When asked about their 2021 Sanctae Crucis Award ahead of the virtual celebration on May 4, 2021, each honoree offered a variation of the above. In every interview, they expressed surprise and humility, citing the family, friends, colleagues and fellow alumni who helped them on their path to the highest non-degree honor that the College of the Holy Cross awards alumni.
Each of this year's honorees made life-saving and essential contributions in their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. As they see it, it's all in a day's work. And it is work that they're committed to continue long after the pandemic has subsided, to create a more just and equitable future.
For delivering compassionate care in the emergency department and ICU:
Christopher Crean, M.D., FACEP, '97, associate director and Emergency Department chairman, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset campus. (Major: chemistry)
Theresa A. Crean, RN, MA, CI/CT, '97, critical care registered nurse and nationally certified sign language interpreter, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset campus (Major: economics)
At the Crean family home, behind a front door that is painted Holy Cross purple, there is a wooden sign bearing a phrase from the Bible's Book of Esther: "Perhaps this is the moment for which you were created."
It's a verse that comforted and motivated Chris and Theresa Crean during the pandemic, when they were working together at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Somerset, New Jersey. Chris was in the Emergency Department, where he is associate director, and Theresa worked upstairs as a registered nurse in the Critical Care Unit.
"It was helpful to have a spouse who fully understood and was living the same horror," says Theresa, who became an ICU nurse in 2019 after a career as a nationally certified sign language interpreter. "I felt like my whole journey as a religious studies major, then sign language interpreter and then a nurse came together in this very important moment in time."
Theresa describes how she took care of her patients, medically and spiritually: "I would lip read them as they tried to talk around an endotracheal tube; I would note a glance at a body part, a flex of their back. I would say what I thought they were communicating out loud and wait for them to indicate yes or no. I insisted to my patients that I would not give up until whatever they were trying to communicate with me was understood. My patients and their family members were extremely grateful I had this specialized skill and experience of facilitating non-verbal communication, in addition to my critical care nursing skills and knowledge of their religious faith. I felt like the road God had me take toward nursing was winding, but it was all for a reason."
"I'm so proud of her," Chris says. "There are always people dying around us in our jobs, but at this particular time, there was the isolation component, where we had to have so many end of life conversations over the iPad and telephone with people, because the families couldn't be there. That is just an incredible skill that my wife has and what she did for these families facilitating communication was amazing."
The pride is evidently mutual. Theresa recounts multiple instances when the Emergency Department nurses told her how Chris' leadership made them feel safe under extraordinarily dangerous and difficult circumstances. "Chris was one of the first doctors in the hospital to make his team leave the patient's room before he intubated a patient," Theresa recalls, choking up at the memory. "When a COVID patient is intubated and put on a ventilator, there is a whoosh of air that flows out of the lungs filled with COVID virus. Chris already had enormous responsibility caring for suffocating, deathly ill COVID patients. Amidst that pressure and skill needed, he had great compassion for his ED teammates not wanting them to be exposed." Chris' training while completing his residency at a trauma center in North Carolina prepared him at the highest level for the complicated procedures that needed to be performed in split seconds in an overflowing Emergency Department. "The amount of intubations, central lines, chest tubes that needed to be inserted, ventilators that needed to be managed, literally made the emergency room like a war zone," Theresa says. "His tremendous skill and calm leadership in the face of danger made him the perfect Emergency Department leader in a pandemic."
When they went home to their children, Lilian and Joshua, the entire family wore masks at all times, ate meals outside and slept in separate rooms as a precaution. Now that Chris, Theresa and their children are fully vaccinated, "To be able to take a deep breath at home and hug our children without fear is quite a relief," Chris says. "There is no way to describe the emotional stress and trauma our family has been through. There were very few families that had both parents in COVID-filled rooms for 14 hours at a time, five days a week. It will take us a while to process all this."
The couple met at Holy Cross, where they worked together as captains in Kimball Dining Hall. They went on one of their first dates to hear Anthony Fauci, M.D., '62 speak in Hogan Campus Center. They were married in 2000 and were given special permission to have their wedding reception in Kimball, an honor they say they will always cherish: "The Kimball staff and administrators taught us as much as our professors about how to live and work as people for others. They nurtured us into the people we are."
In addition to their work in medicine, they are active leaders with their school district's Special Education Parent Advisory Group. So while the pandemic was raging and they were exhausted from working long hospital shifts, they made time to host Zoom support groups for parents of kids with special needs from their kitchen.
