Alumna revered for ‘lighting a fire’

“If you build it, they will come.”

For the community surrounding Grundy County Memorial Hospital (GCMH), it could be, “If you believe it, they will come.”

The small rural town of Grundy Center, Iowa, witnessed a determined little hospital rise from the ashes to prove itself worthy of their healthcare and earn the faith of the community.

With nursing alumna Pam Delagardelle ’84 at the helm, the small hospital went from a challenged healthcare facility to the largest economic engine of the county. And while a small part of that process included a modernized physical facility, much of the transformation occurred outside the walls, in the hearts of the community.

“The hospital hadn’t enjoyed a good reputation for a long time,” says Delagardelle, who was drawn to GCMH for the chance to gain operational experience and to partner with the community on something meaningful. “It was an uphill battle.”

That battle was due in large part to challenging staffing and financial situations. The hospital was lacking primary care physicians, and financial challenges that had lingered for 20 years had left hospital staff using every available resource to stretch a dollar. Bringing specialists back to the facility was a critical need for this small rural hospital serving patients who might not drive to a big city for care.

“We immediately started focusing on improving quality and safety of patient care,” says Delagardelle. “We focused on clinical outcomes and patient experiences.”

With a renewed focus on patient care, Delagardelle initiated strategies that tucked seamlessly into the patient-centered mission. It took time, consistent and authentic attention to patient care, and renewed efforts at communication and personal relationships, but in the end it laid the groundwork to secure the trust of those they cared about the most – the community. One of the first initiatives Delagardelle focused on was securing new resources for the hospital.

“I began reaching out to doctors I had worked with in Waterloo,” says Delagardelle. “I’d tell them, ‘You don’t need to go to Africa to do service work, you can come to this little rural area one day a week.’ And it worked – they came and started setting up clinics.”

Securing specialists for GCMH was a huge victory for the small hospital, and the leadership team and staff worked diligently to ensure that both patients and doctors received an extraordinary experience while they were there.

Under Delagardelle’s leadership, community outreach became a priority. Working from the outside in, hospital staff invested themselves in the community, inspiring more people to reconnect with the hospital.

Programs sprang to life. GCMH initiated internship opportunities with local high schools. Soon, energetic future leaders came to the hospital to intern in everything from marketing and business to accounting and of course, nursing. Programs such as “Coaches vs. Cancer” allowed Grundy County Memorial Hospital to fight, volunteer, or lobby right alongside community members.

“Our leadership team got out into the community. We volunteered. We bonded with the school system,” says Delagardelle. “We became the people you know, taking care of the people you love. That resonated.”

The face-to-face connections, partnerships, and authentic relationships helped showcase the hospital’s resolve and dedication to the community, and staff saw an increase in visits. It soon became obvious that GCMH would need to make enhancements to accommodate the growth and renovate tired facilities; the physical conditions of the hospital had gotten so bad the state had threatened to shut it down.

So it should come as no surprise that when the hospital was in desperate need of physical renovations, the community stepped in to save it.

“It really appealed to people’s hearts. You can go anywhere for a doctor’s visit, but when seconds count, we are here for you…and we needed a new facility,” says Delagardelle. “When they had skin in the game, it really became their hospital.”

Delagardelle and her team successfully completed not one, but two capital campaigns, totaling more than $3 million and securing new resources such as an outpatient facility and medical office. The hospital now offers highly innovative tools, including “telemedicine” patient visits – high-definition interaction similar to Skype.

With Delagardelle’s efforts, GCMH moved from a state of distress to being the largest employer in Grundy County. And not without recognition. GCMH was awarded the 2012 Iowa Healthcare Collaborative Patient Safety Award for Leadership and Culture of Safety. In 2011 and 2012 the hospital was cited by Modern Healthcare as one of the 100 Best Places to Work. It also received five National Press Ganey Summit Awards for patient satisfaction in the last three years.

Delagardelle received the Iowa Hospital Association Excellence in Leadership Award in 2008, given for outstanding commitment, dedication and inspirational leadership. She was also the recipient of the 2012 Mount Mercy Alumni Distinguished Service award.

Her experiences at GCMH were a perfect blend of strategic smarts and mercy outreach – traits Delagardelle credits Mount Mercy for instilling in her.

“Mount Mercy had an exceptionally rigorous clinical preparation program,” says Delagardelle. “It kicked open a lot of doors for me. And I have a servant-leadership approach to my job that I learned at Mount Mercy.”

Delagardelle has since been named president and CEO of Allen Health Systems in Waterloo, the first woman to serve in this position in the hospital’s history. Her goal is to continue focusing on patient-driven care, inspiring others to be all they can be and living her career through a servant leadership lens.

“It’s not about me,” she says. “It’s not one person who gets it done. But one person can light a fire.”