Given her wide-ranging interests and experiences, it seems presumptuous to say that Cynthia McCollum was born for any one role. But many of the qualities that define her — strength, decisiveness, courage, composure, and when appropriate, a lively sense of humor — have been invaluable in meeting the historic challenge of COVID-19. When the call came for her to lead Memorial Sloan Kettering’s response, she seemed uniquely ready.
Ms. McCollum grew up in the New Haven area of Connecticut with her parents, one younger brother, and their much-loved dogs, a border collie and golden retriever. Her father, Robert McCollum, was a prominent virologist and infectious disease researcher who served as a professor at Yale School of Medicine and ultimately Chairman of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. Later in his career, he was named Dean of the Dartmouth Medical School. Her mother, Audrey McCollum, was a pediatric social worker and author.
A smart, curious child with endless interests, Ms. McCollum spent most of her childhood outdoors, biking, swimming, and running around her neighborhood. When she wasn’t on the move, she was generally reading.
“My parents never set boundaries on books,” she remembers. “With candy and toys, I was on an allowance like everybody else, but there was always money for books.”
Her childhood was happy and typical for the era except for the shared parenting style her parents embraced. “I had a mother who worked outside of the home, which was not common in the 1960s and 70s,” says Ms. McCollum. “Dad made my lunch and got me off to school and they split parent-teacher days.”
Her father was mentored by a woman early in his career, which was even less common than packing school lunches for his children. Ms. McCollum knew her father’s mentor as Aunt Dorothy, who spent much time with the family, including holidays and birthdays. She later learned that Dorothy Horstmann was the first woman promoted to full professor at Yale School of Medicine. Research she conducted with Dr. McCollum on the spread of poliovirus in the human bloodstream was integral to the development of the polio vaccine.
“I can now appreciate the obstacles that she must have overcome, and I recognize the influence she had on me,” says Ms. McCollum. “She made anything seem possible.”
Envisioning a Career in Healthcare
Starting in high school, Ms. McCollum spent every summer for six years working in the emergency room of Yale New Haven Hospital. She was fascinated not only by the medicine, but also the processes of care delivery.
Influenced by those summer experiences and the role models around her, she started college at Princeton University planning to be a doctor. But during the winter of her freshman year, she stumbled across a notice on a campus kiosk promoting a new class: “Medicine in Modern America.” It was offered in partnership with a new organization called the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, now the country’s largest foundation dedicated solely to health. She signed up.
“It was one of those things that ended up changing my life,” says Ms. McCollum. “I discovered that you didn’t have to be a doctor to influence healthcare.”
She went on to major in Science in Human Affairs, an interdisciplinary program at Princeton that was developed as a bridge between the natural and social sciences.
A Place of Joy and Hope
With her sights set on a non-clinical career in healthcare — and recognizing the value of a business background for her chosen path — Ms. McCollum went on to earn a Master of Business Administration degree, with a concentration in health management, from Yale University.
After graduation, she was ready to accept a job at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, when she received a call at her grandmother’s house in Rhode Island one Friday night from MSK’s human resources department, asking her to interview for a new position — on Monday.
“I was so intrigued that I agreed,” Ms. McCollum says. She was ultimately offered, and accepted, the job of Administrative Manager for a two-year clinical trial designed to explore the feasibility of giving chemotherapy on an outpatient basis.
“My mother said that I’d better get a psychiatrist since I was going to work at the most depressing place in the world,” she says. “I came to work on the first day, called her and said, ‘Mom, this place is filled with joy and hope.’”
With only 3,000 employees, MSK was also a place with far fewer people than today. “There was a holiday party every year in the cafeteria — for the whole hospital,” she remembers.
That clinical trial ultimately led to the creation of the Adult Day Hospital, the first step in transitioning MSK’s chemotherapy program to an outpatient setting. When the trial ended, Ms. McCollum was offered a position as Administrator of Regulatory Affairs, which launched the rest of her career at MSK.
Over the succeeding years, she rose steadily through the administrative hierarchy, gaining leadership experience and learning all aspects of hospital operations. She became an expert in everything from the Joint Commission to floor drains to pneumatic tubes.
“At some point, I’ve been responsible for many of the hospital’s departments,” she says. Her current portfolio features several clinical departments, including Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Integrative Medicine, Pharmacy, Social Work, Anesthesia and Critical Care Medicine, and Infection Control, as well as Regulatory Affairs, Graduate Medical Education, Spiritual Care Services, and Case Management.
This broad knowledge of MSK left her well-positioned to face the challenge of a lifetime that descended in 2020.