Both say they are indebted to Holy Cross for their educations, and immensely honored by the Sanctae Crucis Award: "Holy Cross graduates all know that their jobs and lives are bigger than themselves," the couple say.
For being a truthful, consistent and clear voice amid misinformation:
Helen Boucher, M.D., FACP, FIDSA, "86
Helen Boucher, M.D., FACP, FIDSA, '86, chief of the Division of Geographic Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Tufts Center for Integrated Management of Antimicrobial Resistance. (Major: English)
When Holy Cross made the decision to have students return to campus for the Spring 2021 semester, the administration needed expert perspective and advice to reopen safely, and Dr. Helen Boucher made that possible.
An internationally renowned expert on infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance, Dr. Boucher has been on the forefront of research and data on COVID-19, and used that knowledge to inform and educate the public. She served on Holy Cross' COVID-19 Core Team, and also advised other schools and businesses on reopening plans. In addition, Dr. Boucher made multiple media appearances sharing her expertise about infectious disease and COVID-19, including on Boston media outlets and C-SPAN, and in The New York Times.
"When COVID occurred, it became very clear in every circle — from my nuclear family to my work family — that a truthful, consistent, clear voice was very important. To speak the truth about what we know, what we don't know, and how we're going to keep ourselves and our families safe," she says. "In so many ways, we weren't prepared, but people with our particular [infectious disease] training, this is what we do. To say I was thrust into it would be an understatement, but we all were."
While Dr. Boucher's training in infectious disease certainly helped her as she advised various institutions and educated the public through the media, she also relied on her Holy Cross education.
"For the last 16 months, I've never been more grateful for the education that I received at Holy Cross, in terms of learning how to think through complex problems, deal with ambiguity and uncertainty almost every day, and to communicate effectively," she says. "Many times, we had to come to decisions — whether it was here at the medical center, whether it was at a school, whether it was at a business, whether it was at the College — the considerations were all a little bit different — and you have to get to a point where you can make the best recommendation with the data at hand and then move on and be prepared to deal with the changes."
Coming out of the worst of the pandemic and looking toward a new future, Dr. Boucher says that the "underbelly of health care has been exposed," and she and her team at Tufts are committed to ensuring equitable health care and diversity in their research on antibiotic resistance.
"We've known about these inequities and health care disparities for years. I grew up during the AIDS epidemic, and we saw very similar things with HIV in terms of disparities. So to see it with COVID was not entirely surprising; it just can't happen again," she says.
For reaching patients where they are and providing the out-of-hospital care they need:
John Brown, M.D., MPA "78
John Brown, M.D., MPA '78, medical director at San Francisco Emergency Medical Services Agency and attending physician at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. (Major: economics)
One of Dr. John Brown's most vivid college memories is setting then-College President Rev. John Brooks, S.J., '49, on fire.
"It's funny, because I had gone to the Spiritual Exercises and remember that quote, 'Be who you are meant to be and you'll set the world on fire.' I guess I was taking it too literally," Dr. Brown laughs.
The incident happened over dessert, when Dr. Brown and some fellow members of the Campus Center Board of Directors (CCB of D) cooked a meal for Fr. Brooks and several Jesuits at their residence on campus.
"I convinced my CCB of D team to produce this huge French meal — I'm a Francophile — and the dessert was, of course, flambé something or other," Dr. Brown recalls. "I somehow got distracted while pouring the burning alcohol onto the dish, and some of it ended up in Fr. Brooks' lap, to my complete horror. It was rapidly extinguished with a handy napkin, there were no injuries and no one had to go to the burn center. Though he did manage to work that into the conversation when he congratulated me at my graduation."
After Holy Cross, Dr. Brown went to medical school and became an emergency medicine physician, specializing in EMS and disaster services. As the medical director for San Francisco EMS, he oversees prehospital dispatch, first response, ambulance transport and emergency medical care for the city and county of San Francisco. During the pandemic, that meant acting as a "medical logistician," says Dr. Brown, who led a response that included administering COVID testing and, eventually, vaccines, and also providing care for lower acuity and urgent care patients, to free up hospital space for COVID patients.
"My main job is the EMS providers' interaction with hospitals and the health care system," he says. "And we were trying to decide how best to distribute scarce resources, like the treatment Remdesivir. We had to distribute that with equity. And then with vaccinations, we are working to be sure that the vaccine gets to communities that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic." He particularly enjoys teaching and helped develop and instruct EMS providers, nurses and residents on different pandemic initiatives and programs. During the pandemic, Dr. Brown was able to continue teaching students and residents via remote and hybrid approaches at the University of California, San Francisco, and was recognized with a promotion to clinical professor of emergency medicine.
