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On the Front Lines of COVID-19: Dr. Bill Mills

April 15, 2020

Dr. Bill Mills ’80 crackles with positive energy. He is affable, talks fast and smiles easily. As the senior vice president of quality and professional affairs for the Upper Allegheny Health System, Dr. Mills is leading Olean, New York, and surrounding areas in preparing for the wave of patients he believes will soon be flooding his hospitals.

We spoke to Bill a few weeks ago—just days after Gov. Cuomo announced the mandate for all hospitals to increase their capacity by 50%. Convert an outpatient surgery center into a 75-bed COVID hospital in less than two weeks? “Yup!” said Mills. “We are just gonna do it because we have no other option.” He acknowledged it might sound trite to say “Failure is not an option.” “But seriously,” he continued, “it’s not. We can’t. We have to do it.”

It’s this confidence that is leading an increasing number of hospital staffers and community members to crown Mills “The Corona King.” And far from directing the operation from a distant castle, he is often in the middle of the fray, setting up beds or sorting through protective equipment. A typical day during the pandemic? “Well, I live five minutes away from my office. I show up here usually around 7 a.m., and that makes dinner about 9 p.m.—a schedule that includes most weekends,” he told us. “But this is the job. This is the work of the moment. We are all doing extra duty!”

It is easy to imagine Dr. Mills in his previous role as a family doctor—one he held for 20 years in south Jersey before coming to Western New York to go into administrative medicine at Olean General Hospital. He used to joke with his patients saying, “I’ll let you know when it’s time to worry.” And he did. At once both confident and sensitive, Bill believes that, to lead well, one must be vulnerable. “I laughed with my patients, and I cried with them,” he told us. He also believes that you can’t lead from behind the bunker—“You have to be IN it,” he said. Which is why he is leading by calm (and witty) example during the fear and anxiety of this unprecedented global pandemic.

Talking to Bill is like chatting with your favorite neighbor over the backyard fence. His humor is dry and a teeny bit sarcastic. But it’s the good kind that lets everybody in on the joke—and makes everyone feel comfortable. That’s why he feels it’s important to be onsite as much as he can during this anxiety-inducing time. “The fact that I’m out there and that I’m visible really helps with this panic, which is widespread,” he said. “Science goes out the window with a lot of this because it’s really about how you feel—and what you worry about. Leading is about being out—being available. It’s also about debunking the misinformation people pick up on social media that significantly outweighs the real information.”

Bill keeps his kingdom updated with accurate information in the form of a popular daily email update. What started out as a message just to the medical staff now includes a few thousand readers—and that number continues to expand. “I usually put in something cute or a little weird or bizarre to encourage people to keep reading until the end,” he chuckled.

When asked about his college days, Mills spoke fondly of how Houghton prepared him for this moment. “Something you learn at Houghton is that the world is small, and we have to take care of each other,” he said. “Houghton has done an incredible job teaching me to think,” he said. “Because there isn’t a playbook for this—we are making it up as we go along. This moment requires critical thinking. It requires teamwork and the understanding that we are interconnected.”

“I am here doing the right work, the work God prepared me for, and the work he wanted me to be doing,” Mills continued. “And underpinning the whole thing is I waded in where fools wouldn’t go because God’s got this.”