Dr. Robert Corona, CEO Upstate University Hospital; Digging Deeper for the Greater Good

By: Sarah Hall

Upstate University Hospital CEO Dr. Robert Corona and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Amy Tucker are part of a “lead by example” campaign for the COVID-19 vaccine. Upstate was named a hub by the Governor’s office to facilitate the vaccine rollout for five counties in Central New York.

Upstate Medical University President Mantosh Dewan, MD, (center) and Hospital CEO Robert Corona,  MBA, (right) receive an update from staff during an on-site vaccination clinic. As the hub, Upstate vaccinated staff from other hospitals as well.

Photo Credit: Kathleen Froio

“When things are tough, like in a tough game, you’ve got to dig down,” said Robert Corona, DO, the CEO of Upstate University Hospital.  “You do not want to let your teammates down, so you keep digging deeper.”

Digging deeper is what Dr. Corona’s team—the thousands of doctors, nurses, technicians, lab workers and others—has been doing since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Central New York. The hospital has treated hundreds of patients who contracted the virus, implemented new tests, developed new therapies, and—as part of SUNY Upstate Medical University—was alongside the creation of one of the most accurate and affordable COVID-19 tests and the first vaccine approved for use by the FDA.

Most recently, Upstate University Hospital was named the vaccine hub for five counties in Central New York. These hubs, established by the governor’s office, are led by local hospital systems to work with the counties and community leaders and to guide the stages of the state’s vaccination plan.

Dr. Corona said Upstate has been able to handle the COVID-19 challenge because the institution has always focused on people, both those it employs and those in the community. “When our people work hard, they do it for the greater good, not because of a bonus check or hazard pay,” he said. “As a [state-regulated hospital] their compensations are negotiated at the state level, but they still do their jobs with courage and caring. I could not imagine being on any other team.”

Dr. Corona brings a range of experience to his role as CEO. He holds a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree (DO), an alternative to an MD with an equal scope of practice and licensing requirements to MDs. Among his fellow DO alumni is Dr. Kevin O’Connor, who is President Joseph Biden’s personal physician and a decorated Navy physician.

Dr. Corona’s clinical training started in neurology at Upstate, but he quickly realized his interest was in the pathology of neurological diseases. This led to a residency in anatomic pathology and fellowship in neuropathology. He also did a special fellowship in neuropathology, concentrated in neuromuscular diseases at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. That fellowship was under the direction of Dr. Joe Parisi, another Upstate alumnus, who went on to be the chief of neuropathology at the Mayo Clinic. 

In addition, he has earned an MBA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

After his fellowship, Dr. Corona came to work at Upstate. He served as one of the region’s only neuropathologists and started Upstate’s Telemedicine and Medical Informatics Program in 1995. He then spent 16 years on the business side of medicine as chief medical officer and vice president of medical and scientific affairs at Welch Allyn. During his time there, he remained involved with Upstate and returned in 2012 to chair the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

At Upstate, he continues to serve as a named professor, and awards for teaching include the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. His past positions at Upstate include chief innovation officer and vice president for business development. He also led the development and implementation of the Upstate MIND (Medical Innovation and Novel Discovery) at the CNY Biotech Accelerator.

Dr. Corona said he was drawn back to Upstate because he loved being part of a teaching hospital and was honored to be appointed to the CEO role in 2018. “I missed the unique stimulation of being in an academic medical center,” he said. “It also may sound a little unusual in referring to a place of this size, but Upstate is a family.”

In addition to the officers in his hospital C-suite, Dr. Corona says that excellent working relationships with Upstate President Mantosh Dewan, MD, and College of Medicine Dean Lawrence Chin, MD, has made his job enjoyable, even as they all face challenges from the pandemic.

“We feel like we are the go-to institution for the most complicated and complex problems,” Dr. Corona said. “I mean, imagine an institution of medium-size in a medium-sized city having such an impact on the world.”

Upstate Medical University is the region’s largest employer and is composed of four colleges; the clinical system overseen by Dr. Corona, which includes two hospital sites and a biomedical research enterprise. The COVID test called Clarifi COVID-19 was developed by the Upstate research team, led by Dr. Frank Middleton, and Quadrant Biosciences. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in December that the test is among the most sensitive in the world in detecting the virus in its earliest stages. The saliva test is also cost-effective and easy to use, as patients can administer it themselves. The SUNY system has used the tests and Upstate’s unique pooled testing system to process up to 200,000 tests a week.

On the therapeutic side, Upstate Chief of Infectious Disease Dr. Stephen Thomas served as the coordinating principal investigator for the worldwide Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial. Upstate is one of the global phase-three trial locations. The vaccine was the first to be approved for use against COVID-19; the first doses were administered in December.

