Long before she became the chief medical officer (CMO) of the only Level I trauma center in New Mexico, Irene Agostini, MD, began her story on the busy streets of Queens, N.Y. Raised in a working-class neighborhood, she was the youngest of four children in a close-knit Italian Catholic family.
As a teen, Agostini excelled academically and eventually attended a high school for math and science in Manhattan.
Agostini, who is stepping down this month as CMO at The University of New Mexico Hospital, says that move opened many doors.
“I met kids from all over New York and was provided a lot of opportunities,” Agostini said. “I was eventually accepted into Brown University, but my parents didn’t understand how prestigious it was to be accepted into an Ivy League college.”
While attending Brown, Agostini knew she wanted to pursue a career in health care. She explored her options before deciding to apply to medical school at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
After graduation, she was initially interested in orthopedic surgery. After meeting a graduate of the UNM Department of Orthopedics, she applied to a residency at the UNM School of Medicine.
Upon her first visit to New Mexico, she immediately fell in love with the beautiful landscape, culture and cuisine.
“During my interviews, we drove up to the top of the Sandias and saw this amazing ski area,” Agostini said. “We also had delicious carne adovada at Los Cuates, which was the first New Mexican food I had ever tasted.”
Although she began her time at UNMH in an orthopedic residency, she quickly realized that her talents were better suited for a faster-paced environment.
Agostini left her orthopedic pursuits and eventually completed an emergency medicine residency. She worked at St. Joseph Hospital before transitioning to Presbyterian Hospital, where she became skilled in care management and patient flow.
Although she worked in the private sector for most of her career, she has thrived in an academic medical center environment.
“I learned so much at Presbyterian, but I always felt more connected to University Hospital and the work they did for the community,” Agostini said. “I got lucky, because UNMH had just purchased teletracking software and was looking for someone to implement this program and improve patient flow.”
After a year at UNMH and successfully implementing the teletracking software, she was promoted to chief medical officer.
“I enjoyed the challenges of being CMO and the ability to work with hospital administration,” Agostini said. “We have really grown as a team and become more integrated and collaborative under CEO Kate Becker’s leadership.”
She is also proud of developing a team of 10 associate chief medical officers, whose work enabled physicians to be more involved in hospital clinic operations. This proved useful when the COVID-19 pandemic first began in early 2020.
Her eyes welling up with tears, Agostini explained that she felt a personal responsibility for everyone who worked at UNMH.
“One of the scariest moments during that time was how concerned we were about putting physicians, advanced practice providers and nurses at risk at COVID before we knew much about the disease and a vaccine didn’t exist,” Agostini said.
She also described a feeling of pride in the way UNMH worked together to care for the community.
“It was amazing to see all our clinical folks working so closely and collaboratively with non-clinical areas,” Agostini said. “We cried when the vaccine arrived at UNMH. It was a massive effort and everyone in our organization helped ensure that all our team members were vaccinated.”
Her decades of experience could never have prepared her for what she experienced during the pandemic. However, those challenges will never diminish her passion for medicine, even after she takes off the white coat upon retirement in 2023.
Steve McLaughlin, MD, chair of the UNM Department of Emergency Medicine, will take the CMO reins in January.
“Dr. Agostini and I have been working closely over the last several weeks to ensure a smooth transition,” McLaughlin said. “The best part has been meeting so many new people and integrating into the team.”
Agostini will transition to a part-time, consultative CMO position allowing more time for the outdoor adventures she loves – rock climbing, biking, hiking, skiing and rafting. But she looks forward to continuing to serve the community in a new way.