Going forward, Dr. Brown plans to use his expertise to help with disaster planning and preparedness at home and abroad. As a medical officer for Disaster Medical Team CA-6, the Bay Area's volunteer medical team for the National Disaster Medical System, he went to New Orleans to assist with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. He's also worked with the World Health Organization to develop EMS standards for lower- and middle-income countries, and has traveled to Haiti annually since 2004, providing direct clinical care in a remote region in the south of the country.
"The big challenge now is going to be to maintain our readiness and our ability to respond [in the future]. Part of the problem with the pandemic, even in the wind down, is that people don't realize that their behavior today is going to affect what is going to happen two weeks from now — it's not a direct cause and effect in front of their eyes like crashing a car," he says. "We want to take some of these programs and capabilities that we've built up, fold them up well and put them away in such a fashion that we can take them off the shelf and quickly use them when we need them, whether for pandemic, wildfire or earthquake — and to be careful that no one is left out, that it is not just well-resourced communities that can respond."
Dr. Brown also plans to continue mentoring fellow alumni through the Holy Cross LGBTQ Alumni Network. "I didn't come out as an LGBTQ individual until well after my college and medical school years, and while a difficult experience, it was a positive and amazing growth experience to go from, if you will, the privileged to the subjugated, and to understand better what others in the community are having to deal with in their lives," he says. "I hope I can maintain that ability to serve the school and young LGBTQ students who are working on their personal growth, and to foster in myself an ongoing sense of gratitude toward everything that the Holy Cross community has done for me."
For facilitating equal access to COVID testing and vaccines in New York City while also caring for patients in intensive care:
Christine (Carroll) Krisch, MSN, AGPCNP, CCRN, "06
Christine (Carroll) Krisch, MSN, AGPCNP, CCRN, '06, chief nursing officer at Daybreak Health and cardiothoracic ICU nurse at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. (Major: English)
Every time Christine Krisch gives a COVID-19 vaccine shot, the same thought crosses her mind: "This is one less person we're going to see in the ICU in the future."
Krisch is administering the shots as part of her work as chief nursing officer at Daybreak Health, a medical startup that provides COVID-19 testing and vaccines in New York City. She also works in the cardiothoracic ICU at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, which has cared for more than 17,000 COVID-positive patients since March 1, 2020.
"Testing felt good for [me and other] ICU nurses [who work with Daybreak]," she says, "but giving a vaccine feels really good!"
Daybreak was founded by fellow Holy Cross classmate Chris Morris, M.D., '06, an internal medicine physician, and also provides testing services to Catholic schools in New York, as well as for TV production and restaurant workers, helping the city track infection rates while safely resuming business. Thanks to fundraising, donations and state subsidies, the organization offers discounted testing to schools and underserved neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The hope and relief of giving vaccines is a sharp contrast to Krisch's days in the ICU in spring 2020. She recalls the daily evening cheers for health care workers, and though she was grateful, she also felt like they didn't deserve it, because so many patients were dying. She vividly remembers the first day that a COVID patient was transferred into her ICU.
"I felt a little relief. I was just, like, alright, let's see what it is like to gown up and go in there and just do it," Krisch recalls. "I think a lot of us surprised ourselves because we really wanted to have these patients. But that's why we're here, we really want to be on the front line and try to make a difference and do the best we can. From every level, people were figuring it out, from the attending physicians, the surgeons, the environmental people learning how to clean properly; it was such a team effort."
Krisch has been an ICU nurse since 2009 and notes, "I've taken care of super sick people, but it was the volume all at once that made this so much."
She is heartened by the teamwork that she has witnessed — both with her colleagues in the ICU and at Daybreak, and shares her Sanctae Crucis Award with her fellow nurses: "I hope I can be a representation of all the nurses who have graduated from Holy Cross. Nursing is such a team job, and there's no way I could do anything without the equal participation of my coworkers and peers."
For providing high-quality health care that helps lift people out of homelessness:
Ron Lawson "75
Ron Lawson '75, chief operating officer at Care For the Homeless, New York City. (Major: political science)
When Ron Lawson leaves his office on 33rd St. in midtown Manhattan, he's immediately confronted with the very problem he is trying to solve.
"I can go either left toward Madison Avenue or right toward Park Avenue, and I will pass several homeless folks," he says. "It's very easy to get into the mindset of thinking: 'Why am I even doing this? I don't see that I'm solving the problem.' And then you have to fortify yourself and realize, well, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."
