Mercy, new CEO ready to weather storm

A new facility was one of the attractions that brought Tom Gessel from Louisville, Ky., to be new president and CEO of Mercy Regional Medical Center. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

A new facility was one of the attractions that brought Tom Gessel from Louisville, Ky., to be new president and CEO of Mercy Regional Medical Center.

Many people are desperate to see snow on the ground here. Now, we can add a 12-year-old girl in Kentucky to the list.

Her father, the new chief executive officer at Mercy Regional Medical Center, didn’t need a hard sell to convince his wife and daughter that moving to Durango (population, say, 17,000) from Louisville, Ky. (population 741,000) was a good move.

They’ll have to do without big shopping malls, Taylor Swift concerts and baseball bat factories, for example, but, hopefully, by Christmas time, 12-year-old Julie will have one wish granted.

“What she’s really looking forward to, frankly, is real snow,” says Tom Gessel, who took over as Mercy’s chief in October. “We don’t get real snow (in Louisville). We get the freezing rain, a little dusting every now and then.”

Gessel is settling in, getting to know his hospital, his employees, his role and his community. His wife, Kelly, and daughter plan to move to Durango right after Christmas break begins.

“I let them know how much more I’m enjoying Durango with each day I spend here,” Gessel says during an interview in Mercy’s administration office.

He’s speaking not only of the outdoor opportunities such as hiking, skiing and snowboarding, but of the job he inherited from former CEO Kirk Dignum, who retired last month after 14 years at the helm.

It’s with confidence that he calls himself lucky to have landed at Mercy. After 24 years in the business, the 48-year-old is not coming into this position with an abundance of naiveté.

Gessel grew up in Ohio and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Akron. He has a master’s in health administration from Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical college.

Starting in 2002, he spent nine years working for a hospital system in Louisville, the final five as CEO of Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospitals. In 2011, the hospitals were on the verge of a merger, and he decided that instead of focusing on that – he’d already been through one merger – he would rather be in a job with more direct influence on a community.

He spent the last year as a consultant, but he couldn’t really see direct involvement there, either.

“I’m too much the kind of person who wants to stick around long enough to see results,” he says.

Ground was broken on his path to Mercy nearly a decade ago when he met Dignum at a national meeting of Catholic Health Initiatives – the parent company of Sts. Mary and Elizabeth, and, at the time, of Mercy.

Gessel recalls Dignum talking about a new hospital in Durango. “I think it was just a twinkle in his eye,” Gessel says.

More recently, Gessel was speaking by telephone with Gary Campbell, the CEO of Centura Health, now Mercy’s parent company. Campbell mentioned that Dignum was retiring, and the thought of working in Durango “really piqued my interest,” Gessel says.

He applied, and, in early August, made his first visit to the hospital for an interview. He returned about a month later with his wife and daughter, who gave their approval.

“I’m the luckiest hospital executive in the country,” he says, and now he’s talking only about the workings of Mercy, not the outside benefits.

He sees changes coming. Big changes. The quality of U.S. health care is top-notch, he believes, but the system as it’s being run is financially unsustainable. And he talks about the “doughnut hole” in health care – resources aren’t flowing as needed into prevention, wellness and primary-care services.

“We need to recruit more primary-care physicians in here,” Gessel says unequivocally. “There’s an economic investment that’s required there, and Mercy is going to take a central role in providing that economic investment.”

These changes won’t be easy. So why is he so lucky?

He’s coming to a hospital, he says, that measures in the top 10 percent in the country in every important category. A good leadership team is in place, with outstanding physicians and workers in a variety of specialties.

“We now have a foundation here that’s going to be easier to build upon,” Gessel says. “It’s going to be easier for us, I think, to adapt and to transform ourselves to be ready for the next era of health care.

“We know what’s coming, but we’re not there yet.”

So there’s some stormy weather coming in the health-care business. Too bad we can’t say for sure that’s happening in Southwest Colorado this winter.

Maybe it helps to have someone in Kentucky on our side.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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