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Ready For It: How Rady Children's VP of Operations Braced for the COVID-19 Impact

Analysis  |  By Jasmyne Ray  
   May 05, 2022

The roles Chris Abe, RN, CIC, HEM, has taken on at the hospital uniquely prepared her for the public health emergency.

Chris Abe, RN, CIC, HEM, always knew that she wanted to work in pediatrics.

Her passion for working with children has persisted throughout her more than 40 years of service in healthcare. Now, as vice president of operations for California's largest children's hospital, Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego, Abe regularly draws on her capabilities as both a clinician and administrator in her leadership efforts.

She began her career as a pediatric nurse at UC San Diego Medical Center, where she proved herself as a leader early on when she was selected to lead the overnight shift within her first 90 days.

"I would never recommend any leadership person to jump in that quickly," Abe said. "But it was a good learning opportunity, and I took it."

For anyone first starting out in their career, it's good to take any opportunity you're offered; whether it's to gain experience, learn, or show what you can do, she added.

She began her tenure with Rady Children's in 1986 as the assistant manager of the medical unit. After a few years she was recruited for a director role at a different hospital, but was convinced to stay at Rady Children's where she took on a new role: project specialist for the vice president of nursing.

"This started to give me a real broad function of the organization because I did policy and procedures, and I started covering for infection control," Abe said. "I started writing newsletters to exemplify what the clinical teams were doing, bringing in new projects; anything that was new that the vice president of nursing or the COO needed."

Her work with infection control led to her gaining control of that department when the hospital's infection control nurse left.

"I found that I had a real passion for infection control [and] infectious diseases," she said. "So much overlaps with policy, and procedures, and the functions of a hospital, so it was a nice fit."

Over time, other areas like occupational therapy and support services fell under her control, and Abe was able to apply her knowledge and talents to a variety of departments.

"That was different. I remember asking the COO if he remembered I was a nurse because these support areas were a little different," Abe said. "But I had also been developing programs that included these departments and their regulatory compliance requirements accreditation company."

Through these experiences, she realized that clinical and non-clinical staff "spoke different languages," and she stepped in as a translator to help everyone understand how important each other's jobs were.

"For my career, I've been fortunate to have been given opportunities to learn and stretch, and then be able to take my clinical expertise as a nurse and be able to pull together that whole picture so that it supports the patient and the people at the beside," Abe said.

Her role in operations is to ensure that patients are set up with the best care. Among the many hats that she wears at the children's hospital is safety officer – where her skills have proved to be invaluable during the last two years.

"My opportunities for leadership have been designed, almost set up, to be a lead coordinator for a pandemic like this because of the departments [I oversee] and the experience I have," Abe said.

With her background in nursing, infection control, and occupational health, she had already created a template for what could be done in a disaster situation. In the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Abe had already experienced the anthrax scare, Ebola, and H1N1 – which made her believe that something like the Covid pandemic could happen next.

"One of the excellent things about Rady Children's is that we are planners," she said. "We feel accountable and responsible for pediatrics."

In November 2019, when COVID-19 cases were beginning to show up internationally, Abe ran a tabletop drill for a pandemic scenario for the hospital, which included leaders and physicians in participation. There were also representatives from the county and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) present.

In December 2019, they held a session evaluating what they were hearing about COVID-19, and in January 2020 they took the additional information being released and decided to adapt the template for the novel virus.

At the time, the hospital was also working with the CDC and state to develop protocol, because there were no protocols in place on taking care of kids with COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, Abe and the hospital also worked closely with the county in answering questions about the virus and by providing safety information to the community. When vaccines were developed and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Rady Children's was one of the first hospitals to start vaccinating individuals.

As information about the virus was updated, sometimes multiple times a day, Abe knew it was important to relay that information to the hospital staff as well as the community.

"To me, it's one of the most important things that I did. What I said to [my teams, the occupation health and infection control team] is 'Our job is to take the fear out, and replace fear with facts,'" she said. "And these personal touches were incredibly important."

“My opportunities for leadership have been designed, almost set up, to be a lead coordinator for a pandemic like this because of the departments [I oversee] and the experience I have."”


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Abe's passion for pediatric medicine evolved into one for infection control.

Previous trainings and experiences with the anthrax scare, Ebola, and H1N1 prepared her and Rady Children's hospital staff for the COVID pandemic.


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