PROVIDENCE — Day after day over the winter COVID-19 surge in Rhode Island, Dr. Paari Gopalakrishnan would stand at a white board in the Cranston field hospital with a marker in hand, running down the numbers.
This many people had been admitted to the field hospital. This many people had been discharged. If things got much worse, they’d need this much oxygen or this much space at the field hospital, which was actually an old bank building retrofitted with cots. The doctors and nurses and National Guard troops would nod along as Gopalakrishnan gave them the quote of the day. Some days, he reached for Winston Churchill. Others, Mike Tyson: Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
If Gopalakrishnan seemed businesslike about everything, there was a reason for it: In addition to being a medical doctor, he also has an MBA from Bryant University in Smithfield.
It helped him consciously bring together a team that made the field hospital work, matching strength with strength, he said. The field hospital accepted its first patient in late November and its last in late February.
Now, a few months later, Gopalakrishnan will have another degree to his name, when he becomes an honorary doctor of letters during the graduate commencement ceremonies at Bryant University Thursday.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve never once in my entire life contemplated I’d be getting an honorary degree for anything,” Gopalakrishnan said. “It’s a little humbling. I’m 47 years old, I’m a practicing hospital administrator, and it’s humbling to get that.”
Gopalakrishnan, who is married with five kids, lives in East Greenwich. The East Greenwich part wasn’t exactly in the plans. He is originally from Texas and planned on heading back there after a year, but he met a nice woman from Rhode Island, and, well… we all know how that goes. His friend at the time told him he’d never leave. Gopalakrishnan scoffed. He was surely headed back to Texas. This was about 20 years ago. The friend still gives him a hard time about that, he told Globe Rhode Island during a recent interview via video chat in his office at Care New England’s Kent Hospital, where he is the chief medical officer. This interview has been lightly edited.
You’re getting an honorary degree from Bryant. What will that be like? You’re going to be up there in the gown and the hat?
Apparently. I’m a little embarrassed by the whole thing, honestly. When they reached out to me, I was like, “Huh? Me? You got the right guy? You sure there isn’t somebody else?” It’s kinda neat, but also embarrassing.
I don’t do the stuff we do to get recognition. Even when I let you into the field hospital, I did because I wanted to shine a light so other patients could come in there. There was a lot of angst. I realized how important it was for people to realize the work we’re doing. It’s not something any of us typically do. You take care of patients. Even when I said OK to the honorary degree, I didn’t think anybody else would know. (Laughs.) I thought my wife and I would go and that would be the end of it. But nope.
When did you stop working at the field hospital?
We took our last patient around February 26 or something like that. I still go there. It’s in a warm state. I go there weekly, make my rounds — we still have National Guard there, security, cleaning crews. The state wants us to keep it relatively ready if we need it. I personally don’t think we’ll reopen it, but we’re ready if that need is there.
You’re an MD and an MBA. Do you think the business degree was helpful when you were helping run the field hospital?
Oh, absolutely. To be successful in an MBA program, you have to understand all of the angles. You have to understand all the stakeholders, all the players. And you have to learn to prioritize. Med school’s all about studying, rocking the test, and you have these standards of care and you learn them and you practice them. You’re like the general or the captain of the ship and people kind of follow. But you’ve got to have the right people. I learned that there at Bryant. When we opened the field hospital, we didn’t say, ”Hey, who wants to go to the field hospital?” We looked at people’s talents. Like Dr. (Laura) Forman and Dr. (Jinen) Thakkar are getting a lot of attention for the work they’re doing (to help fight COVID-19 in India) — but that’s the kind of spirit we needed. No taking no for an answer.
Did your time at the field hospital change your perspective on things?
People ask me, ”Was it challenging to be in healthcare last year because of all the challenges and failures?” And I don’t view it as a failure at all. There was a lot of uncertainty, but you know what? People were safe. We made people as safe as we could. We kept getting better. And I think that’s great. To me, the field hospital, I never thought I’d have an opportunity like that. I’ll remember that forever.
I think the pandemic changed my perspective on a lot of things. There really hasn’t been any other time where you didn’t have all the control. September 11 was another time where you felt really vulnerable. From a medical perspective in the United States, I never envisioned we’d feel vulnerable. I got COVID early last April, and I was fine, but I didn’t know. It felt really vulnerable. I got closer to my family, my children. We’re in 2021, medicine has advanced, but we’re still vulnerable. And you appreciate the things you have. The field hospital taught me that, the pandemic’s really taught me that.