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‘There’s a good vibe here’

Outgoing Brattleboro Memorial Hospital president and CEO Steve Gordon reflects on a decade of change

BRATTLEBORO—After more than 45 years in health care and hospital management, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital president and CEO Steve Gordon is ready for retirement.

Gordon, 66, has held the top job at BMH for 11 years and will be stepping down in April 2022, a month before his 67th birthday.

Most of his professional career was spent in eastern Massachusetts and southeast New Hampshire. Before coming to BMH in February 2011, Gordon served as president and CEO of Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton, Mass. and as the chief administrative officer for Boston Children’s Hospital in Waltham, Mass.

He also spent seven years as vice president of physician services and business development at Newton-Wellesley Hospital/Partners Healthcare (now Mass General Brigham) and 13 years as president and CEO of Parkland Medical Center in Derry, N.H.

It was a career mostly spent in bigger hospitals in bigger places, but Gordon said that he and his wife Sharon were ready for a change. They were looking for work that was within reasonable distance of Gordon’s family in Windham, N.H., when the BMH job came up.

He talked about his first visit to the hospital in the fall of 2010, when he and his wife were just walking around as two curious people, rather than a prospective job applicant and spouse.

“I had never spent a lot of time in Vermont, let alone Brattleboro. We drove up here on a Friday and came unannounced. Nobody knew us when we did our first visit,” Gordon said.

“But there really was a positive vibe about the place,” he said. “The staff here would make eye contact, and ask if you were lost. It was a very positive experience.”

After that visit, Gordon said he immediately applied for the CEO job, and his wife soon joined him as a registered nurse at the hospital.

“We both decided this would be the last job, and we were within two hours of my parents,” he said.

Managing change

Nobody is successful on their own, and Gordon is quick to credit the staff and board of directors at BMH — and the community at large — for supporting the hospital and its mission.

Gordon said that when he got to BMH, he knew he was taking charge of a facility that “was not in the best of shape.”

While the Richards Building had just been completed and dedicated in 2009 — a $12 million building project that gave the hospital some much-needed new office space — the BMH’s Emergency Department and its main entrance needed an upgrade, Gordon said.

“Those are the two main entrance points for care in the hospital, and you’ve got to make a good first impression,” he said.

Upgrading those spaces became one of the biggest projects during Gordon’s tenure. But there were others, too, including renovations of the operating rooms, an upgrade of the hospital’s power plant, and the Ronald Reed Pavilion, a four-story building now under construction that will have three new operating rooms, two floors of medical offices, and an expanded cardiopulmonary rehabilitation department.

At the same time, he said, BMH had prepare for its future. Most of the doctors had their own practices, and many were nearing retirement age.

That led to one of the more difficult jobs for Gordon — the creation of a BMH Medical Group, an umbrella of medical practices. The difference: primary care providers were employed by the hospital.

Gordon said building a medical group with clinical leadership from BMH “has been the biggest programatic change” during his tenure.

“We had to develop a recruitment program for new doctors and clinicians to get them to come to Brattleboro, and the way to do that was through an employment model,” he said.

“New physicians are coming out of college with a heavy debt load. Twenty or 30 years ago, you could hang out your shingle and start your practice,” he said. “You can’t do that anymore.”

“If we didn’t have our board’s support to do this, we wouldn’t have the people we need to service our community,” Gordon said.

Reaching out and collaborating

Gordon said he is also proud of how BMH has helped to expand health care access to uninsured and underinsured people through the Windham County Dental Center (a joint initiative with the United Way of Windham County) and Healthworks (a joint effort among BMH, Brattleboro Retreat, Health Care and Rehabilitative Services, and Groundworks Collaborative).

“It’s somewhat unique, the engagement and support we’ve had with the entire community,” he said. “It makes my job a lot easier.”

But it’s difficult running a hospital in Vermont, Gordon said, because it has one of the most tightly regulated markets in the country. All the hospitals in Vermont are not-for-profit, and collaboration is the only way that small hospitals such as BMH can survive.

Gordon said the close relationship with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, N.H., has made BMH better in ways both seen and unseen.

The hospital now buys its medical supplies though DHMC, and Gordon said the economy of scale cut the hospital’s costs by about 20 percent.

Clinically, the hospital shares resources with DHMC and its closest affiliate hospital, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, N.H.

“That has elevated the quality here and provided us with board-certified emergency medicine, clinicians, physicians, radiology, cardiology — a significant number of our specialists are here because of that relationship,” Gordon said.

Weathering a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic did not hit BMH hard medically.

But Gordon said BMH lost about $11 million in fiscal year 2021, mostly due to the loss of revenue from elective surgeries and procedures that were put on hold by the pandemic for much of 2020.

But Gordon said the federal government, through its coronavirus relief funds, made up that deficit so the hospital could stay out of financial trouble. He noted that finances for the current fiscal year have somewhat improved with the return of outpatient and elective surgeries.

The hospital quickly adopted tele-health visits, which made it possible for people to get an initial diagnosis without having to go to a doctor’s office.

BMH also became a vaccination site for COVID-19, and has administered more 12,000 shots so far this year.

Gordon said he is particularly proud that the BMH staff is 100 percent vaccinated against Covid. (A spokesperson for the hospital confirmed that out of the hospital’s workforce — the equivalent of 537.3 full-time employees — just 2.5 FTEs elected to leave their jobs rather than comply with the vaccine requirements.)

“Our staff leads by example, and we were at the forefront of offering testing and vaccinations,” he said. “When we issued the mandate that everyone be vaccinated, we already had 90 percent compliance.”

And, unlike many hospitals around the country, BMH has had few problems in attracting staff to come work in Brattleboro, according to Gordon.

While many people in the medical field are leaving after the stress of dealing with the pandemic, Gordon said, he and Sharon had long ago made the decision that he would retire at 67.

He says ”it’s time,” and that the believes the next CEO will be inheriting a stronger, better hospital.

“It’s been a long career — almost 45 years — and it has been good to end it at this hospital,” Gordon said. “We feel privileged to have worked here.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #634 (Wednesday, October 13, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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