Leading With His Heart

By Brad McEwen

Scott Steiner has every right to be angry, to be frustrated, to feel defeated.

If he felt like throwing up his hands, packing his bags and heading back to his childhood home of St. Louis, I can’t say I’d blame him. There’ve been plenty of times in my life when I’d had enough, when I was quite simply done.

And if I were standing in his shoes right now—watching Phoebe’s facilities fill as the Delta variant rages across the community—I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have made my way toward the Gateway Arch weeks ago.

But not Scott.

In fact, despite having stood on the front lines of the greatest health threat in generations for more than 500 days--watching helplessly as loved ones tearfully said goodbye to parents, children, siblings and friends who were otherwise in perfect health days just days prior—his resolve is as strong as ever.

And so is his faith in humanity and his innate desire to lead with his heart.

“Throughout COVID there were some really tough, dark days,” Scott said of the early days of the pandemic, when Albany had emerged as a global hotspot. “There were days like, ‘Oh, tomorrow cannot be like today. We won’t make it.’

“When I think about it, it seems like yesterday and sometimes when I think about it, it seems like five years ago.

“But I remember a picture that a little girl in the community, Kaylee, drew. I don’t know who Kaylee is but we had schools drawing pictures and she drew this picture. And on the inside, she said, ‘Don’t give up.’

“And today that still affects me, to think that she had that thought. Because there were days, I can’t say we wanted to give up, but there were days you were just like, ‘This isn’t ever going to end.’ And so, for our community to do those things, they helped me tremendously so I could continue to try to inspire our team each and every day.”

I spent about three hours with Phoebe’s CEO the day he told me about Kaylee’s picture, as it was the first time I’d had the pleasure of chatting with the head of our health system since his arrival in Albany in the Spring of 2019. And while I had been told he was a friendly, transparent guy, I really wasn’t sure what to expect.

Experience has often proven that no matter how “nice” a person is, that’s no guarantee they’ll make for a good interview, especially if the person in question has a high profile in the community.

And so, while I was excited to finally be spending some quality time with the newest member of the AB&T board of directors, when I went to the hospital for our Beyond the Bank interview, with my podcast recording equipment in tow, I did so with tempered expectations.

Turns out, like most assumptions I’ve had in my life, I was wrong.

Instead of being greeted by a team of what I call like to call “handlers,”, I was met by Scott’s assistant Felicia, who quickly escorted me to his office so the two of us could talk.

And less than a minute in, I completely understood why so many folks whose opinions I value, had told me how much they’ve enjoyed Scott Steiner and his candid nature and his genuine affection for the Albany community.

While I simply couldn’t connect with him over his deep and abiding love of his hometown Cardinals (despite acknowledging it really is one of the best-run franchises in sports), as soon as he began sharing some of the details of his childhood and his philosophies on life, I understood the kind of person I was dealing with and knew it would be a good interview.

“Born and raised, for the most part in St. Louis Missouri, so Midwestern values, and home of the 11-time world champion St. Louis Cardinals,” Scott said with a smile as I inquired about his upbringing. “It’s who we are and it’s really all I knew. I never thought I’d leave. If you had told me I’d end up in Chicago or Detroit, or now Albany, I would have bet you everything I had that I’d never leave St. Louis.

But leave he did. And after stops working for Tenet Healthcare hospitals in Chicago and Detroit, Scott said he finally feels he’s where he belongs and that Albany already feels as much like home as his old Missouri stomping grounds. In fact, Scott said it only took a few hours visiting the area to come to that conclusion.

“When I look back, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than Albany, Georgia,” he said. “I remember the recruiter, Susan, called me about Albany and told me about (Phoebe). I was like, ‘Huh?’ And I said, ‘Alright. Now where is Albany?’ She explained it and it just all clicked.

“Of all the positions I was looking at, I was, just on paper, least suited for this one—an independent organization, a midsize. These others were like Tenet. They were big systems, you had to understand the matrixed organization.

“And then we came here for the interview,” Scott continued. “I had done the first interview on a Friday afternoon. Then we drove and had dinner at Henry Campbell’s and everybody was just so nice. We both were like, ‘What’s going on? Do they know we’re here? How do they know us?’