While COVID currently dominates the headlines, the hospital is advancing other medical care with new treatments and procedures in the fields of neurological disorders, surgery, cancer and many others.

Those innovations will help serve patients the numerous clinical services and specialty centers that are unique to Upstate, from the Cancer Center to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital to the Comprehensive Stroke Center to the Upstate Heart Institute, and more. And because those centers are connected to a larger facility, multiple departments can address patients’ needs.

“That multidisciplinary collaboration is the huge benefit of being a teaching hospital,” Dr. Corona said. “That collective expertise means you have physicians who are at the top of their fields to discuss the cases across departments, so you get additional expert opinions. They also are teaching the next generation of the profession. That keeps everyone on the forefront of skills and knowledge. All this goes to the benefit of the patients in our community.

“The environment changes every day, and in this pandemic, it changes dramatically every day,” he said. “You have to have a tool set that you can call on depending on the environment you encounter that day. Because we have so many talented staff, we are able to optimize for the problem we are confronting.”

He’s confident Upstate’s team can overcome any challenge.

“In the hospital, I think the future is very bright,” Dr. Corona said. “We are in the midst of deploying the vaccine, and we will build upon the innovations that came with COVID-19. We have come into our own in the past couple of years, and I think we are on a flight path that is allowing us to do great things.”

In service to the mission

As a leader at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Dr. Corona is responsible for upholding Upstate’s mission and values. “Upstate’s mission is to improve the health of the communities we serve through education, biomedical research and patient care,” he said. “The hospital intersects with all parts of the mission.”

Dr. Corona said Upstate leadership relied on input from thousands of employees across education, research and patient care to develop its core values, which are to:

  • Drive innovation and discovery
  • Respect people
  • Serve our community
  • Value integrity
  • Embrace diversity and inclusion

Those values dictate everything Upstate does, he said. They also helped him establish the four strategic pillars specific to the clinical system. These are:

Quality of Care

“These are the objective measures to show that we’re always striving to care for our patients with the greatest expertise, in the safest environment,” he said

“We also reach goals for awards set by external agencies. We are accredited by DNV Healthcare, and this process helps us live up to national and international best practices.”

The Upstate Experience

“This is about the subjective experience, or how you feel when you are a patient here,” he explained. “We want to ensure that our people are courteous and that your clinical team is communicating with you in the way you need.

“The Upstate Experience also relates to the work environment for our employees. We all want our employees to feel valued, protected and safe.”

Advanced Technologies and Innovation

“When patients come to Upstate, they are expecting the most advanced and expert care—it’s a hallmark of being a teaching hospital,” he noted. “In addition to offering the latest technologies, we are also looking to be innovative in our setting. We have teams of employees who are looking at new ways to improve and fine tune how our system works.”

Sustainability and Growth

“We strive to grow strong and be sustainable for healthcare and employment, and we also want to be a system that supports a healthy planet. We are a big place, so how we handle our resources really matters,” he said. “Doing the right thing for the environment directly ties to doing the right things for the health of our patients, of our employees and for Upstate.”

Donna Tupper, Owner/President, Infinity Northeast, Inc. : Approaching 40 years and still growing.

By: Martha E. Conway

Donna Tupper, President, Owner, Infinity Northeast Inc.

Jeffery Schoonover, Peninsula Lifestyle Capital

After 37 years in construction, Infinity Northeast, Inc., owner, and President Donna Tupper, 59, is continuing to diversify; she is branching out into owner-developer properties and a partnership with principals in IRL Social.

Tupper studied business then attended Cayuga Community College. At 22, with her husband traveling extensively for work and unwilling to hire daycare, she said she had to get creative.

“I went to a few friends at the Small Business Administration and in the real estate industry to see if they could use any help,” she said, adding that she started by cleaning and performing minor repairs before graduating to a full-blown handyman service for the properties. “I painted, hung wallpaper, did trim and hung doors.”

Because the buildings were vacant, she said she could do the work at any hour.

“My mom would watch the baby, and I would work evenings, sometimes all night, eventually growing into having an all-girl crew.”

After expanding her menu of capabilities, Tupper worked for other construction companies starting as commercial project management then into construction executive positions. She decided to go out on her own and learned very quickly that she did not care for the residential work.

“The clients can be very demanding in residential work with minimal financial benefits,” she said. “I love everything about commercial projects. The people who work for Infinity are loyal and dedicated, and I wanted to take care of them.”

She did not want them out working in inclement weather and she could control that.

“Commercial work allows me to take care of the Infinity team,” she said.

“I want to ensure my own future without my daughters worrying about taking care of me, but I also want to make sure the business is stable, and they are taken care of – if and when I decide to get out of the company,” explaining that this year has been something of a challenge, but she is confident she can keep her people busy by moving toward the development end of the business.

