Robyn Holman Cortese ’05: Any Sacrifice You're Making Today is Truly Saving Lives Tomorrow
I think for me, seeing my patients leave the hospital is maybe why I go back every day. Because I want to know that they are recovering, and they’re going to go home. It breaks my heart when that doesn’t happen, but 95 percent of the time it does.
In an online video interview from her home, Robyn Holman Cortese ’05 radiated the reassuring calm any patient might prescribe as the preferred bedside manner for their caregivers. Between shifts working as a clinical pharmacist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, California—while co-juggling childcare with her pilot husband, also an “essential employee” on a demanding schedule—Cortese discussed COVID-19’s impact on her job, and what keeps her going.
“It’s a hard time to be at work. I’ve never seen so many deaths in my career as I have since this started. It has been pretty harrowing in that regard. But it’s still a profession I love,” says Cortese. “I think for me, seeing my patients leave the hospital is maybe why I go back every day. Because I want to know that they are recovering, and they’re going to go home. It breaks my heart when that doesn’t happen, but 95 percent of the time it does.”
Cortese usually works in the hospital’s pediatric or neonatal intensive care units. But the COVID-19 crisis has changed things.
“Even though people are still having babies, more are able to be cared for at home via telemedicine instead of being held for observation at the hospital. The idea is to avoid longer hospital stays than necessary,” explains Cortese, who now often finds herself staffing an operating room or working in the hospital’s main pharmacy, or in other posts.
Cortese says the entire hospital was dramatically affected by the unexpected deployment to Los Angeles of the USNS Mercy, which is based in San Diego. “The Mercy is a 1,000-bed hospital ship—about the same size as an aircraft carrier.” The 500-bed hospital Cortese works at contributed staff and supplies.
“We ended up losing about half of our pharmacy staff—almost all of our active-duty staff,” says Cortese. “And with that, about 50 percent of the medications in the hospital were also lost to the Mercy so that they could carry out their mission.” She adds that the COVID-19 virus “can become pretty significant pretty quickly, so you run through a lot of medical supplies very quickly.”
Cortese’s commitment to her profession has deep roots. “My mom is a physician and my father’s a pharmacist, so I kind of grew up with healthcare in my blood,” says Cortese, who’s hometown is Pittsburgh. She also drew inspiration from the late local luminary Fred Rogers.
“There’s a phrase from ‘Mister Rogers’ that was always ‘look for the helpers,’” says Cortese. “That always stuck with me. There’s actually a Facebook group of health-care providers that I know from Pittsburgh that’s called ‘Look for the Helpers,’ and they’ve been posting a lot of inspirational stories.”
Cortese’s determination to be a “helper” led her to Simmons where she majored in biopsychology. She went on to earn a doctorate in pharmacy school in east Tennessee.
“Most of my family had been members of the U.S. military, so I took a military scholarship, and I became an Air Force pharmacist right after I graduated,” says Cortese. She credits Simmons with preparing her to see things from different perspectives and interact effectively with a range of people. “To really hear what someone else is saying can carry you a long way in life.”
Reflecting on the current crisis, Cortese sees a “helper” role for everyone. “Any sacrifice you’re making today is truly saving lives tomorrow,” she says, even by just consolidating trips to the grocery store. “It may not seem it. But from somebody on the inside, somebody who’s going to work every day and seeing that, it truly is making a difference.”