Courtesy of Barbara Pearce

Barbara Pearce had just returned from a two-week vacation in South America and Antarctica when the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Connecticut. She had been hearing from her college roommate in Madrid about the gravity of the pandemic in Spain and was aware early on that the virus could overwhelm the United States’ healthcare system. As chief executive officer of the Connecticut Hospice, Pearce is doing everything within her power to avoid the pandemic growing out of control.

At the Connecticut Hospice, which offers end-of-life care in a beautiful waterfront location in Branford, Pearce is steering operations in a new direction. To help ease Connecticut’s shortage of hospital beds — which is one of the lowest per capita in New England — she has offered a wing of the hospice containing 52 beds to house non-COVID patients.

“Our population is too vulnerable to mix COVID and non-COVID patients,” Pearce said. “It’s a huge change for us to take care of people who are not end-of-life, but it’s what we feel we can do in this pandemic.”

At the same time Pearce is trying to help the wider population, she also faces the challenge of providing care for a very vulnerable demographic. With a huge percentage of staff and medical workers over 60, as well as an elderly patient population, Pearce realizes the importance of keeping COVID-19 out of the building. All staff must now wear scrubs, masks and goggles, as well as spend at least half of their working hours working from home.

The adjustment has not been easy, as Pearce has also had to cut the portion of work done by volunteers. In normal circumstances, the hospice is supported by a 400-strong team of volunteers, whom Pearce can no longer allow into the building for fear of infection. Pearce assures her staff that such measures are necessary, saying “My first job is to protect you, my second job is to protect the patients, and my third job is to be a good global citizen and do what I can to help everybody.”

A New Haven native, Pearce practiced law and ran her family real estate company before being asked to step into the role of interim CEO for the Connecticut Hospice during a time of significant financial difficulty. “I’ve been here 14 months and I’ve been in crisis management the entire time so COVID is kind of more of the same,” Pearce admits.

As CEO, she spends her time balancing immediate priorities with a longer-term view, adopting a zoom-in, zoom-out mentality. While part of her brain considers what has to be done by the end of the day, another part imagines what rules might need to change in the next month. And yet another small part wonders who is going to take the dog out.

She strips her strategy down to a few simple considerations: “What can we do, how can we best do it and what do we need to prepare to do it?” It is all about finding the equilibrium: While some parts of the day she feels on top of things, some parts of the day things feel completely out of control. In balancing resources and resourcefulness Pearce states, “It’s like a war — what do we need to do to be ready?” 

In the effort to adapt to the new challenges of the pandemic, Pearce has been greatly impressed by the community’s response, with people more ready than ever to lend a helping hand. Theaters and universities, from Long Wharf to the Yale School of Drama, have been donating and making masks for the hospice staff, and the dean of the Yale School of Nursing has agreed to put the Connecticut Hospice on the list for extra nurses, should they release nurses early into the field.

“I’m amazed at what people want to do to help. Whether they’re sending a check or they’re sending masks, I’ve seen this great outpouring of support,” Pearce said.

One of the biggest challenges for Pearce has been keeping patients and their loved ones connected. She admits that it has been very hard to convince people that a strict visitation policy is necessary, especially as many of the hospice’s patients are in the final days of life. Pearce has devised a strategy to wheel patient beds onto one side of the glass walls in the hospice, allowing families to visit without endangering the patients. This has led to particularly poignant moments even in a time of social distancing.

Courtesy of Barbara Pearce

Pearce recalls the procession of flashing lights and firetrucks formed by the East Haven fire department outside the hospice to say goodbye to their battalion chief. For a patient’s 63rd wedding anniversary, Pearce is planning a party with wine and cake, and with the patient’s family visiting from the other side of the glass. Pearce has also hired an arts therapist to help patients visit their families over FaceTime, and she is looking for volunteers to provide entertainment in other ways, such as filling the hospice with live music from the grand piano in the lobby. 

Courtesy of Barbara Pearce

“My life has changed during COVID because it’s become stripped down and incredibly simple,” Pearce said. She appreciates that she now never feels bored, with different Zoom parties occupying almost every night. An avid runner, she has converted her usual running and yoga classes to Zoom format. She has also been eating very well since her daughter has joined her at home, enjoying seared scallops with cauliflower mash and a side of asparagus rather than the usual lunchtime yogurt.

“There’s a different kind of connection, but I’ve found that people are more anxious to connect with their friends and loved ones than in regular times,” Pearce said. “I miss two things. I miss road races because I’m a big runner and I used to run a lot of road races and I miss live theater. But I don’t really miss too much else.”

Pearce has also been taking a course offered by Harvard Business School on crisis management. The course recommends a strategy of brutal honesty while providing a rational basis for hope.

“I’m going to be brutally honest with people about how many people are going to die when this is over, but I also think that we will get through and we will see a lot of examples of the indomitable human spirit and acts of kindness and generosity,” Pearce said. 

Ultimately, Pearce is hopeful for the future, saying, “In the end I don’t think the world’s ever going to go back to the same level of in-person meetings or the same level of business travel — it will be more efficient from a business point of view, which will leave more time for social interactions.”

One of the things that most excites Pearce as an outcome of the crisis is a tighter connection between Yale and New Haven. With COVID-19 affecting everyone, Pearce is cheered by the sight of community members from Yale and the Elm City working together.

“A lot of people have led a completely separate life from Yale and this is a good thing to bring the city of New Haven and Yale together in one place,” Pearce said.

Although the Connecticut Hospice cannot allow volunteers inside the building, Pearce encourages students to volunteer with landscaping and maintenance work, as well as with front desk work, greeting visitors and filling risk profile forms. At this time, she said that musicians of every kind are also greatly appreciated to provide music for patients and their families.

Interested individuals can visit https://www.hospice.com/volunteer/ for more information.

Alexa Stanger | alexa.stanger@yale.edu

This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.