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Muma College of Business Grad Students/Health Care Professionals Juggle Front Line Duties with Academic Responsibilities

By Keith Morelli

John Couris

TAMPA (April 23, 2020) -- Professionals in the health care industry are the infantry in this war against COVID-19. Emergency room doctors, ICU nurses and respiratory therapists all put their lives on the line to treat those infected and there appears to be no immediate end in sight. Still, they have their lives to tend to, loved ones shuttered at home, friends working remotely. Some continue their educational paths in spite of the pandemic’s grip on their worlds.

John Couris is a commander in this war. He is the chief executive officer of Tampa General Hospital. He’s also enrolled in the USF Muma College of Business’ Doctor of Business Administration program, Class of 2021, a rigorous endeavor that hasn’t skipped a beat since the COVID-19 moved to Florida a month ago.

“First of all, I’m a person who’s always had lots of work,” he said recently during a rare break from work and class. “I have a high capacity for lots of work. That’s helpful. I will say, though, that it is a challenge. I’m working seven days a week, for the past six or seven weeks, since we began preparing for the pandemic. Working seven days a week for seven weeks is stressful.

“But the DBA, the professors there are very understanding and accommodating,” he said. “I could not do this right now without the support of my cohort, including some of the people in the cohort.”

As CEO of TGH, Couris is hip deep in the planning for and execution of strategies to care for those with the disease and protecting his people from being infected.

“Right now our whole world is sort of oriented to the response of COVID-19,” he said. “You go from running an organization, building programs, providing services, looking at technologies, a normal environment to all of a sudden coming to a screeching halt. We have had to pivot to deal with this pandemic.

“So, everything, up until just recently, was all day every day COVID-19 related,” he said. “Now we are starting to plan on getting back to business, normal operations. We still are hyper vigilant around our response, but we also have teams of people looking at going back to normal operations.”

He said projections put the peak of the virus near the beginning of May. If people continue social distancing, wearing masks, keeping away from each other, and adhere to stay-at-home protocol, after that, he said, the region may be able to breathe a bit easier.

“We’re starting to plan and get ready for a return to normal operations after the beginning of May,” he said.

For Couris, the gravity of the pandemic was watching young, healthy people die.

“Having people who otherwise wouldn’t have passed away pass away because of it is startling,” he said. “That’s something. It’s scary.”

Health Care Heroes, Warriors

Couris works with some remarkable professionals, he said, all up and down the line.

“When we’re telling the general population to shelter from the storm, my team members are not sheltering. They running toward the storm. They’re in the middle of the storm,” he said. “They’re heroes for sure, but I call them warriors. Absolute warriors. They put their own health and wellness at risk to take care of other people’s health and wellness.

“I’ll tell you, I’ve never been prouder of this team of people. This team is exceptional.”

Before the pandemic hit and commanded most of his time and energy, Couris was on a mission to streamline the analytics of the hospital and he credits an assignment he was given in the DBA program. The hospital already was deep into analytics, but each was in its own silo. He had all his senior management staff familiarize themselves with the assignment and together they came up with a strategy to create a hospital analytics hub.

“It will make us a more effective organization,” he said.

And that’s one reason he decided to enroll in the program.

“I believe everyone is a lifelong learner and I don’t think you’re too old to continue to stretch yourself,” he said. “The DBA program is making me a better executive. I’m able to study the theory behind what we do, the theory behind management excellence and I can take that academic theory and apply it to the practical world.

“Though COVID-19 slowed the implementation of this analytics plan,” he said, “the hub now has 30 analysts working together to turn data into information, information into knowledge and knowledge into action.”

Darwin Hale

Darwin Hale is a classmate of Couris in the DBA Class of 2021. Hale is founder and CEO of Advocate Health Advisors, a company that supports the health insurance industry. His professional life has changed considerably since the COVID-19 outbreak. He’s working from home, just like most other professionals in his field.

A Balancing Act Just Got More Difficult

“At home, I must balance protecting my family with staying positive,” he said. “So, I’m trying to make the best of that opportunity.

“My work focus is different because it’s more in the here and now by demonstrating calm and stability,” he said. “Leaders need to let people know everything will be okay and they need to project that in word and deed. And of course, it’s very different working at home, but I am still always available to those who need me.”

Among his employees are two managers in New York, a pandemic hot spot in the United States, and Hale is concerned for their safety and well-being.

“They are right in the middle of the epicenter of COVID-19,” he said. “What we see in the news, they see in person.”

Balancing his normal responsibilities in the health care profession, along with dealing with the pandemic and the taxing work of the DBA program, Hale is stretched thin.

“I channel all that stress into productive habits and behaviors,” he said. “Everyone reacts differently to stress. I’m lucky to have been trained and deployed several times in the military. To me, this seems like another deployment, only it’s weird because I’m at home.

“But I still get up really early and have an extra edginess or intensity that is normally reserved for places like Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s like a switch. I’m calm and collected, but more driven. And just like on a deployment, I use exercise and physical activity to regulate my mood.”

Hale said he hopes he, his family and business come out of this stronger than when they went in.

“With change comes opportunity, so the challenge here is to balance safety and wellness but still keep the focus on betterment,” he said. “It’s all kind of personal, but keeping an eye toward the positive is important, which is really hard to do in a time of loss for so many.”