Decades in health care uniquely prepared recent Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee Judith Persichilli to guide New Jersey through a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis.
By Sean Downey (Photo by John O’Boyle)
As the world descended into the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli held aloft the light of hope for the people of New Jersey. Standing alongside Gov. Phil Murphy at televised briefings, she became the “woman who needs no introduction,” calmly recounting the staggering numbers of new cases and deaths and reiterating safety precautions. Her steely resolve set the tone for the tens of thousands of health care workers on the front lines of the crisis.
Persichilli NUR’76 had been on the job four months when her office started hearing about a viral outbreak in China. “By March, we had the biggest surge of cases in our hospitals and infections in our long-term care facilities that we’d ever experienced,” Persichilli says. In the months that followed, she worked tirelessly to develop strategies for mitigating the risks of COVID. “I came to work every day and said, ‘What have I learned over time in my education and my practice that’s going to help me through this?’”
Fortunately, Persichilli has a wealth of experience to draw upon, having started nursing school at 17, shortly after graduating from high school. She worked as an intensive care nurse for five years before earning a bachelor’s degree from the Rutgers College of Nursing and a health administration master’s from Rider University—both with summa cum laude honors. “The first thing I learned at Rutgers is that nursing is more than a practice—it’s a profession that you always carry with you,” Persichilli says. “Whether you’re a school nurse, an acute care nurse, or long-term care nurse, you always enter your day thinking of how to make things better for the people you serve.”
Always a nurse
For as long as she can remember, Persichilli wanted to be a nurse. She declared her intention to go to nursing school while at St. Peter’s High School in New Brunswick, just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s University Hospital, where she and her twin sister, Toni, were born and where Persichilli would later return as executive vice president. And even as her career took her into hospital administrative roles, she still saw herself as a nurse first.
In 1982, Sister Agnes Marie O’Brien, CEO of St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, asked Persichilli to join the hospital’s finance department because she wanted someone with a clinical background to balance out all the accountants. “When you talk about an inflection point, that was one of the best and most difficult experiences of my life, because I got to learn the ins and outs of this huge business enterprise that also takes care of people,” Persichilli says. “Merging that knowledge with my clinical experience propelled me to become the next CEO of St. Francis.”
And as she rose through the ranks to lead larger and larger hospital systems, Persichilli found herself as the first woman and the first nurse in positions dominated by male executives. “The challenge was not in running the hospital or dealing with the clinicians, the physicians, the nurses, and technicians,” Persichilli says. “No, the challenge was always in the boardroom because boards were still primarily male. I had to work hard to be heard, even as the CEO.”
Now, 56 years after her career began, Persichilli has the undivided attention of a public health system that includes more than 100 hospitals. As the first nurse to run the New Jersey department of health, her experience and education have proven vital in tackling the shifting challenges of COVID-19. “Rutgers taught me to be curious and that curiosity is really what helped me through this pandemic,” she says. “Look at the science and then move that into practice.”
More than 2.3 million COVID-19 cases later, Persichilli has navigated the pandemics onset; vaccine resistance, mandates and boosters; and new variants. Her resolve to finish what she started keeps her coming to work every day in a building that now bears her name. “Look, solving big problems is hard, but that’s the kind of risk I had to learn to take,” she says. “If you want the top job, it takes thick skin and broad shoulders. You have to just woman up and walk in.”
On Thursday, November 3, Judith Persichilli was inducted into the Rutgers University Hall of Distinguished Alumni along with three other influential Rutgers graduates.