Always On Call
Trinity alumna leads El Paso hospital through COVID-19 crisis
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Collage of headshot of Monica Vargas-Mahar and a piece of art and painted rocks children made for her hospital

There has never been a better time to help others.

Monica Vargas-Mahar M’98, FACHE, chose to pursue a career in healthcare for that reason. She is the CEO at The Hospitals of Providence–East Campus, a 182-bed acute care hospital in a fast growing area of El Paso, Texas. "[There is] no better place than in a hospital or healthcare industry [to help others]. While I'm not a clinician, I still very much feel I can have an impact on those who need us most,” she says.

Headshot of Monica Vargas-Mahar

Vargas-Mahar began working for The Hospitals of Providence in 2008. Through hard work and determination, she quickly moved up in the network, becoming the CEO of the Sierra Campus in 2014. In 2018, Vargas-Mahar assumed her current position at the East Campus, where she is working to expand services and capacity due to the rapid growth surrounding the hospital.

However, with the onset of the pandemic, Vargas-Mahar has had to shift her focus from growing the East Campus to managing the effects of COVID-19. Since March, Vargas-Mahar has been managing the effects of COVID-19—not just on her hospital’s patients, but also on her team keeping the hospital running. She has helped her hospital adjust to the pandemic by limiting the visitation policy and implementing additional safety protocols that include all patients and team members being screened and temperature checked upon entry into the hospital.

Like many others, Vargas-Mahar uses the most recent data to guide her decisions. On a daily basis, she monitors hospitalizations and current data to know if a surge plan needs to be implemented.

Vargas-Mahar cites her constant and open communication with her team members as her greatest skill in navigating the COVID-19 crisis. "I help lead and help the teams navigate through the difficult changes," she says. "My biggest role has been building and maintaining trust.”

"I'm not a clinician, so I don't know what it's like sitting on the front line,” she adds. “But I want our team members to know we are listening to them and making ourselves accessible so that their concerns can be quickly addressed."

Monica Vargas-Mahar with staff members at East Campus (Monica bottom right) and firemen at the El Paso Fire Department (Monica far right). She praises both for their responses during the pandemic.

However, one of the hardest parts about the pandemic for Vargas-Mahar to navigate has been its unpredictability. As new information becomes available, the proper course of action changes. "[The pandemic] is something that no one has seen before. Especially in the earlier days when the pandemic guidelines werep changing very, very quickly on a national level, we had to be flexible," Vargas-Mahar adds. "We're in a good position because we had team members that were willing to work together that were flexible and able to adapt as new guidelines became available.”

Trinity’s health care administration (HCAD) program prepared Vargas-Mahar well on how to approach problems like the pandemic’s unpredictability. "One of the greatest lessons [that I learned at Trinity] that I'm still using today is that you need to adapt in any environment and remain flexible,” Vargas-Mahar explains. “And that's been key throughout this entire pandemic."

Trinity’s extensive and supportive alumni network has also proved to be an advantageous resource for Vargas-Mahar. In addition to reaching out to fellow hospital CEOs in The Hospital of Providence’s network, Vargas-Mahar has also been able to seek guidance from other HCAD alumni who have experienced similar issues. "It's been a great advantage to be able to reach out to such an extensive network and to be able to talk about how they're facing the challenge," she says.

Despite the many challenges she has faced these past few months, Vargas-Mahar has also experienced some heartwarming moments. The hospital has received food donations and support from their community, but one action by some of the nurses’ daughters is particularly special for Vargas-Mahar.

One of the nurse’s daughters decorated the sidewalk leading to the employees’ entrance with colorful and inspirational  chalk art messages to brighten their day. They also painted rocks with notes of encouragement to show their appreciation to staff of East Campus for the work they have been doing throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Children of one of the nurse’s at the hospital painted rocks and made sidewalk chalk drawings for East Campus

Vargas-Mahar and her team collected these hand-painted rocks and displayed them in the hospital’s employee cafeteria for all to admire."For generations, people will be able to enjoy these hand-painted beautiful rocks, the story behind them, and their motivation for creating them,” Vargas-Mahar says. “And it's been lovely to see that folks are really here for us, and our community is helping to support our team."

While Vargas-Mahar is the CEO of the East Campus, she credits her team members with the hospital’s success in navigating the COVID-19 crisis. This team effort to combat the pandemic Vargas-Mahar finds particularly motivational. "What inspires me everyday in getting up is knowing that we're here for our community and team members,” she explains. “I'm very  extraordinarily proud of all that our team has accomplished and how together we've adapted to this new reality we are all living in."

Madison Semro '21 helps tell Trinity's story as a writing intern with Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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