Roy Exum: Chutzpah At Erlanger

Monday, January 20, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There were the cynics who laughed, I feel certain, when the headline in Sunday’s editions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press revealed Erlanger Hospital’s still-fresh CEO has a vision of building a new and sparkling children’s hospital within the next five-to-seven years. My goodness, Erlanger has lost millions of dollars in the past two years, is being swamped by indigent-care costs, and problem areas still abound. Kevin Spiegel is still putting his executive team in place, for heaven’s sake.

But for those who sense a Phoenix may indeed be rising from the “almost” ashes at our Level One regional trauma center, just the vision of the most pivotal building since the Aquarium began to transform the riverfront 22 years ago, is so brilliant and dripping with chutzpah it is almost intoxicating. Last summer Spiegel introduced the idea to hospital leaders and since then Bruce Komiske, an expert in implementing and designing some of the best pediatric centers in the world, has become a part-time advisor in “the baby steps” towards reality.

Spiegel and Komiske met over ten years ago when the two worked together helping to build a children’s hospital in Westchester, NY. Spiegel, who had become Erlanger’s CEO just four months earlier, knows well what a state-of-the-art children’s hospital means to a community and brought the talented Komiske to Chattanooga, where he showed an eye-popping presentation to hospital trustees and other community leaders.

The first gathering, hosted by Kim White and River City, was intended to “float” the idea and was well-received. The current Children’s Hospital has stood in the Erlanger campus on East Third Street for almost 40 years and the world of health care has changed dramatically since then. Komiske’s designs are fresh and innovative, hardly appearing as a place for the sick, and who doesn’t want the best for our children?

The toughest question is how to pay for such hospital. While Erlanger is rebounding from losses caused by several harrowing years of mismanagement, the main hospital is hardly in a position to break ground anytime soon, but with Chattanooga’s well-noted philanthropy and the city’s unabashed progressive stance, there is enough interest now being generated in small focus groups that there is viable conversation for a new regional pediatric facility.

Erlanger has other pressing needs, indeed, so it is clear a new Children’s Hospital would be a gigantic community project in much the way the Tennessee Aquarium came into being. During Komiske’s first presentation he stressed the people in the community were most responsible for the stunning pediatric centers like the one in Westchester where he first met Spiegel.

Robert Brooks, a promising and energetic guy, has just arrived as the hospital’s new Chief Operating Officer, which will ease the executive burden that Spiegel, Gregg Gentry and Brett Tabor have shared for the past year. Spiegel expects to add several others on his executive team within the next three months.

In December a high-tech operating room – one of three like it in the country -- was installed at Children’s and a $25 million surgery center is being constructed at Erlanger. “We have a lot of things we need to do,” said Spiegel, “but the idea of a new Children’s Hospital is something that we really need to be looking at if we are going to best serve the region.”

As he explained the rationale behind a campaign for Children’s Hospital, it hardly sounded brash or far-fetched. It is exactly what Kevin Spiegel was brought to Erlanger to do and as he reverses losses, brings in new physicians, and launches new services, what is wrong with such a dream?

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