“I think some people don’t know the full story and weight of what’s been built here at Elmhurst,” says Israel Rocha. NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, which Rocha oversees as CEO, is nearly 200 years old and one of the oldest public hospitals in the United States. It’s also a pandemic responder center. “I think COVID-19 was a little beyond what anyone had prepared for,” says Rocha. In fact, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit Elmhurst the hardest, making it the “epicenter of the epicenter” of infections that swept the country during the early months of the crisis.
While Rocha’s 4,000-person team confronted extraordinary challenges at the outset of the outbreak, they “rose to the occasion” to serve the needs of their diverse community—a patient base that speaks over 180 languages. Elmhurst immediately established an open-access testing center at the hospital, the first in the United States. The emergency department set up a triage center to diagnose and determine proper treatment for individuals onsite. And research on clinical trials quadrupled. “We wanted to ensure that anything that was available could be deployed at Elmhurst to give patients a fighting chance,” says Rocha. Even more incredible, Elmhurst boosted their ICU capacity by 500 percent to accommodate the influx of COVID-19 patients.
Although he attributes much of his success at Elmhurst to his “amazing teams,” Rocha’s innovative leadership and career achievements are hard to overlook. Since taking up the CEO mantle, Elmhurst has been named by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation’s top hospitals in orthopedics, heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Under Rocha’s direction, Elmhurst also opened one of NYC Health + Hospitals’ first urgent care centers and will soon finish building several medical facilities, including a new, state-of-the-art ambulatory surgery center.
Throughout it all, Rocha remains passionate about bringing health-care equity to communities that face socioeconomic barriers. “Health care goes beyond the hospital bed—it’s where we live, how we live, and how we practice.” For him, the COVID-19 pandemic was a powerful reminder that all stakeholders in the health-care system must work together to close those equity gaps so that everyone can enjoy healthier lives. “As dark as our hours can be, our future can be brighter if we see that our missions are not so different and we’re more integrated than we realize,” he says. “With health care, we can accomplish that.”