Elizabeth J. McCormack
Chairman, Partnership for Palliative Care
Recipient, Distinguished Community Service Award, 2012
The United Hospital Fund’s Distinguished Community Service Award recognizes volunteer leadership of a specific project or initiative that significantly improves health care in New York City. This year, we salute Elizabeth J. McCormack for her visionary role in advancing palliative care as a vital means to improve quality of life, through her founding and leadership of the Partnership for Palliative Care.
In the words of her friend Bill Moyers, Elizabeth McCormack “reminds us of things that last, that transcend the tumult of the hour and the news of the day. Her life is about connections and continuities between past and present, between now and the future, between the natural world and the world we make together.”
Elizabeth McCormack’s extraordinary life spans 90 years, every continent, higher education, the arts, culture, religious life, philanthropy, and health care. She’s served as the president of Manhattanville College, as philanthropic advisor to the Rockefeller family for 40 years, as a member of the board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and some of our nation’s most generous foundations, including Atlantic Philanthropies and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. And she’s been a trustee of colleges large and small, and recipient of honorary degrees from seven distinguished schools—Brandeis, Princeton, and the American University of Paris among them.
Her longtime focus on education and philanthropy broadened significantly, though, in 2007, when Elizabeth began to learn about the importance and value of palliative care. Inspired by the experience of a good friend, whose husband suffered through a long illness without being offered the palliative services available within the medical center in which he was hospitalized, she began to ask hard questions and identify experts to teach her what palliative care is, and is not, and to explain why so many doctors, patients, and families never benefit from it.
From this initial inquiry, a new life purpose and passion emerged. She formed the nonprofit Partnership for Palliative Care to stimulate public awareness and professional adoption of palliative services as an integral part of health care. Her goal was to expand and ensure access to the specialized medical, nursing, and social services that help people with chronic and other illnesses, and their families, better cope and live with the challenges that serious illness brings.
Together with a board of medical, philanthropic, business, and community leaders, all personally recruited, Elizabeth determined that the groundbreaking work of two physicians at Mount Sinai Medical Center—Dr. Diane Meier, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care, and Dr. Sean Morrison, director of the National Palliative Care Research Center—would be the Partnership’s first priority. Both recognized as national leaders, their focus is on developing the evidence-based symptom management, communication skills, and care coordination at the heart of palliative care, and sharing those tools broadly to bring palliative care into use in hospitals nationwide.
In just five years, the Partnership has already had an important impact, providing an infusion of new funding for the two Centers’ work—some $20 million—as well as broader recognition. “Elizabeth plans on a different scale,” says Dr. Morrison. “Her connections go very deep, built over years in the philanthropic community, and her passion and conviction have really motivated the Partnership’s board.” With the Partnership’s help, his and Dr. Meier’s work has been transformative: the number of hospital-based palliative care programs in the U.S. has more than doubled, and a growing number of medical schools offer training and rotations in palliative care.
Now the Partnership is extending its efforts, promoting the inclusion of palliative care into more health care settings so it is available from the time of diagnosis through the entire arc of illness, whatever the setting. With its work to also increase public awareness and demand for palliative care—ramping up its social media campaign as the centerpiece of that mission—it is simultaneously focusing on the need for more trained health care professionals. The Partnership is reaching out to nursing schools to incorporate palliative care training into their curricula; among them will be the City University of New York, which will be doing that in its new online RN-to-BS program. The Partnership’s most ambitious effort yet, and Elizabeth’s personal vision, is VIP Care—the Veterans in Palliative Care initiative. In collaboration with local nursing schools, VIP Care will recruit and train returning veterans to become RNs with palliative care certification; a partnership with a major community care provider is already being forged to help place these certified RNs onto community-based palliative care teams. An Advocacy Fellowship Project and a collaboration focused on Alzheimer’s patients and their families are also in development.
Behind all this activity has always remained, however, Elizabeth’s compassion, conviction, and fearless embrace of needed change—the guiding forces behind her creation of the Partnership for Palliative Care. “We’re not going to eliminate suffering, but we can alleviate it, we can give comfort,” she says. Tonight, the United Hospital Fund is proud to present the Distinguished Community Service Award to Elizabeth J. McCormack for her efforts to ensure that all those in need of it will receive the comfort, and the dignity, that palliative care can provide.