Women Leaders at MSK: Elizabeth Rodriguez

Elizabeth Rodriguez, DNP, RN, Director of Nursing for the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care.

Elizabeth Rodriguez, Director of Nursing for the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care

“I always loved taking care of patients. It drives everything I do,” says Elizabeth Rodriguez. She remembers several early experiences that helped influence her career path.

Born in Plattsburgh, New York, she was always very close with her parents and older brother. Her father worked in sales at the same company for 35 years and every time he was promoted, the family had to move to a new location. They lived in Connecticut, North Carolina, and Colorado before moving to Port Jefferson on Long Island, where she went to high school. 

Moving around the country so often as a child taught Dr. Rodriguez how to be resilient, adapt quickly, and build new relationships. “These skills serve me well today as a leader and have been invaluable during the pandemic.”

Appreciating the Caregivers

Not long after she started ninth grade in Port Jefferson, Dr. Rodriguez’s grandfather was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer.

“We had literally just moved. My older brother was in college, my dad was working hard at his new job, and my mom had to go to North Carolina to care for grandpa, who was in the ICU,” remembers Dr. Rodriguez, adding that he sadly passed away from complications of surgery.

Six months later, her mother, who was only 40 years old at the time, was diagnosed with rectal cancer. “She was diagnosed on Long Island, but my parents knew the place to go was Memorial Sloan Kettering,” says Dr. Rodriguez. Her mother had surgery at MSK and was in the hospital for two weeks. “It was very different back then. Nowadays she would have only been in for a couple of nights,” she observes. Despite having multiple complications over the years, her mother recovered and continues to be well today. 

A short time later, Dr. Rodriguez’s grandmother, diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, had worsening symptoms and could no longer live alone. She came to live with the family in Port Jefferson. “For years, there was a lot of caregiving going on around me, but at the time I didn’t really appreciate that it was shaping my future decisions,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

Choosing a Career Path

When it was time to apply to college, Dr. Rodriguez had multiple interests, but nursing was at the top of her list. After applying to several schools, she was accepted into the undergraduate nursing program at Villanova University and began her undergraduate studies with great enthusiasm.

Although she loved her major, she struggled with people’s assumptions about nursing as a stereotypical female career choice.

“It bothered me that sometimes I’d be caring for patients during rotations and they’d say, ‘Wow, you’re such a bright young woman, why don’t you become a doctor?’ as if nursing wasn’t enough,” she recalls. She says it’s different now, with many nurses like herself choosing to acquire additional training and earning advanced degrees. “The public’s perception of what nurses do has evolved quite a bit, especially now as a result of the COVID pandemic.” 

A Passion for Nurse Leadership

A pre-pandemic family vacation

A pre-pandemic family vacation

After graduating from Villanova, she worked as a nurse for two years at NYU Medical Center and then joined MSK as an oncology nurse in 2000. Early in her career at MSK, she wanted to be a nurse practitioner, but a conversation with a mentor led her to reconsider. “She told me that I was a great leader and that I should consider a degree in Administration instead,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “It definitely left an impression on me for someone to actually call that out.” Taking her advice to heart, she shifted gears and in 2005, she earned a master’s degree in Nursing Administration from NYU.

That same year she became a Nurse Leader at MSK. “I knew that I had a passion for being in a leadership role because I could have a wider and deeper sphere of influence on how we deliver care to our patients,” she says.

Despite her master’s degree, she wasn’t done with higher education. In 2008, Dr. Rodriguez discovered a new doctoral program for nursing practice that was just launching at Duke. “When I learned that the program focused on preparing nurses to be leaders in complex healthcare organizations, that resonated with me,” she recalls.

As it turned out, she signed up for the program the same week she found out she was pregnant with her first child. There were many people who advised her to wait, but she forged ahead, with critical support from her husband, and earned her Doctorate in Nursing Practice from Duke University in 2010.

“When I look back, graduating from Duke is one of my proudest achievements,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “It was very challenging to pursue this degree while pregnant, then caring for my infant daughter who was born in the first third of the program, and working full time at MSK, but I did it, and I give a lot of credit to my husband who helped me through it.”