Tupper said she has a core group of permanent team members (she doesn’t like to call them ‘employees’) between superintendents, administrative positions and field crews, and they are another reason she’s moving into development.

“Their future is also important to me,” she said.

Property development, ownership and management initiatives are on the horizon, as is entry into the IRL and PropTech arenas.

“I am planning a comprehensive medical center in Naples, Fla., where I will be in the own-developer position,” she said. “I am planning to have physical therapy, a high-tech wellness gym, offices for specialists and possibly a pharmacy, to lease space out.

PT is sorely lacking in Naples. I want to end the necessity of people having to make multiple stops to take care of themselves by consolidating medical services in one building.”

In addition, she is in the initial stages of acquiring land in North Carolina to build single-level, high-end housing for the 55-and-older crowd, and she is planning a resort in Clearwater, Fla. Both will have wellness gyms and a focus on comfortable living.

“There are people, singles and couples, who don’t want the hassle of taking care of properties or climbing stairs anymore,” she said. “I want to give them a great experience and help them really enjoy the last 10 or 20 years of their lives. This will also provide a safe secure environment for the residents.

“After I’m settled into development, I will have set myself up for when I’m no longer working and out of the business. All three daughters reside out of state, so there is really nothing tying me to stay in New York, but the corporate office of Infinity will remain in Syracuse. I can work remotely from anywhere.”

Within the IRL Social field, Tupper said she will invest and partner with Jeffrey Schoonover of Peninsula Lifestyle Capital to assist in the construction development and management pieces of the businesses, with maintaining a financial investment. Schoonover, who is well-versed in e-sports, said Infinity Northeast is ideally placed to identify franchise and emerging market entertainment opportunities due to its work in the gaming/resort/hospitality and food-and-beverage markets. Their partnership, he said, provides an opportunity for investors to get in on the ground floor of these emerging prospects and enjoy a one-stop shop for the digital-IRL Social integration concept.

According to Schoonover, the IRL Social concept drives foot traffic and can play a vital role for malls that have an urgent need to re-purpose unoccupied retail spaces.

“Donna chose the partnership because the founders of IRL Social have in-depth knowledge of the retail real estate sector in closely held investments, recently acquiring more than seven million square feet of commercial retail space in 17 states over the past 18 months,” Schoonover said. “In addition, founders also have stakes in a top-12 professional e-sports organization globally and vast experience in content creation. Founders also have stakes in the PropTech sector, which is growing.”

‘PropTech’ is defined by Vincent Lecamus on Medium.com as a collective term used to define startups offering technologically innovative products or new business models for real estate markets. It includes all available technology to help find properties and investors, match clients to properties, manage properties, finance the business transactions and more.

Development may be in her immediate future, but Tupper said her long-term vision and a career highlight converge in her outreach work: informing young people and displaced workers about the opportunities available in the construction trades.

“I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done getting younger generations involved in the construction trades,” Tupper said. “It’s one of the most important things I can do.”

Tupper attends and presents at various events. She has led women’s classes within the Carpenters Union, the SBA’s Women in Construction program and with Girls’ World, a 21-year-old national program that aims to connect girls to resources and partners in their communities to help them realize their potential. Syracuse has been a host to the organization in 2018 and 2019 and Tupper spoke, hoping to inform and educate those in attendance.

“The girls come to look at opportunities that are available,” she said. “If you have no idea about construction, how would you know the opportunities that are out there? We try to explain what is out there and the vast avenues for girls to become involved in the construction industry.”

“The union is a good place to start,” she said. “All kids don’t want to go to college; lots of schools have eliminated shop classes. Displaced adult workers have opportunities, too, and construction has been relatively COVID-proof. We only stopped operations for four days.”

Tupper said success is finishing the project and hearing the compliments; on the workmanship, yes, but more so on the integrity of her firm and the workers who represent it.

“I’m experienced, knowledgeable and have a reputation for success in my projects,” Tupper said. “I don’t bid competitively because I believe we have a specific purpose on certain projects. People with experience having Infinity on their projects seek to contract us because of the team’s performance. We all have very good reputations for our knowledge, experience and getting the projects done successfully.”

“We’re one of the few companies that have a record of consistently leaving a project without a punch list. Our crews have always been directed to never leave a site without getting a detailed punch list, so they can complete any discrepancies and will not have to return. A timely completion is an important part of every project.”

Her advice for those thinking about striking out on their own is simple.

“Don’t get too comfortable, work hard and always look ahead,” she said. “As an owner, when you receive your first big check, plan its use. People new to business tend to think they are rich at the start. But they must know not to mismanage funds if they want to stay in business. You need the cash flow to keep the business moving forward.

