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Wide Awake: The Rock Star
The nurse running the state’s Covid response

A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a friend that I had just finished a video interview with NJ’s Health Commissioner for our Women’s Empowerment Series and our podcast. “Oh, Judith Persichilli?” she said. Clearly, she was very excited. It was like I interviewed a rock star, which maybe I had.

I was surprised. “How do you know her name?”

“I’ve been watching her. I love her. She’s so smart!”

And that she is.

Judith Persichilli has been managing the state’s medical response to Covid. Unlike many health commissioners in the country, she’s a nurse – the first nurse to hold the position in NJ. And while she spent much of her career in hospital administration, she started in the ICU. So this government official has a unique professional history to manage this critical disease.

I asked her if being a nurse has helped during the crisis. She talked about the education nurses receive, how they take many of the same science classes physicians take. She said nurses are trained to bring science to the bedside and to the community. “That makes all the difference,” she said.

I’ve watched Comm. Persichilli at most of the Governor’s daily press briefings, but I didn’t know much about her until I was on another video interview with AtlantiCare’s CEO Lori Herndon and Inspira’s CEO Amy Mansue. (This was also for the Women’s Empowerment Series.) They talked about the Commissioner and became quite passionate when they noted that most people had no idea a nurse was doing so much to help the state. Her department, they said, communicated openly and frequently with all New Jersey hospitals to be sure they had what they needed.

“She pushed us to do things that, candidly, I’m not sure any of us thought we could do: double our ICUs, double med-surg capacity, train people in 6 weeks on new techniques. She deserves a lot of credit for the fact that we’re still standing and we’re moving forward,” Amy told me.

“I’m proud of her,” Lori said. Amy agreed, “I am too.”

My interview with the Commissioner was a day after she returned from a self-imposed quarantine. One of her staff members had tested positive, so she followed guidelines and stayed home. She wore her mask during our video interview, and I was surprised how I was still able to see warmth and kindness even with half of her face covered. Not many people can do that.

I’ve always thought what makes a leader exceptional is when they can combine competence with compassion. You don’t see it often, and I happen to think when you do see it, the leader is usually a woman. Not always, but often. With Comm. Persichilli, her knowledge was apparent throughout the interview, but her empathy became especially clear at the end of our talk, when I asked what she would say to people who don’t wear masks.

She started speaking just as she had been, “Help yourself. It’s protecting yourself and your loved ones. Right now, our biggest increase in cases is in younger individuals 18 – 40.”

And then she slowed down, and her voice became filled with emotion. “Our largest number of deaths are those in their 70s and 80s. So younger people must be infecting and transmitting this virus to older individuals. Their aunts, their uncles, their grandparents, maybe their own parents.” She paused. And began to speak even slower. I knew she was feeling every word of what she said next.

“Those individuals are dying. Wake up. Wake up and wear your mask.”

I hope a change that comes out of 2020 is we begin to  notice what words matter most and what actions have the greatest impact. Then we’ll understand who our rock stars really are.

To see all the rock star videos from the Women’s Empowerment Series, visit sjmagazine.net. You can hear the “South Jersey Girls” podcast anywhere you get your podcasts.

January 2021
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