Carolyn Carroll Flynn

July 19, 2021
Carolyn Carroll Flynn outside the vaccine clinic in Colorado Springs.
Carolyn Carroll Flynn. Photo: Cary Vogrin, UCHealth.

Nurse sets aside own illness to help others

The nurse who runs vaccine clinics for UCHealth in Colorado Springs is used to putting on big shows.

A Colorado Springs native, Carolyn Carroll Flynn has had a first act, a second, and now this one, indeed the most rewarding of them all.

Flynn’s first profession was in the arts. She worked to bring people in to hear the Colorado Springs Symphony, then The Cleveland Orchestra, finally finding her way to an avant-garde orchestra/theater group, serving as executive director.

That’s a long way from where she is now, a nurse who choreographs the operations of vaccine clinics for Colorado Springs’ largest health care provider, where almost 2,000 people are vaccinated most days.

“This is a weird marriage,’’ she said of her past and current lives. “It’s an event every day. When I was in symphony/concert management, we would bring in 2,500 people in two and half hours, get them in, hear a concert and get them out.’’

Now, the show is bigger for Flynn, both personally and professionally. The goal is not to receive a rave review, laughter or applause – though there’s plenty of that in the clinics – it’s to beat a pandemic, to preserve life.

What most people getting their shots would never know is that the maestro racing to vaccinate a city is sick herself. She has breast cancer. Back in the spring, when COVID-19 swept across the world, Flynn heard the news after a mammogram. In the months that followed, she had chemo, then surgery. Then more surgery.

Her husband Mike and the nucleus of her family grew closer. Her UCHealth family stepped in. Surgeons cooked dinner. Her boss brought homemade bread, a fellow nurse made chicken noodle soup, which she lived on.

When Flynn struggled with chemotherapy, a fellow nurse who also had fought cancer had sage words: “You just have to power on. Cancer is a weird deal. Out of the darkness, if you believe, it will bring you a gift.’’

In late December, MJ Yantis, the senior vice president of UCHealth Medical Group operations in southern Colorado, asked Flynn if she would run vaccine clinics in Colorado Springs.

“This is the gift,’’ she said, looking over the elderly, some infirm, and teachers receiving their vaccines at the Memorial Administrative Center. “This is my gift and my way of giving back to all those who have cared for me. This is a mission; this is not a job.

“We’ve got to beat this ‘bad boy.’ Let’s stem the tide.’’

Flynn’s path to conductor of vaccine clinics has roots in the very place she now works.

Carolyn Carroll Flynn speaks with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Carolyn Carroll Flynn talks to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis about vaccine distribution at UCHealth Memorial Administrative Center. Photo: UCHealth.

In December of 2003, her mother became very ill in Colorado Springs. She was emaciated and suffered a grand mal seizure. When the attending physician in the Memorial emergency room came to speak to the family, he was full of compassion. The news was bad.

On Jan. 6, 2004, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it had already metastasized to her brain.

Flynn had been working out-of-state as executive director of the theater company at the time. After returning to Colorado Springs, Flynn called her employer and said, ‘My mother has end-stage cancer. I’m not coming back – I need to work remotely,’’ she recalled. “We only did a couple productions a year, but they told me, ‘you can either come back, or you’re fired.’ I said, ‘I’m fired.’’’

She asked her mother, who was in a hospital bed at Memorial Hospital: ‘What am I going to do now?’’ Her mom said: “You’re going to be a nurse.’’

Flynn had toyed with the changing careers. When her mother died, three months to the day of her breast cancer diagnosis, Flynn set out on a new path. She got a job at Starbucks making coffee and earned her nursing degree at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She’s been a nurse for 15 years now.

After only four years on the job, Carroll was asked to serve on the Citizen’s Commission for Memorial Hospital, a committee that advised Colorado Springs’ political leaders about the best path forward for city-owned Memorial Hospital. Flynn, along with Dr. David Corry, served as representatives for Memorial. They, and others, advised the city to lease the hospital to UCHealth, then a consortium of University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. In a landslide citywide vote, Memorial became part of UCHealth.

“UCHealth has lived up to everything – and more. From their initial RFP they presented to us when we were all on the task force until now. They have done what they said and more. They’ve invested in infrastructure, we’re the first Level I Trauma Center in the health system and we have Comprehensive Stroke certification. They didn’t put us on the back burner. Back then, there was a concern we would be the third wheel, but Memorial is a vibrant part of UCHealth.’’

In her role as nurse manager of vaccine clinics, Flynn oversees an orchestra of professionals who have one goal: get vaccine in arms, and do it safely.

“It’s very choreographed, and every day, we’re tweaking the choreography. Last Thursday, we didn’t have three lanes, but Friday we did. We’ve added more stations, almost weekly now. We’re changing the configuration of the room.

“It’s eyes on patients for safety. … It’s getting patients through in as an efficient and timely manner as possible. We want them to know that we care about them. Even though it kind of feels like a herd of cattle, it’s not meant to be that way. We care about these people. They’re our friends and neighbors, and the other thing I see is, we’re ambassadors to the community.’’

Over the past year, nurses and health care providers have seen the sickest of the sick. They’ve held the hands of dying COVID-19 patients when their families could not be present. They’ve held up iPads and other tablets for loved ones from near and far, giving them the chance to say one more “I love you.’’

For the nurses and health care providers, they’re now stepping up to say, ‘Let’s put an end to this,’’ Flynn said, referring to the pandemic. And, she said, it’s rewarding.

“When you see and hear how grateful people are for the vaccine, I had a patient come in the other night and she said, ‘I can go see my grandchildren. I’ve missed a year with my grandchildren. I’ve missed birthdays.’ And for her, it was like the world was opening itself back up,’’ Flynn said.

Last March, as the pandemic began and Flynn was diagnosed with breast cancer, she scrambled as a nurse to keep patients and staff safe in a world that seemed upside down. With a strict visitor policy in place, she endured months of chemotherapy treatments alone, with only the caregivers from Memorial by her side.

Her husband Mike accompanied her to one appointment, but after that, no visitors were allowed.

“Chemo is one of the darkest times,’’ she said. “And you know what I learned? As a nurse, or as a health care person, we always say, ‘patients have choices.’ And they do. The weird thing is when you are diagnosed with cancer, do you really have a choice?”

When Flynn lost her mother to breast cancer, she vowed never to do chemotherapy. But when the time came, she took chemo. Her hair fell out and she relied on her physicians, Dr. Michelle DeWing, breast surgery; Dr. Uchenna Njiaju, oncologist; and Dr. Nancy Wong, a plastic surgeon, for their expertise.

“They just got it. They just did,’’ she said.

With support from her co-workers, their fresh-made soup and bread, Flynn made it through months of chemo and surgeries and now leads one of the most important missions at Memorial Hospital.

In the vaccine clinic in Colorado Springs, she’s busy. If someone is late for an appointment, she calls them to remind them to come in. She’s giving shots and helping to choreograph a symphony of vaccine delivery. Get them in when it’s their turn, give them a vaccine as safely and swiftly as possible, and send them on their way, back to the normal.

No matter the event, whether it’s beating a pandemic or beating breast cancer, Flynn has the gift of making sure the show goes on.

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About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.

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