On Super Bowl Sunday, Judith Persichilli, New Jersey’s commissioner of health, was on an emergency call with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It was just before the kickoff when I learned that the next day, February 3, we could expect 350 travelers who had passed through China to land at Newark Liberty International Airport.” Her task: to comply with an executive order from Governor Phil Murphy, effective immediately, that would establish a new coronavirus task force and institute new screening measures at the airport for incoming flights from China.
Persichilli NUR’76 had been health commissioner for only about six months, the first nurse to hold that position. But the New Brunswick, New Jersey, native was unfazed. “I got off the phone and worked all night to do what we had to do,” she says.
Persichilli says she learned the fundamentals for handling the current crisis from her education at Rutgers. “Before Rutgers, I went to St. Francis School of Nursing in Trenton for my diploma, and I like to say that’s where I learned how to care,” she says. But caring isn’t always enough, particularly during a pandemic, when facts are needed to ground good decision making. “Besides caring, the program at Rutgers taught me how to be curious—in terms of research, the underpinnings of what nurses do, the importance of using evidence in caring for patients, and also to consider what’s happening out in the community in addition to within the hospital.”
Persichilli’s training as a nurse also set her up for the kind of front-line leadership that the COVID-19 pandemic demands. “The first thing to realize is that nurses are always on the front lines,” she says. “Every day, they put aside their own burdens and come in to the workplace no matter how scared they are. Nurses run toward the fire, not away.”
Especially now, with the virus often leaving patients isolated and separated from their loved ones, “It’s the nurses who become patients’ families, whom patients rely on 100 percent. We cry when we lose a patient, rejoice when one comes through, then turn around and do it all again.”
That kind of resiliency helps keep Persichilli going during long days in her office in Trenton, even as so many others work from home. “I have to come in—we’re setting up field hospitals and alternative care sites, making sure hospitals have enough ventilators, helping them handle the surge of cases in the northern part of the state,” she says. “And of course, I stay six feet away from people, keep hand sanitizer on my desk—and use it frequently—and ask as many people as possible to work remotely.”
Her days are a mix of digging for the answers she needs and tracking the latest statistics on deaths and positive diagnoses as she battles to keep New Jersey informed and prepared, now and for the future. “Life as we know it has changed—economically, how we think about health, and how we relate to one another,” she says. “Human beings have always found solace from other human beings, but now we have to connect with people in a different way. As Governor [Phil] Murphy says, we all need to practice not just social distancing but also social solidarity.”
It’s also important, she says, that we take care of our mental health. “I like to remind people to pick up the phone and call their loved ones, to stay in touch,” she says. Persichilli gets support from her family and energy from taking time to reflect and unwind, usually in the early morning. “I like to get up at 4:30 or 5—mornings are my favorite time,” she says. She also feels inspired by her colleagues at the Department of Health. “I’m surrounded by people who find a way to laugh every day, while being extraordinarily productive,” she says. Ultimately, she adds, there is reason for optimism, even during these dark times. “This won’t go on forever; we are learning all the time, and I think a vaccine will be discovered,” she says. Meanwhile, she has confidence in the resiliency of New Jerseyans—her people. “I’ve been a New Jerseyan my whole life,” she says. “We will come through this journey together.”
This story will appear in the spring issue of Rutgers Magazine.