December 28, 2021

Chad Fitzgerald experienced the pandemic from unique vantage point

“His steady voice and hand has modulated the emotional ups and downs each of us has experienced.”

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Although he’s spent most of the past 90-plus weeks leading Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s pandemic response as incident commander for the COVID-19 Command Center, Chad Fitzgerald, JD, will quickly say he’s had it easy.

“I’m not working 12- to 15-hour shifts caring for patients while wearing full PPE, so I don’t have much at all to complain about,” he said. “But it’s amazing how adrenaline and the responsibility of others can keep you energized and focused.”

Fitzgerald currently serves as Chief Regulatory Officer and Vice President of Health System Emergency Operations for VUMC. He also holds other health system responsibilities such as chairing both the VUMC Safety Committee and the Workplace Violence Committee.

He received VUMC’s Five Pillar Leader Award during the November 2021 virtual Leadership Assembly for his exceptional leadership as incident commander for the COVID-19 Command Center. The award recognizes leaders who consistently model a balanced approach to leadership across the five pillars of excellence – people, service, quality, innovation, growth and finance – and the Credo.

On March 5, 2020, the Tennessee Department of Health announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state. That same day VUMC leaders activated a multidisciplinary COVID-19 Command Center to address the countless issues the Medical Center would face. During the pandemic’s onset, the Command Center met several times daily to coordinate as many as 75-100 individuals representing every facet of the Medical Center.

“Throughout the pandemic Chad has demonstrated the highest commitment to the Medical Center, tirelessly leading the Command Center team through a seemingly endless list of issues impacting nearly all aspects of our organization. I am grateful for this leadership and the thoughtful approach he brings to this role,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy CEO and Chief Health System Officer.

“There were always about five big issues going on at once,” Fitzgerald said. “My responsibility was to decide what roles we needed and how we were going to manage an issue going forward. I had to ensure the issue that needed to be worked on at that time received priority and that the right experts were involved. The beauty of Vanderbilt is we have remarkably talented people across all disciplines who are brilliant at problem-solving.”

As Fitzgerald tackled issues decisively, he also kept the Command Center’s mood upbeat, a trait greatly appreciated by his colleagues.

“On numerous occasions where my tank was empty, my morale low, or my perspective foggy, Chad helped me keep a positive perspective,” said Tom Talbot, MD, MPH, VUMC’s chief hospital epidemiologist. “I respect and truly appreciate his guidance, mentorship and wisdom. While I’m looking forward to the end of the pandemic and a return to the normal, baseline chaotic VUMC life, I will never forget his leadership and friendship during this trying time.”

Chief Medical Officer and Chief Patient Experience Officer Paul Sternberg Jr., MD, also noted Fitzgerald’s respect for and encouragement of other team members.

“Chad displayed the key leadership traits to tackle issues with a calm demeanor, a collaborative nature and an altruistic perspective,” Sternberg wrote. “He treats each one respectfully, while also ensuring that they work together rather than promoting the specific needs of their corner of the institution. Most importantly, his steady voice and hand has modulated the emotional ups and downs each of us has experienced, reminding us of our shared mission and common goals.”

Fitzgerald’s career began as a criminal investigator in the district attorney general’s office in Tennessee’s 16th Judicial District. During this time, he also earned his law degree and handled criminal offense cases ranging from public intoxication to first-degree murder.

“This work helped me understand how dangerous it can be to become desensitized in day-to-day decisions,” he said. “Beyond these decisions are individuals who have a nuanced story. You should never get too busy to understand that.”

Fitzgerald then worked for a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) contractor, investigating health care fraud alongside the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During this time, he managed five offices of investigators across the middle and western United States.

He joined VUMC in 2014 as the regulatory administrator. In this role, he was responsible for response to external agency inquiries and investigations of VUMC. This included preparation and response to The Joint Commission. This work, along with other responsibilities, allowed him to network with countless Medical Center groups, preparing him for his current roles. Helping lead the pandemic response has given him a unique perspective on future challenges.

“We’re realizing we just have a new reality,” he said. “COVID didn’t solely create a staffing crisis or supply chain issues. It just exacerbated something that was already on its way. Health care, and the world in general, will continue to evolve. Our only constant is change, and VUMC is typically at the forefront.”

Ironically, Fitzgerald said, due to his work at VUMC, he didn’t experience the pandemic’s full societal impact, with complete loss of connections and routines, as did his wife, Jenn, who owns a Franklin yoga studio, daughter, Ava (Bear), 19, and son, Harper, 15. His daughter graduated from high school and began college, all without the normal rites of passage.

“My family was tired and frustrated by the pandemic much earlier than I was because I was so busy, I didn’t have the chance to look up and realize day-to-day life was being severely altered,” he said. “My wife is a very emotionally intelligent individual. So, while she afforded me the space to work and do these things that had to be handled for the Medical Center, at one point she told me, ‘You need to recognize that not everybody is experiencing this in the same way. For our family, for our friends, this is hard. Life has stopped here.’”

Now, as Command Center calls have decreased in frequency and infections are trending down, Fitzgerald is eager to restart life and move into a new normal with family and friends. This includes his regular morning runs with friends to prepare for marathons, being outdoors, fly fishing and traveling.

If you are a VUMC employee, you can nominate a colleague for an Elevate Credo Award, Five Pillar Leader Award, or Team Award. Visit the Elevate website to fill out a nomination form. Employees demonstrate credo behaviors when: they make those they serve the highest priority; respect privacy and confidentiality; communicate effectively; conduct themselves professionally; have a sense of ownership; and are committed to their colleagues. Elevate award nominations are accepted year-round. If a nomination is received after the cut off for an award selection period, the nomination will be considered for the next period. VUMC Voice will post stories on each of the award winners in the weeks following their announcement.