At Care For the Homeless, one bite at a time means delivering essential medical, dental, mental and behavioral health care to individuals and families experiencing homelessness in New York City, plus providing shelter to individuals and families, and advocating for policies that will eventually prevent and end homelessness.
During the pandemic, all the organization's shelters have been empty, with city and state regulations mandating that residents relocate to hotels to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. So while those facilities are empty, Lawson has focused on using grant money toward building renovations and improvements, as well as the construction of new shelters. As the infection rates of the pandemic drop, Lawson says that his fear is that more people will slip into homelessness.
"In New York, you have so many people operating on the margins. Everyone who is homeless is not a drug addict or mentally ill or an ex-convict," says Lawson, who experienced homelessness when he was unexpectedly laid off during a recession in the early 1990s. "People like you and I, who go to work every day, can't afford to put food on the table and pay rent. They have to make a decision one way or the other, and they wind up in a shelter. From the beginning of the pandemic until May 2020, statistics showed that around 5 million Americans fell into poverty."
So Lawson wants to be ready to assist as many of those New Yorkers as Care For the Homeless can. "For us, health care is housing. If you can get someone healthy, then you have the ability to better assist them to get into supportive housing or their own apartment," he says. "I focus on the fact that every year we are able to move people from homelessness into housing. I feel comforted when I go home in the evening — somebody somewhere is a little better off."
For ensuring access to nutritious food and school lunches for all children, even when school was virtual:
Erin C. McAleer "02
Erin C. McAleer '02, president of Project Bread, Boston. (Major: history)
"That first weekend in March 2020, when Gov. Baker shut the state down, we were setting up meal sites across Massachusetts, working all weekend and through the night," recalls Erin McAleer, who leads the team at Project Bread, a nonprofit that connects people and communities across the state to reliable sources of food and advocates for policies that make food more accessible. Project Bread, working closely with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, coordinated school buses to transport meals and helped set up drive-through meal pickup at school buildings, but McAleer knew their efforts were only going to be a temporary fix.
The group immediately started advocating for federal legislation called Pandemic EBT, which puts the monetary value of school lunches onto an electronic card for families to purchase food. For McAleer, this was essential for children and families when schools shifted to remote learning.
"That [law passing] has been huge: 550,000 kids in Massachusetts were able to purchase food through that program," she says. Now, McAleer and Project Bread are focused on continuing and expanding Pandemic EBT, even as schools resume in-person learning.
"We feel really strongly that coming out of the pandemic, we need to keep some of the barriers that were broken down, down. There is no pathway to ending childhood hunger in America that doesn't start with universal, free school meals." she says. "During this crisis, we made the decision that all kids should access these meals, and that's taken away the stigma. We hear kids say all the time, 'I don't want it, because then everyone knows my family is poor and I don't want that label.'
"And it's interesting with school meals, because a lot of folks say, 'Well, why should wealthy kids get school meals for free?' But they don't say that about the library books or the desks the kids are sitting in. We have to change the narrative and reimagine a new system. Research has shown that kids can't learn when they are hungry, so why is food the one thing that we are charging for?"
In addition to universal free school meals, Project Bread is advocating for families to receive the monetary value of the meals through the summer. Project Bread has also expanded its Food Source hotline, a confidential, toll-free number in 180 languages that people can call to find out which programs are available to them, and launched Health Care Partnerships, taking referrals from hospitals and health care centers that treated COVID-19 patients who also dealt with food insecurity.
"We want to reimagine a system that is equitable, and that truly can and will solve hunger in our lifetimes," McAleer says.
McAleer ended up at Holy Cross because of her beloved stepfather, Joe DiGiovanni '73: "He spoke so highly of his experience there, that when I got in, it just made sense. This is the person who's been most influential in my life, besides my mom, and look how he turned out. He is the most compassionate and supportive person I've ever known."
She says it changed her family's life when her late mother, Bernadette, met DiGiovanni. Part of why McAleer became a social worker and is so passionate about food insecurity issues are the memories of watching her mother stress over bills and putting food on the table as a single mom of three.
"Throughout this crisis — and this goes back to my Holy Cross roots — I've always put the person at the center. In anti-hunger work, it often does start with the food, getting the food to people," McAleer says. "But I go back to my mom all the time and other moms. How do we make it as easy as possible for her? So that's where we've focused, on both big-scale solutions and making it as easy as possible for individuals and families to access food, centering the solutions around them."
Written by Maura Sullivan Hill for the Summer 2021 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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