Olivia Sweetnam has been named the new chief executive officer at Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital in Townshend. She will start work on July 1.
Courtesy photo
Olivia Sweetnam has been named the new chief executive officer at Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital in Townshend. She will start work on July 1.

Grace Cottage welcomes new chief executive

Olivia Sweetnam, the chief nursing officer, will take the reins July 1 as fundraising continues for new $20 million expansion

TOWNSHEND-As fundraising continues for a new rural health clinic, Olivia Sweetnam has been named the new chief executive officer at Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital.

On July 1, Sweetnam will replace Doug DiVello, who announced plans last December to retire when a replacement was hired.

A graduate of Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, with a bachelor of science degree in nursing, Sweetnam received her master of nursing science and master of public health degrees from Yale University.

The chief nursing officer at Grace Cottage since February, Sweetnam was vice president of hospice quality and clinical practice at Amedisys from 2021 to 2023 and has held multiple leadership roles in quality, operations, and medical staff management at Ochsner Health Systems in Louisiana from 2013 to 2021.

Grace Cottage conducted an extensive search with the help of the national executive search firm WittKieffer. Sweetnam was selected after an extensive review of many candidates and interviews with seven finalists.

The new CEO says she had no idea that DiVello would be retiring when she started at Grace Cottage and that the search for his successor "was well underway."

Sweetnam lives with her family in Brattleboro, where she serves on the board of trustees for River Gallery School and on the Brattleboro Town Arts Committee.

"Olivia brings so much knowledge and experience to this position and will be able to continue the excellent work that Doug DiVello has done during his six years here," said Martha Dale, Grace Cottage board president.

"Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital is a rare gem in the world of health care," said Sweetnam. "It is a shining example of personal and compassionate care, and I am proud to lead this wonderful organization into the future."

Sweetnam is a nurse practitioner and is comfortable being on the floor as well as in the boardroom.

"People are always welcome to drop me a line," she said. "I'm excited for this opportunity. It's a really exciting time to be at Grace Cottage, and I'm really looking forward to the future and what it holds."'

A new vision

Founded by Dr. Carlos G. Otis in 1949, Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital continues the tradition of healing and caring for the community, with primary care provided in two adjoining houses built in the 1840s.

Offering high-quality health care has become increasingly challenging in the existing two old houses connected by a winding hallway.

In 2018, the clinic saw 21,000 individual patient visits, which grew to 31,000 visits in 2022 - an increase of nearly 50% in just four years.

In response to this increasing demand for health care services, Grace Cottage has risen to the challenge and now has 13 primary care providers in the two homes, along with 50 nurses and other support staff.

"It's quite clear that these old houses with their narrow hallways, uneven floors, and structural challenges were not built for this kind of use, even with the frequent renovations we've made," said Dr. Tim Shafer, who has been with Grace Cottage for 39 years. "It's just not sustainable."

"It's a set of houses, essentially, that have been stuck together and gradually added on, you know, like a house will have a porch and you'll close in that porch and then add another porch and closing that porch, and that's what it's like," said Dr. Jeremy Morrison in a four-minute fundraising video at gracecottage.org.

"All the floors are different levels, which is a good test for some of our patients, how they can get around. There's no natural flow to patient care; we're always going back and forth."

"We are literally out of space," said DiVello in the video, noting that means the clinic can't hire more providers and there's no way to expand the existing buildings.

"The time is really now," he said, adding the architects have designed a "state-of-the-art building that fits into the landscape of the historic culture of towns in Vermont."

"We've been overwhelmed with feedback from people who believe, as we do, that this is the right time to get this thing going and to get it completed quickly and efficiently."

Fundraising for the future

Thanks to a challenge pledge of $5 million from Joseph and Elizabeth Pollio, Grace Cottage is pursuing a long-held dream to build a new family health clinic on campus.

"Grace Cottage gives wonderful care to its patients," said Elizabeth Pollio, "but the current clinic facility is inadequate. We wanted to make a significant investment in Grace Cottage to help it meet the needs of its many patients, today and the future."

With this pledge in hand, Grace Cottage engaged the services of health care architects Lavallee Brensinger.

Incorporating extensive input from Grace Cottage Family Health employees, plans were drawn for a 23,000-square-foot building that will improve patient flow, comfort, and privacy; enhance parking and accessibility; and provide easier access to Grace Cottage's lab and diagnostic services.

The vision includes tearing down one 1840s building, which has been through many iterations, but keeping the original hospital building, now part of the clinic, which will be used as administrative space.

In fiscal year 2024, the hospital received $1.5 million from the federal government after U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., supported and submitted the request to Congress.

Now, said Senior Director of Development and Community Relations Andrea Seaton, U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., is submitting a FY25 request for $885,000.

Seaton said this week the hope is to have a "shovel in the ground by April of 2025." The campaign is currently about 45%` of the way to the $20 million goal and is expected to take 18 months to complete.

"Construction costs are going up all the time," Seaton said. "It's a 23,000-square-foot building and involves a lot of planning. We're very optimistic we'll reach our goal. Our community is very supportive. Every single gift - from $5 to $500,000 - will make this happen, but it will take the entire community to make this happen and help us out."

"Grace Cottage is such a special place," said Sweetnam, praising the community for being "so invested in Grace Cottage doing well and continuing to grow and thrive."

Noting the uncertainty of an election year, Seaton added that "people know this is a once-in-a-lifetime project. We haven't done another since 1997. This project is just as transformational to the community we serve. There's a lot of noise in the world, but we just stick to our knitting."

She called an independent hospital like Grace Cottage "a unicorn."

"That unicorn needs to be supported, and people understand that," she said.

"When I came here 27 years ago, people said, 'Don't work there, it's going to close.' Well, they've been saying that for years," Seaton continued.

"We really are like the little engine that could, with a spirit of compassion and caring and entrepreneurship and defying the odds," she said.

"It is a great place," said Sweetnam. "It has a culture like nowhere I've ever worked. It feels very different from any other health service I've worked at."

Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital serves includes a traditional primary care practice, a 19-bed hospital, and a 24/7 emergency department. The medical center also has an outpatient rehabilitation department, a laboratory, diagnostic imaging, and a full-service retail pharmacy. In 2023 and 2024, Grace Cottage was recognized by Vermont Business Magazine as a "Best Place to Work in Vermont."

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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