leading in a time of covid-19

by Rachel O., 16

In early March of 2020—one year to the day of Centrastate Medical Center’s first COVID-19 patient—James Matera’s life would be forever altered. Having just been appointed Chief Medical Officer of Centrastate Healthcare System, Matera would unknowingly be taking on a position that would later force him to lead the way through unprecedented territory due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite his being one of the top leaders of Centrastate, I was surprised to find an approachable, down-to-earth man as I sat down with him. 

Growing up, Matera knew from a young age of his desire to pursue medicine and help others. Fulfilling this dream, Matera graduated from medical school in 1989, going on to pursue his residency before beginning his career as a nephrologist at Centrastate in 1994. Throughout the many years at Centrastate, Matera remarked having numerous leadership positions, many of which he believed greatly prepared him for what was to come during his time as CMO during the pandemic. One of the most important qualities he remarked having learned was the appearance of composure, especially during an uncertain time like this. “When [the pandemic] first started, I knew as much about COVID-19 as everybody else. And all of a sudden, people were talking to me as if I was the world’s expert,” Matera explained. He went on to state that he accredited much of his success working as CMO during the pandemic due to his ability to stay composed and calm, even during adverse situations. 

Despite this outward composure, Matera revealed he was anything but. He went on to explain that he found himself staying up late most nights researching COVID-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic in order to learn more about the coronavirus. As the pandemic raged on, Matera began organizing specialized doctors from all over the country to travel to Centrastate. In addition, Matera swiftly created a specialized task force consisting of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals all working together within Centrastate to manage COVID-19 patients. As the number of cases within the hospital grew, Matera mobilized multiple teams to cover each unit within the hospital. When asked about the community’s response to healthcare workers during this time, Matera had nothing but amazing stories to tell. He explained, “Every day it was just something else. A bunch of school kids where my wife used to work sent hundreds of little drawings that we posted up just thanking everybody. Flowers were donated; it was just a great way to see a community hospital getting that [type of] response.” 

Although Matera specializes in medicine, I was intrigued to learn he is a man of many talents. When inquiring about any possible hobbies, Matera revealed to me he had a lifelong love for gourmet cooking and had even won the reality show, Cooks vs. Cons, back in 2016 as a result. Upon the release of the episode, Matera cooked his winning dish for the hospital staff in celebration. When looking back, he said that he has nothing but positive things to say about the experience. Matera also loves golf, though hasn’t had much time recently as a result of the pandemic. 

In addition to these hobbies, Matera revealed he is an avid participant in community service organizations during his free time. Before the pandemic, Matera loved to spend much of his free time working in Elijah’s Promise, a nonprofit that works to provide meals in the New Brunswick area. Working in the kitchen, Matera would cook for hours upon hours to provide meals for those in need. He said that out of all of his hobbies, he misses helping others the most, and eagerly hopes to return to it soon. 

Upon listening to Matera speak of his work in Centrastate hospital, one major theme stood out to me throughout the interview: teamwork. Whether it’s in the hospital working closely with other doctors and nurses to help sick patients or in the kitchen preparing meals for those in need, Matera believes in the power of teamwork. When I asked how Matera believes he will handle the pandemic moving forward, he stated, “I’m going to take on any challenge thrown my way. I don’t see myself as a hero; I’m part of a team, and that’s enough for me.”

Aberdeen, New Jersey