The Arrival of COVID-19
On February 29, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in New York City. By early March it was apparent that COVID-19 was highly contagious and far more lethal than the flu. By mid-March, MSK had its first patient infected with the virus and staff had to gear up in a matter of days to contend with an anticipated influx of cancer patients with COVID-19.
MSK staff rallied at every turn — creating new ways of doing things, finding resources, volunteering, doing whatever it took to deliver patient care and keep people safe.
Through it all, Ms. McCollum continued to oversee the departments in her portfolio, working with her team of department leaders to keep things running. She was also frequently called to cover for Ned Groves, Executive Vice President and Hospital Administrator, who had been serving as HICS Incident Commander since HICS was activated on February 5, 2020. Amid MSK’s rising COVID-positive patient caseload, she saw some of her own colleagues fall ill.
“I didn’t have time to be frightened,” Ms. McCollum remembers. “I took precautions and, like the entire senior management team, kept coming into the office every day. You can’t ask the clinical staff to be here, putting themselves at risk, and stay home yourself.”
By mid-April, MSK reached its peak caseload. “In the span of a month, we went from ‘What is this strange illness?’ to 118 COVID-positive inpatients, many of them on ventilators, including staff members.”
A Permanent Seat at the Head of the HICS Table
On April 22, 2020, as COVID-19 cases were beginning to decline in the city, Mr. Groves asked Ms. McCollum to take over as HICS Incident Commander so he could turn his attention to restoring hospital operations for MSK’s cancer patients. She resized the HICS team, making decisions about which teams were essential at every HICS meeting and which could be rotated in as needed. The core group that remained included infection control; clinical operations, including testing, COVID-19 care and resurgence planning; communications; supply chain; logistics; HR; legal; analytics; and ultimately the Vaccine Task Force.
Often after HICS meetings in the M-107 “Command Center,” she would walk the floors where COVID-19 patients were being cared for with one of the medical chiefs and talk with staff. “We’d ask about resources: ‘Do you have enough staff? Enough PPE?’” It was a chance to connect with people and hear their concerns.
Ms. McCollum has been leading the HICS operation, which remains activated at Level 2, ever since, shepherding MSK through the most prolonged HICS event in its history.
In the middle of all the angst and sleep-interrupted nights, there was also pride and gratitude. “I had terrific partners and a really high-functioning team,” says Ms. McCollum.
She is proud of the multiple efforts made to support staff since the earliest days of the pandemic. MSK offered to care for any employee who required hospitalization due to COVID-19 and extended the same offer to their immediate family members. Childcare and commuter assistance were made available, and counseling and support resources were provided to help people cope with the tremendous stress of the pandemic. In addition, a fund was established for employees who experienced extreme financial hardship.
MSK also offered support to other institutions. “We accepted transfers from other hospitals and looked for opportunities to be a strong partner to the broader healthcare community,” she says.
Through it all, Ms. McCollum led HICS meetings with exceptional efficiency, poise, and flashes of humor, and kept staff informed through emailed HICS Updates. She has also moderated several Information Sessions for patients and staff to share facts about COVID-19 and the vaccines.
How Did She Do It?
Aside from having a supremely supportive husband and friends, Ms. McCollum was able to endure the worst days of the pandemic because she knew people were counting on her.
“This was, and is, a moment in history for the world, our country, and this institution,” says Ms. McCollum. “I felt incredibly honored that MSK leadership had confidence in me, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
She was further buoyed by the kind words of staff from across MSK. “After almost every HICS Update, I get lovely notes, many from people I don’t know. They have made a tremendous difference.”
While her travel to remote countries has been curtailed, and her favorite soft drink, Tab, is no longer available to start her day, Ms. McCollum keeps herself centered through daily walks, reading, and cooking new and sometimes exotic dishes.
Notable Women of Medicine and Healthcare
Ms. McCollum points to two women she knew who inspired her to pursue a career in healthcare. Margaret Mahoney was the first woman to head a major US philanthropic foundation, becoming president of The Commonwealth Fund, an organization dedicated to healthcare, in 1980. Ms. McCollum met her at Princeton when Ms. Mahoney led the study section for the “Medicine in Modern America” class. She was Ms. McCollum’s advisor for her thesis on pediatric healthcare delivery models in East Harlem.
She also admires Dorothy Horstmann — Aunt Dorothy from her childhood — whose “quiet example” of scholarship and achievement changed the world and helped shape the life of one bright young girl who could imagine a future of limitless possibilities.