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A Naval Officer Keeps Comms Clear, Thanks to Lessons Learned in the MBA@UNC Program

Written by Stephen Eichinger on May 21, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Outcomes, Digital Education

Lt. Cmdr. Raffaele Giarnella aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden)

The hospital ship USNS Mercy docked at the Port of Los Angeles on March 27, 2020. In earlier times, Angelenos could have been forgiven for thinking the 894-foot-long vessel was an enormous prop for one of Hollywood’s big-budget disaster movies. But nowadays the upheaval is not a plot point in a screenplay. The situation is real, and COVID-19 is the honest-to-goodness supervillain.

Thankfully the Mercy came equipped with its own team of superheroes, a dedicated group of medical and military professionals who worked long hours to keep southern Californians safe and healthy. After nearly two months of operations, which included treating 77 patients, the Mercy left Los Angeles last Friday to return to its home port in San Diego.

One of the heroes on board the ship was Lieutenant Commander Raffaele (Ralph) Giarnella, Jr. He spent his days ensuring that the vital communication between medical staff and military personnel was clear, concise, and accurate. Read on to learn how UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA program, MBA@UNC, helped him develop the skills he uses every day in his service to the Navy, California, and the United States.

Conveying and translating information

The mission of the Mercy was to serve as a kind of health care relief valve for Los Angeles city hospitals, which are treating COVID-19 patients. Having operated as an ad hoc health care facility, the ship dealt with all the everyday procedures of a large urban hospital—treatments ranging from basic medical care to surgeries to trauma response. The flow of information in such an active environment was necessarily immense, and Ralph was responsible for making sure that flow got through efficiently to the right channels.

“There's a voracious appetite for information,” he says. “Providing accurate numbers is essential because the data we're distributing is getting briefed to the highest levels.”

Ralph woke up very early every day at 3:30 a.m. to ensure this information—patients treated, surgeries performed, supplies used and needed—was conveyed to the U.S. Third Fleet, the Navy’s leadership for all operations in the eastern Pacific.

The rest of the day Ralph performed what he describes as an exercise in “translating,” taking information from medical staff and making it useful and digestible to his superiors in Third Fleet and vice versa.

While Ralph has no formal training in medicine or health care terminology, he is fluent in a language that was just as critical aboard the ship: relationship building.

“The biggest part of this position is relationships—up, down, and across the chain of command,” he says. “You have to come in with an open mind and realize you don't understand everything that is happening. And you have to see that not as a threat but rather as an opportunity. That is one of the most important things I learned in the MBA@UNC program.”

Learning while teaching

Ralph enrolled in the MBA@UNC program in 2013 while on shore duty in North Carolina. Interestingly, his naval assignment at the time had him teaching midshipmen about navigation and naval operations. So he found himself simultaneously in learning and teaching positions: at the front of an in-person class as a professor and in an online class as a graduate business student. While his days were jam-packed with instructing and studying, he was able to incorporate some of the lessons he was learning in his MBA program into the navy classes he was teaching.

“One of the things I could weave in to my teaching were ideas related to communication,” he says. “I could directly translate to my midshipmen the importance of clear and concise communications.”

As eager to learn as he was to teach, Ralph soaked up knowledge from his MBA@UNC professors and a diverse set of classmates. “I was in class with such a range of people—some who had been in business for 10 or 15 years, some who were CEOs. The amount I learned just talking to them and receiving their feedback was incredible. It opened up a new world for me, and it reinforced this idea that you have to be willing to listen. Listen first.”

Role credits

While on board the Mercy, Ralph applied those listening and communications skills constantly, as he heard from doctors and his military superiors about their respective needs. The MDs weren’t necessarily used to the procedures of the military, and the Navy leadership was not accustomed to the day-to-day running of a hospital. Thankfully, Ralph was there to keep both sides in the know and keep operations shipshape. After Ralph properly outfitted the doctors and the sailors with information in lieu of capes, the heroes took their places in a scene reminiscent of a summer blockbuster, with a very real audience cheering them on to save more lives.

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