“And then the next day we went up to Lake Blackshear and walked around. This was in November of ’18. My wife said, ‘This feels like home.’ I mean it’s the second day and I remember looking at her and I said, ‘It does.’

“I’d had a two-hour interview, but it progressed and we fell in love with Southwest Georgia, with Albany.”

While Scott can point to any number of things loves about Albany—a much friendlier climate that doesn’t require him to own a snow blower, a slower pace of life, lower cost of living, abundant natural resources, sheer beauty—the thing he pointed to repeatedly, was something he and Tracy recognized almost immediately.

“If you talk to my wife, and she can be pretty critical about where we’ve lived, she’ll tell you how much she loves being here,” Scott said. “The weather, all that, that’s great, but she just loves the people. What we realized is the people are just nice. It makes you feel so good inside. And every time we’d visit we had to have more of it. Obviously, it was God’s plan.”

That Scott would key in on the people made sense for a number of reasons. The notion that Southwest Georgia has some of the finest folks a person could meet is one shared by many, myself included.

That Scott would gravitate toward the people made even more sense though, after learning more about his childhood and his journey into health care.

Scott said the bulk of his worldview was formed as a youngster growing up in a working class family. Scott described, at length, an idyllic childhood filled playing youth sports and hanging with friends, but also recalled some important lessons he learned watching his mom deal with a job loss that not only changed her career, but heavily influenced her son’s path.

“I think it was a pretty normal childhood,” Scott explained. “We were blue collar at best and that was great. That was all we knew.

“I remember my mom was frustrated with getting laid off; she’d been an administrative secretary at a company. This was the ‘70s and early ‘80s and things weren’t always great and she’d been laid off. My dad was a fireman who did moving jobs on the weekend.

“But my mom, I think, was drawn to healthcare because of that connection she could have with a human being.

“I was always drawn to healthcare, and I probably didn’t put it together too much then, but looking back, my mom was a nurse (and) she was a later in life nurse—in her 40s got her RN degree,” he continued. “I remember going to the cadaver lab with her—its was cats, not a human cadaver lab—on Saturdays and always being intrigued.

“But I think what I remember most, and probably what influenced me, were the stories my mom would have. My mom would talk about her patients. She was an ICU nurse.

“I don’t think I, in the moment, really understood it as much as I do now, reflecting upon it, but man, she loved her patients. She loved being a nurse. She loved taking care of them.

“She just saw that opportunity to be the ultimate mother to these patients.”

Seeing the way his mother gave her patients love, support and dignity ultimately had a profound impact on Scott, as he really credits those experiences with guiding him, first into healthcare, and then into his first job—working in a small hospital in an impoverished part of the community.

“I think ultimately my mom and dad, my experience with them came together and it all happened for me in graduate school,” Scott continued. “(I) got the degree and then had an opportunity to do an internship at the end of that in a hospital in East St. Louis, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River, and I was off to the races.

“I just knew where I needed to be. And again, this hospital I was at was just a very poor hospital run by an order of nuns who had 13 hospitals at the time. They no longer have any hospitals. We were the last hospital they sold in the early 2000s.

“They did it because they loved people. They loved human beings. And they paid for it because they didn’t have great payer mix right. That’s what they talk about these days.

“But again, that’s where I found my love of healthcare and just helping people.”

Fueled by that desire to help people and make a difference, Scott has dedicated his life to working in healthcare, his resolve further strengthened during a brief foray into business a few years ago.

“I got out of healthcare for a couple of years thinking I might want to just be in business,” Scott said. “I think it took about three months and I said, ‘What am I doing?’ It was not as exciting as healthcare. There’s an adrenaline rush working in healthcare, certainly in hospitals. It’s tempered by that ability to help people at the most vulnerable time of their life. And I don’t get to do that each and every day like our doctors, our nurses, our therapists, (but) I try to find those opportunities to make a difference.

“That’s what feeds my soul and I’ve always felt that way.”

In fact, it’s easy to argue that Scott prioritizing his need to help others ultimately lead him to Phoebe.

