 job, she said. Her “village” of support helped care for her 13-year-old son. During the surge, she didn’t read or watch the news. Instead, she focused on what she could do to help the cause one day and then the next.
“It was a war; we were in battle. We had to rise to the occasion. Some of us went down, and others jumped in. We just had to do everything we could with every ounce of energy we could,” Flaherty said. “I think everybody has their unique personal way of coping. Mental resilience and positivity are critical at times like this.”
If anything, the pandemic has shown her how great the systems’ teams are and how much more they can accomplish when they work together, Flaherty said.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this,” she said.