After Cancer Diagnosis, Hospital CEO Continues to Lead Through COVID-19

Grisel Fernandez-Bravo has always taken a hands-on approach in her work. The college professor, lifelong nurse, and chief executive officer of Memorial Hospital Miramar in Broward County, Florida, says it’s a decision that’s kept her connected to both her students and the patients she protects.

But when the treatment for her own cancer diagnosis left her immunocompromised, Fernandez-Bravo was forced to find new ways to oversee hospital operations. Today, she is dealing with the added wrinkle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2018, Fernandez-Bravo was diagnosed with smoldering multiple myeloma (SMM). Throughout the year, she suffered a series of broken bones, which led her care team to test for the presence of monoclonal proteins, or M proteins. This antibody is found in unusually large amounts in the blood or urine of people with multiple myeloma.

Once the protein was detected, she underwent a bone marrow biopsy to confirm her diagnosis.

“I was shocked. A cancer diagnosis is trying, and it can easily become overwhelming,” Fernandez-Bravo says. “While the disease isn’t curable, it is treatable, and I wanted to find a way to get my life back.”

A ray of hope

Fernandez-Bravo anticipated to receive treatment in her home state of Florida, but because her hospital system does not have the expertise to treat multiple myeloma, Fernandez-Bravo’s older sister urged her to make the trip to Boston where she could receive care at the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center and LeBow Institute for Myeloma Therapeutics at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC).

Under the guidance of Jacob Laubach, MD, MPP, clinical director for the center, Fernandez-Bravo is currently enrolled in a phase II study of the CD38 antibody, daratumumab. The clinical trial, overseen by Irene Ghobrial, MD, director of the Clinical Investigator Research Program and director of the Center for Prevention of Progression at Dana-Farber, explores whether daratumumab can be an effective treatment in preventing or postponing SMM from becoming active multiple myeloma.

Since enrolling in the trial, Fernandez-Bravo has made countless trips from the sunshine state to Massachusetts and back. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s something she now drives instead of flying. It’s a commute that she says is only possible thanks to her outstanding support system.

“I cannot begin to express how thankful I am for my for my family and friends who have supported me,” she explains. “I’m grateful for my strong family circle, and I couldn’t do this without them.”

Guidance from an ‘arm’s length’

Despite needing to avoid the hospital campus, Fernandez-Bravo is still performing her duties as chief executive officer. Through around-the-clock phone calls and video conferencing, she’s been able to provide expertise, guidance, and support for her hospital.

“I’m lucky because I have an amazing team who can be the boots on the ground for me,” says Fernandez-Bravo. “It’s been difficult to be away, but I am grateful I can continue to work, even if it’s at an arm’s length.”

With the spread of the coronavirus, a lot of Fernandez-Bravo's time has been spent preparing for the influx of patients. The drive to and from Boston usually goes pretty quickly as she is constantly on the phone, working on everything from securing additional supplies to creating emergency evaluation tents.

While her situation isn’t ideal, she couldn’t imagine stepping away from her role. She originally became a nurse to help those in need, and watching her team respond to this crisis has only strengthened her passion.

“They’re calling health care workers superheroes now, but I think it’s important to remember they do this every day,” adds Fernandez-Bravo. “These remarkable individuals treat their patients with empathy and compassion in their most vulnerable time of need.”

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