Empowering Patients through Technology

Dr. Rodriguez was instrumental in the development of the patient portal at MSK and facilitated the transition of patients’ lab results onto the new platform. She even incorporated the effort into her thesis project at Duke. “I served as the nursing representative from the beginning of the portal initiative, and it was something I became really passionate about because I believed that technology would have a major influence on how we deliver care to patients,” she says.

There was trepidation at the time around showing patients their own medical records. “There was a concern that patients might not understand it or that it would cause them fear or anxiety, but we realized that giving patients access to their own health information provides them a greater sense of ownership and empowerment, which is beneficial,” she explains.

Overseeing Clinical Operations during the Pandemic

Dr. Rodriguez was promoted to her current position, Director of Nursing for the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care, in 2018. She works with medical and administrative staff to plan and oversee the delivery of nursing services and ensure an outstanding patient experience and excellent clinical outcomes.

The Koch Center opened on January 20, 2020, after a decade of planning, and was fully operational by February 10, serving about 2,000 patients a day. “It was a huge milestone for MSK and a tremendous personal achievement,” she says. “And then about six weeks after we opened, we slowed down operations and pivoted from in-person visits to virtual because of the pandemic. We didn’t know how long this crisis would last but we learned quickly that the sprint had become a marathon.”

Given her experience with the patient portal and other digital technology initiatives, much of Dr. Rodriguez’s pandemic-related work initially focused on ramping up MSK’s telemedicine efforts.

She was also asked by two of her mentors, Kevin Browne, Deputy Chief Nursing Officer, and Elizabeth McCormick, Chief Nursing Officer, to take on a formal role in the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) and collaborate with clinical and administrative colleagues on overseeing outpatient operations.

Just two weeks later, Dr. Rodriguez was called upon again to help fill the leadership roles in the HICS structure that were left vacant when Dr. Browne and Ms. McCormick both got sick with COVID-19. She became the clinical operations chief for the entire enterprise, a role she shared with Marcia Levine, Vice President for Perioperative and Inpatient Nursing Services.

Forging Relationships in a Time of Crisis

The pandemic required many people to take on new roles – and build new relationships. “The biggest lesson many of us learned was that the talented people around us were our best resources, and there was great comfort in that,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

From the outset, Dr. Rodriguez worked closely with infectious disease specialist Monika Shah. She also collaborated with Mini Kamboj, Chief Medical Epidemiologist, and Deborah Korenstein, Chief, General Internal Medicine Service, to create COVID protocols around testing, visitation, and patient care.

In early May, Dr. Rodriguez was tapped to serve on a committee led by Tiffany Traina, Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine, to restore MSK’s outpatient clinical operations. She also served on the resurgence committee to plan clinical operations during the anticipated spike in COVID cases in the fall.

She points out that the pandemic response was the best example of inter-professional collaboration that she has ever experienced because everyone cared about the same thing. “During a crisis, you don’t have the luxury of time, so we had to quickly connect with people and center ourselves on a common denominator, which in this case was the health and safety and well-being of our patients and staff,” says Dr. Rodriguez.

She was later asked to completely assume the role of clinical operations chief and continues to act in that capacity today.

A Notable Woman of History

Dr. Rodriguez has always looked up to former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “I look to her as a woman who took on such a unique leadership role in a very challenging time in history,” she says. “I especially admire how she performed as first lady with a president who was disabled.”

Dr. Rodriguez, who has two girls - Anna, 12, and Eleanor, 6 - named her younger daughter after her role model. Ironically, Ms. Roosevelt’s first name was Anna, but Dr. Rodriguez didn’t know it at the time of her older daughter’s birth.

When she thinks about Ms. Roosevelt’s life and accomplishments, perseverance comes to mind, and the understanding that each of us has a reservoir of strength that we can call on when necessary. “You have the strength within you, even when you don’t think you do. Perseverance is something that’s attainable,” she says. 

It’s a lesson she learned early in life from her first role model - her mother - whose cancer experience influenced her decision to become a nurse. “My mom always told me I could become anything I wanted to be, even President of the United States! I believed her.”