Person of the Week
Marna Borgstrom: Heading Yale New Haven Health
In a year of adjustment for everyone, Yale New Haven Hospital and Yale New Haven Health CEO Marna Borgstrom has overseen one of the most significant medical responses in a century. (Photo courtesy of Marna Borgstrom )
Marna Borgstrom, the chief executive officer of Yale New Haven Hospital and of Yale New Haven Health, remembers the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic in this country. That was just a year ago, even though it might seem like forever ago.
“This has been a year like no other,” she says. “In the beginning it was like flying an airplane while you were trying to redesign it.”
As she looks back, Marna says she couldn’t have conceived of all the repercussions of the pandemic for the large hospital system she has headed for the last 16 years. Yale New Haven Health includes not only Yale New Haven Hospital, but also Bridgeport Hospital, Greenwich Hospital, Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, Westerly Hospital, and Northeast Medical Group.
Last February, there were staff meetings in conference rooms with no social distancing and no one wore masks. At that time, she pointed out, masks were suggested only if people were already symptomatic.
What makes her proud, however, was how rapidly Yale New Haven Health adapted to the new realities. New command structures were created to break through existing hierarchies and respond to situations more rapidly. She organized video town hall meetings for some 9,000 employees of the health system to relay information. In all, the system employs about 27,000 people. There were meetings every week, sometimes twice a week.
“We wanted to tell what we knew and be candid and forthcoming. It [the pandemic] was a moving target; lots of things were changing and there was a constant flow of information,” she says.
The meetings still continue.
Marna didn’t leave communication solely to electronics. She was out and about.
“I am a walker and a talker,” she says. “I want two-way communication.”
One of the people with whom she had two-way communication in the beginning, not face-to-face but on the telephone, was Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont.
“He called every day to ask what we needed,” she says.
She added his team still calls at least weekly, sometimes more often, to keep updated.
In addition to treating the growing numbers of desperately ill patients, there were questions of supporting the hospital staff and questions of finance that Marna had to deal with. Over time, as more was learned about care, procedures were constantly updated.
Marna worried about keeping employees protected.
“That was first and foremost: keeping the staff safe,” she says.
She notes that responding to the pandemic changed working relationships within the hospital system as a result of the pressures everybody was under.
“I think we have redefined our sense of community,” she explains.
The staff members had to nurse those suffering from COVID-19, take adequate precautions not to become infected themselves, and also deal with the emotional toll created by pandemic restrictions.
“No patient dies alone; that was the hardest thing to do and our staff embraced the duty,” Marna says. “It was a privilege to be there for somebody.”
For the first time in Marna’s 42 years at the Yale New Haven hospital system, the organization lost money. There were greater costs for everything from increased protective equipment to added intensive care units. At the same time, the kinds of procedures on which the hospital makes a profit were severely curtailed because the demands of treating COVID-19.
Still, according to Marna, finances never became an issue.
“Nobody ever questioned the money. Everybody knew what had to be done,” she says.
As she looks forward, Marna remains an optimist.
“There will be other challenges, but we have learned a lot,” she says.
At the moment, vaccination is the challenge that the Yale New Haven Health system faces. The problem is not giving the vaccine; the problem in getting enough vaccine to give.
“It’s going to take time,” Marna says.
To make it easier for those who may not have either access or ability to use a computer to make appointments, Yale New Haven Health is staffing up its call center. Marna thought about her own father, a retired ophthalmologist, who died last November at the age of 97.
“There was no way he could have made an appointment by computer,” she says,
Marna was born in Maryland, but grew up in Meriden. Her parents were both immigrants, her father from Ireland, her mother from Sweden. She went west for college, attending Stanford. She met her husband in California and got him to agree to come back to Connecticut for just two years. More than 40 years later, they are still here, now in Guilford.
Marna got a master’s degree in public health at the Yale School of Public Health and her entire professional career has been with the Yale New Haven Health system.
Since the onset of the pandemic, she has been able to get only a few days off. Last August she and her husband had a brief chance for a favorite recreation: They went fly fishing in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
“It was a break from COVID at 9,800 feet,” she says.
It was also a break for the trout. Marna fishes catch and release.