Memorial Sloan Kettering staff, patients, and donors stepped up in extraordinary ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meet just some of these heroes.
Senior system architect
Digital, Informatics & Technology Solutions (DigITs)
As a firefighter and EMT in his New Jersey hometown, Paul Cortellesi doesn’t flinch when times get tough. So, when COVID-19 started to ramp up, he leapt into action and immediately volunteered to join the frontlines at MSK.
Mr. Cortellesi, a senior system architect in MSK’s DigITs group, was one of hundreds of clinical and nonclinical employees redeployed to assist with COVID-19-related operations. In March, he became a coordinator for MSK’s emergency response team to manage MSK’s supply of PPE. “There was no standard,” Mr. Cortellesi says. “We made it up as we went, based on best practices and the equipment we had.”
Mr. Cortellesi also spent his days troubleshooting technology and logistics to keep the ship sailing. During the height of the first wave, Mr. Cortellesi worked 41 consecutive days — even on weekends and Easter — and slept at a hotel within walking distance of MSK. He credits his “enormous support network” for lifting him up during these challenges. Family and friends sent him cards and care packages at the hotel, and his wife came up with an ingenious way of reducing the strain of the N95 mask on his ears: She sewed buttons to his surgical cap that the mask could hook onto.
Over the summer, Mr. Cortellesi thanked his fellow staffers by hosting socially distant get-togethers at his family farm. Mr. Cortellesi says he will never forget his service during the pandemic. “When I say it was my favorite three months of my career, I definitely mean it.”
April de la Rosa
Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
At the peak of the pandemic, many cancer patients were reluctant to come to the hospital for care because they feared the virus. The consequences were serious. Those who did come to the hospital usually had more advanced disease and required more care.
When one of her nursing colleagues fell ill with COVID-19, Ms. de la Rosa jumped into action. “There’s an unspoken rule,” she says. “Nurses take care of their own.” Still, she worried about those under her care. “We had weekly surveillance screenings as well as PPE, but I was always thinking, ‘Could I be the one who inadvertently exposes someone?’” But Ms. de la Rosa braved the risks and led with positivity. “My challenge was to not only keep the trust my colleagues gave me early on but to also be compassionate every step of the way,” she says.
Her skill and dedication earned her MSK’s CRNA of the Year for 2020 award.
MSK’s Donor Community
The MSK donor community swiftly united to meet the institution’s unprecedented needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 3,000 donors — including MSK staff, MSK Board members, and people around the world — contributed $6.3 million to the COVID-19 Fund, designating gifts toward greatest needs, research and innovation, or employee relief.
Recognizing the pandemic’s challenges on the home front, MSK allocated a total of $14 million of philanthropic funds, drawing from both the COVID-19 Fund and other donations, to assist employees, including donations earmarked for greatest needs. More than 3,000 employees received grants to help pay for rent, childcare, groceries, and more.
Donors’ generosity also extended to in-kind donations of PPE, food, and other much-needed goods for frontline workers. They even wrote more than 2,000 thank you messages to MSK’s healthcare heroes, which were posted all over the hospital and shared by email to provide encouragement.
As global demand for PPE and critical supplies accelerated, traditional supply chains could not scale up fast enough. Prices for some items rose to nearly ten to 14 times their standard cost, and MSK required a higher number to keep patients and staff safe. In April 2020, for example, MSK used 32,000 procedure masks a day — up from the usual 8,500. “MSK was able to procure everything we needed to provide the best cancer care because of our supply chain experts and the generosity of our amazing donor community,” says Lisa Lieberman, Senior Director of Supply Chain and Sustaining Care Services Operations at MSK.
Perioperative nurse liaison
Elizabeth Farrat, a perioperative nurse liaison who cares for patients before, during, and after surgery, stepped out of her regular role in March and into new territory caring for critically ill COVID-19 patients. “I knew I had the knowledge and skill to care for patients who were so gravely ill,” she recalls. “But I was also afraid of the unknown.” Four days before her deployment, her husband and children moved in with her parents. “I didn’t know how else to keep them safe,” she says.
After four months of caring for COVID-19 patients in the ICU, Ms. Farrat returned to perioperative nursing in July. Telemedicine was keeping clinics as well as surgeries running smoothly. It was a new tool for sharing critical information with families. “My role had to change from meeting patients’ families and updating them in person to calling and texting them,” she says. “Even though families were not able to be present on the day of surgery, they felt cared for. And that is one of the many ways that the care at MSK is exceptional.”
For her tireless efforts, Ms. Farrat received the 2020 The Finest Hour award, a national achievement that recognizes nurses who have gone above and beyond in providing care during the COVID-19 pandemic. “She brought the human touch to each nurse and patient,” says her colleague Evangelina SantaTeresa.
PhD student in the lab of Andrea Schietinger
In March, the Laboratory Emergency Task Force was created to make sure research could continue despite the pandemic. For many, like Laura Menocal, the work was personal. Her cousin, a doctor in Mexico, died of COVID-19. Ms. Menocal helped MSK scientists stay on track. “Once or twice a week, I came into the lab alone and stayed for an hour or two to take care of things that were necessary,” Ms. Menocal says. Her selfless efforts meant her colleagues could avoid COVID-19 exposure.
Today, the labs are up and running again thanks in part to Ms. Menocal’s work. “It was very smooth picking up my work again,” she says. “I’m very excited about what’s ahead in cancer research because we are making so many important discoveries,” she adds.
Rachel and Leah
Sisters and MSK patients
The COVID-19 pandemic was raging in April when 38-year-old Rachel Zitofsky got the news: She had stage II breast cancer. With the added stress of facing cancer during a pandemic, Rachel was grateful she could build a care team close to her home at Memorial Sloan Kettering Commack, led by breast surgeon Lisa Sclafani.
When telemedicine visits and genetic testing through MSK’s Clinical Genetics Service revealed a BRCA2 mutation, dramatically increasing her risk of a second breast cancer and of developing ovarian cancer, Rachel had both breasts, ovaries, and fallopian tubes removed. “Dr. Sclafani told me we’d get through this together and she’d support me all the way,” Rachel recalls.
Rachel’s sister, Leah Blanton, traveled from Florida to be by her side. Little did the sisters know, Rachel’s diagnosis would uncover lifesaving information for her older sister, too. When Leah decided to have genetic testing at MSK, she learned that she, too, had a BRCA2 mutation. Despite concerns about being in the hospital during the pandemic, she chose to have preventive surgeries at MSK. “No matter how long this pandemic lasts, I’d rather be here to watch my kids grow up,” she says.
As Rachel and Leah were recovering, Leah learned that tests on the tissue removed during her preventive surgery showed early-stage breast cancer, or ductal carcinoma in situ. “If I would have waited, that cancer could have grown, and I could have needed chemo and radiation. It could have been so much worse,” Leah says. “But I saw what my sister went through — her cancer saved my life.”