Jennifer DeCubellis had been CEO of Hennepin Healthcare, the sprawling system that operates the county's flagship trauma hospital and clinics, for two weeks when COVID-19 upended her transition plans.

Then on Memorial Day, George Floyd arrived at HCMC's stabilization room, the stop for patients who need the fastest lifesaving measures available.

Then came the riots, bringing nervous nights as DeCubellis and staff girded for an influx of trauma patients and worried about smoke from fires throughout the city infiltrating the downtown Minneapolis hospital, where patients on ventilators fought for their lives.

"As tired as folks are, as scared as folks are ... the passion that drives people here is incredible," she said of the staff at the hospital and clinics that Hennepin Healthcare oversees.

The new CEO comes through these career-defining challenges committed to the view of HCMC as a leader in the community health, a safety net for the poor but also a leader in teaching, trauma and innovation.

"It's about doing the right thing first and figuring out the policy and funding levers later," DeCubellis said in an online interview from her office. "We're not in it to pad pocketbooks; we're here to get better health outcomes."

DeCubellis, 50, came to HCMC from the county, where she had worked for much of the last decade and stood out for her commitment to public health innovation, her deep knowledge and unflagging work ethic. She was hailed a health care "rock star" at the county, and now she's expected to make Hennepin Healthcare a leading innovator and care provider.

To her, COVID-19 has shown why Hennepin Healthcare must be a leader across the racial and income divide. "If we keep everybody else healthy, we're keeping ourselves healthy," she said.

Her broad vision helped her land the job. She is not a physician and does not have an MBA. Her background is in special education and she has a master's in psychology, but she's always sought jobs that put her in the center of a challenge.

As a 13-year-old growing up in Deephaven, she taught American Sign Language to children with Down syndrome. In her first job out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she taught special education to violent, emotionally disturbed teenagers in Chicago. Her innovative approach landed her in a Chicago Tribune cover story.

At the county, she helped shape Hennepin Health, a separate organization that coordinates medical, mental health and social service needs for those who receive Medicaid benefits. Changes included bringing prescriptions to homeless shelters so that patients wouldn't come to the emergency department for refills and setting up a dental clinic downtown.

At Hennepin Healthcare, a subsidiary of the county, DeCubellis oversees 7,000 employees with an annual budget of $1.1 billion. Hennepin Healthcare includes HCMC and a network of clinics in Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park, Golden Valley, Richfield and St. Anthony. The system includes a large psychiatric program, home care and hospice, plus a research institute, a philanthropic foundation and Hennepin Healthcare Emergency Medical Services.

HCMC is the flagship hospital, which includes Level 1 adult and pediatric trauma centers, a 473-bed academic medical center, a large outpatient clinic and a specialty center.

Funding is always an issue because HCMC's fortunes are tied to state and federal reimbursements. "Every tax dollar counts," DeCubellis said.

Every year, Hennepin County cuts a check to HCMC to cover uncompensated care. It's usually about $28 million. This year, it could be as high as $100 million, depending on reimbursements for COVID-19 patients.

"We're pulling every funding lever we can," DeCubellis said.

County Commissioner Mike Opat has been a longtime booster of DeCubellis. County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene was on the committee that chose her for HCMC.

Her trial by fire shows her talent, Opat said. "There's hope for the institution again," he said. "She has a unique way of bringing a bigger picture focus to the place."

Greene was equally effusive, saying, "With the onset of the pandemic, I thanked my lucky stars that she was the hire. Navigating something as complex as this, we had chosen a CEO who knew who to call and whose calls would be answered."

Even before the pandemic, Hennepin Healthcare was facing challenges.

Former CEO Dr. Jon Pryor left abruptly in early 2019 amid an ethics scandal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found HCMC had failed to provide adequate oversight and safeguards on the use of ketamine to calm agitated patients.

Last June, an emergency doctor at HCMC was forced to end his work for Axon Enterprise Inc., the Taser stun-gun manufacturer. The doctor had been working at least 32 hours a month as a paid consultant to Axon.

In contrast, just last week HCMC's aggressive use of a common steroid, dexamethasone, to treat COVID-19 was validated by a British study. HCMC physicians had been using the drug for severe cases since the start of the pandemic.

While DeCubellis may be the new leader, she directs the spotlight onto the staff both in interviews and in her daily work.

"Our job as leaders is to support the front lines and not just our nurses and docs, but our security staff and our food staff," she said.

Throughout the pandemic, senior leaders have rotated working from home and coming into the office — although DeCubellis admits she likes to walk the halls. She came into her job with what she called a "glorious 90-day plan" to learn about the operation. That was shredded within two weeks because of COVID-19 as the system started closing the doors to the ambulatory clinic and limiting access to essential staff.

What she's seen since, she said, is a staff committed to serving the greater good.

"Their first answer is always, 'What's right for our community?' " she said.

She offered examples.

There's the staffer she met in the psychiatric ward who puts a fresh flower in her visor every day to provide a dose of beauty.

There's the funny-informative video the OB-GYN staff made for worried expectant mothers, promising a "happy birth day" for their babies. "Nobody asked them to do that," she said of the video.

There were the staffers from the Lake Street clinic the morning after the riots, who "instead of going home, they're sweeping up with everybody else," DeCubellis said. "We need to help invest in rebuilding that neighborhood," she added.

In the interview from her office, DeCubellis was relaxed, comforting and ready with answers. Her windowsill was lined with photos of her family, including her husband, Ken, and their three kids, 20-year-old son Quin, 18-year-old daughter Sydney and 12-year son Luca.

One book, "Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules in Work and in Life," was perched alone on a shelf.

When she's not in the office, the family relaxes outdoors or boating on a nearby lake.

"I couldn't be more inspired by the work here so it doesn't feel like you need a getaway," DeCubellis said.

Then when it's time to head to work, DeCubellis said Sydney sends her off with a cheery, "Go do good, Mama."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747