“Always remember, never treat anyone badly; money isn’t worth your integrity. If you do things underhandly, you will eventually fail. You cannot cut corners and communication is key. You can always look at a way to make yourself and your company better – and that may cost a little more – but you cannot compromise safety or integrity.

 “As long as you use these key points, clients will come, and your company will grow. I love what I do, and most of the time it does not feel like work. Challenges are only a perspective and should be handled with confidence.”

For more information on Infinity Northeast construction and development projects, call 315.657.2381. Tupper said, anyone interested in investing in IRL Social or Ultra Starz should contact Jeffrey Schoonover at 407.474.6244.

Editor’s note: Molly English-Bowers contributed to this story.

A Shot of Hope

Dr. Kimberly Townsend, President and CEO, Loretto Management Corporation

Dr. Kimberly Townsend, President and CEO, Loretto Management Corporation

It is an honor and a privilege to be a trailblazer for the COVID-19 vaccine. More than 60% of the United States population is anxiously awaiting their turn. To be in an industry that is among the first to receive this vaccine is monumental. In business, being “the first” means two things: first-mover advantages, as well as pioneer costs. These two things do not exist in a vacuum – whether you like it or not, you get both.

As the President and CEO of Loretto, I am eager for my frontline healthcare workers and residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As a leader, I would never ask my employees to do something I am not willing to do myself. A few weeks ago, when we offered the vaccine to employees and residents, I was among the first to receive the vaccine because I want to express my confidence in research and science. At the same time, I was not eager to be at the front of the line, as I know there are those more vulnerable than I who will not have the opportunity to get the vaccine right away.

Am I grateful that I have immunity from getting very sick from COVID-19? Yes. But at the same time, my heart breaks for my mother-in-law, who is in her 80s, with pre-existing conditions. She is not among the first group because she isn’t a resident at a senior living facility or a hospital patient. It’s not enough to have a vaccine. We have to get people vaccinated.

This is where pragmatic altruism – my philosophy that doing good is good business – comes into play.

Pragmatic altruism is not charity or only doing good for good’s sake. Rather, it is doing good with a vision, a purpose; in a way that’s a “win-win” for yourself and your business. I have written two books on this topic, Lifecircle Leadership and Lessons in Lifecircle Leadership, a workbook companion released in January 2021. While the pandemic proved to be a challenging interruption to my writing, I stayed the course, as I sensed during a crisis, people needed leadership support more than ever.

It turns out pragmatic altruism has implications today that I could not have predicted. During this pandemic, leaders have a significant opportunity to make an impact – positive or negative – in the lives of their employees and their greater community. Being a leader is not limited to an organization – it extends into leadership within a community.

At Loretto, one of the first things we did when the pandemic started was to connect employees with those others who could provide childcare. We wanted to ensure that our employees could continue making their shifts without stressing about finding childcare when schools and daycare facilities closed. And now, being among the first to receive the vaccine and part of the Upstate Medical University Vaccination Hub Advisory Board, I feel energized to be a passionate advocate committed to determining how we reach all people with what is expected to be a life-saving vaccine.

None of us are safe until all of us are safe. Access is a big piece of the puzzle, but so is education. Many of our employees are understandably hesitant to get a new vaccine, so we are making an effort to educate staff on the facts. We are also creating awareness among our employees that, right now, a vaccine is the sole source of light at the end of this very dark, long COVID-19 tunnel.

This long, dark tunnel is much bigger than healthcare. There is a downstream disaster that we can’t ignore – people struggling due to unemployment, poverty, permanent caregiving at home for remote learning, extreme stress from isolation, the political divide in our country, and more. But, as I tell our employees, this vaccine is a shot of hope to get closer to the light. Our community needs this message and this vaccine.

In conclusion, yes, it is an honor and a privilege to be a trailblazer during a pandemic. But I want to ensure the trail I blaze leads to access to a vaccine and treatment for everyone in our community. I challenge you to do the same – what can you do to make sure that everyone in our community has an equal shot at life?

Dr. Kimberly Townsend, MBA, MPA, JD, Ed.D, CPA, FACHE, is President and CEO at Loretto Management Corporation in Syracuse, NY and an expert in healthcare management and leadership. She is also the author of the books Lifecircle Leadership: How Exceptional People Make Every Day Extraordinary, and Lessons in Lifecircle Leadership: A Practical Guide to Pragmatic Altruism. After nearly twenty years in the field of healthcare, Dr. Townsend has seen how leaders at all levels have the power to make a positive impact on employees, the people they serve, and the community at large. The key is to approach problems and their solutions with the mindset of pragmatic altruism, which believes that every problem has a solution that benefits all parties.