Scott explained that after spending the first few years of his career at St. Mary’s in E. St. Louis, he eventually took a position as CEO of MacNeal Hospital in Chicago, which is one of 70 hospitals and 470 outpatient centers across 47 states, owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp.—one of the country’s largest investor-owned health services companies.

And while he readily admits he learned a great deal during his 13 years with Tenet—working first at MacNeal and then spending three years as CEO of Detroit Medical Center—the way that company operated ultimately lead him to finally entertain a change.

“I knew I was leaving Detroit and it wasn’t because of the city; it was the company, Tenet Healthcare,” Scott said of his decision to finally start taking calls from recruiters. “We became misaligned in how I thought healthcare should be done and how Tenet thought healthcare should be done.

“I just could no longer work in that environment. I did it for 13 years, couldn’t sleep at night knowing it.”

Scott further touched on that disconnect as we discussed last year’s explosion of COVID, which hit Albany and Southwest Georgia particularly hard and early in the pandemic.

Not only did Scott touch on the way Phoebe reacted as compared to Tenet, but the memories of those trying times, further reveal how his heart and love of people continually guide his actions.

“Maybe people (here) don’t know me quite enough (yet),” Scott explained. “I lead with my heart and hopefully I do a good job with that. But throughout this, that’s what I’ve tried to do.

“Tenet Healthcare, for instance, furloughed 10,000 (people). That was their first move, to lay 10,000 people off. I just can’t imagine doing that.

“To me, this was when you held together, not saw an opportunity, a financial opportunity. And so, for me, it was just constantly trying to do that.”

Throughout the last year-plus, despite all the uncertainty and unknowns, Scott said he’s simply tried to follow his heart in making decisions and remain open to seeing the incredible way the great people of Albany have rallied together to shown their love and support to the Phoebe team.

Even if it hasn’t always been easy.

While Phoebe had been slowly preparing for the possibility of eventually tending to COVID patients, when the reality of that first positive case being tracked back to Phoebe came to light, it still came as a shock. But it didn’t change Scott’s focus on taking care of people.

“I said a few four letter words,” Scott said of his reaction to getting the call from an Atlanta hospital letting him know a patient Phoebe had recently transferred there was COVID positive. “We had been, like anyone else, watching it since December of ’19 and you know, coming out of China. You’re paying attention to it, but jeez, China’s like a million miles away, right. How’s that going to make it across the ocean? And then you started to see it in Washington State a little bit. I guess Miami is the farthest away from Washington State, but we’re pretty far (too).”

Scott said at that point in early March, COVID still seemed distant and so much was still unknown. In fact, the lack of understanding is what ultimately led to Albany emerging as a hotspot.

“I think we did that on a Sunday,” Scott said of transferring that first patient. “Then Tuesday that hospital called us and said, ‘Well, his wife’s also in the hospital. She tested positive for COVID today and we’re going to test him.’

“So, it was about 11 that night, I got an email that said he’s positive and I knew we were in trouble; maybe not necessarily (in) the community, but what we knew was because he had cleared the screening questions, it was all ‘no, no, no, no, no,’ we didn’t put him in isolation precautions. He had been unmasked and our staff had been unmasked. This was in those early days.

“We didn’t know.

“So, we look back on those seven days (and) we found more than 100 employees had been involved in his care. So, we pulled those 100 employees off the job and we began testing other people in the hospital who had similar symptoms and we realized we already had COVID in the hospital for a few days. That (was) a Wednesday (and there) was an influx on Thursday and Friday. We had 54 COVID positive patients in the hospital. And by the next week, I think 89. The next week 105.

“So, it was quick. It was on us.”

And then came the fear. But right on its heels, the love.

Despite all of the uncertainty and lack of understanding at that time, Scott said he maintained faith watching the whole Phoebe team just pull together, trust each other and do whatever small things they could to keep morale up both inside the hospital and out.

And, Scott said, the community’s response, like that letter from Kaylee, was actually the medicine the Phoebe family needed to keep going, fighting the good fight on the front lines, even while he was personally frustrated by the lack of knowledge surrounding the virus at that point.

“Dr. Lopez is our surgical intensive care unit physician, is an incredible doctor and he was running a COVID unit because all of our ICUs were full,” Scott explained. “He’s got a young family, young kids and he slept in his garage, an un-air conditioned garage, because he didn’t know if somehow it was on his clothing, didn’t want to give it to his family.

“We had all those stories and I’m supposed to have all the answers. There were a lot of days I didn’t. I didn’t have any and really leaned upon other people to participate, and that we trusted each other.

“Sometimes it was, ‘Ok, we got to get through today and when we get through today we’ll worry about tomorrow. And sometimes it felt like days. Sometimes it felt like ‘we got to get to the next hour and then we can worry about the hour after that.’”

During those marathon early days and weeks, Scott said it was amazing to see the way staff pulled together to do whatever was necessary to help their patients, coworkers and community, despite dealing with their own fear.

Whether it was a grassroots initiative to make homemade masks, Phoebe Health Systems CFO Brian Church driving to the Dollar General in Cuthbert to buy bottles of bleach at 10 pm, or local residents dropping off supplies they felt could help, everyone, it seemed, pulled together to do whatever it took to keep this community safe.

And the Albany area community also responded in kind.

“People were dropping off cookies, food, notes, prayer cards,” Scott said. “I remember a home carpenter, he dropped off (masks). He said, ‘I found these 10 dust masks and I thought you could have them and use them.’”

“We had somebody donate 1600 cupcakes on Easter Sunday. I was here and we were trying to figure out how we were going to get 1600 cupcakes out. So, we just grabbed carts and we began to walk to departments.

“Evelyn Olenick and I went to the ICU and that was the first day, Easter Sunday, that I saw (staff) proning a patient, which means you’re flipping them on their stomach for about 18 hours a day.

“I watched them that day prone one patient and they said it was the seventh one they had just proned. And these people came out and they were just sweating and dying of sweat. But they also extubated their first patient (that day), which was pretty special.

“To see people, nurses and doctors, Dr. Lopez, so emotional because all they had seen up to that point was death and illness—here’s somebody that beat it right? It was super powerful.

“But we all did that together as a community. I just can’t say that over and over (enough). It wasn’t easy and I know people were frustrated with COVID, but together we rise and divided we fall.

“We saw the best in people,” he continued. “Man, just the outpouring, again, back to the people, the outpouring of support. When people want to congratulate me, I don’t deserve it. But congratulate Phoebe; our clinicians certainly (deserve it). Our team does because it’s just not those nurses and doctors. It’s who was cleaning the rooms, who was answering the phones at the front desk, right?

“It was our community that did it. Phoebe absolutely played a role in it. AAPHC (Albany Area Primary Health Care) played a role, our other medical partners in the community.

“The community did it. Everybody sacrificed and it was pretty special.”

In fact, that response was so powerful, Scott sees it as something that needs to celebrated as yet another example of how wonderful this community is—a fact he wishes more would recognize.

And while the community is still grappling with rising COVID cases—further straining the already exhausted Phoebe family—Scott’s resolve remains strong. He said he’s frustrated that the community is still dealing with the pandemic, and somewhat sad to know there will be considerable heartache and pain in the coming months, but his heart remains filled by what he’s seen in Albany.

And when the dust does finally settle, and things truly begin to normalize, Scott said he already knows what he’ll be spending most of his time doing.

“I just still love the people here,” he said. “I’m right outside our emergency room and I like to walk over there and surprise the staff. And just when you think, ‘oh man, they’re going to be complaining about this and that,’ they don’t, right. They’re just glad to see you.

“And so that gives me a lot of joy to see people do what they love. I just love talking to people, hearing about their story, their family. And exploring more into the community, getting to know people just differently than I had before.

“(And) trying to help people,” he added. “Whether they’ve got cancer or heart disease (or) they need a colonoscopy or COVID 19, or COVID 21, our job is to still love people and to care for them at the most vulnerable time of their life, no matter what they’re going through, no matter what their feelings have been, no matter if they’ve been vaccinated or not, we’re going to take care of you.

“That gives me a tremendous amount of joy.”

And as a kindred spirit who has always been led by his heart, it gives me not only joy, but hope, knowing we have someone like Scott Steiner constantly looking for ways to care for his new home.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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