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Healthcare Heroes

This Unique Initiative Has a Simple Mission: to Save Lives

The Consortium and the Opioid Task Force

The Consortium and the Opioid Task Force

Larry Thomas remembers not knowing exactly what to say or how to respond.

He had just been encouraged to apply for a job as a peer coordinator and recovery coach for something called the Recover Project, a recovery support center operating in downtown Greenfield under the umbrella of the Western Mass. Training Consortium and funded by the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services in Massachusetts. Thomas paused, because the last job he held was as part of a work-release program operated by the Department of Corrections.

“I had never had a job as a free man, applying on my own,” he explained. “When they posted the job, people said I should apply. I said, ‘maybe I should, but I don’t even have a résumé.’ I did apply, but I was scared to put down the last place I worked, because I was still in jail.’”

Thomas, in applying and then earning the job, essentially put his past behind him and focused on solidifying his future, which is, by and large, what he encourages others to do as a recovery coach. He takes his ‘lived experience’ — that’s a phrase you’ll read often in this article — and puts it to work helping others combating addiction and trying to put their lives back together.

Thus, he’s become part of a huge, multi-faceted, truly groundbreaking collaboration forged by the Western Mass. Training Consortium and the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region.

Actually, he was part of it before he became an employee, as we’ll see.

But first, by ‘huge collaboration,’ we mean more than 300 public and private partners, representing law enforcement, the healthcare community, the court system, a host of nonprofit agencies such as the Recover Project, addiction specialists, and addicts themselves. Collectively, these partners have one overriding mission — to save lives.

Sahern Ahern

Sahern Ahern says she learned that, when it comes to addiction, a community has to make change from the inside out.

And they are doing just that by effectively bringing an entire community together to combat a problem that that is prevalent across the country, but especially in rural areas like Franklin County.

As John Merrigan, register of Franklin Probate and Family Court, recalls, in the summer of 2013, all those players were essentially confronting the opioid epidemic separately and in their own ways — and not making much headway, really. By the end of the year, they were confronting it together, collaborating, communicating, building bridges, combining resources, and fighting the problem not by locking people up but by using lived experiences, peer-to-peer counseling, and even massage and acupuncture to help them find a pathway (another word you’ll read often) to treatment and recovery.

As they talked with BusinessWest about the collaboration at the Recover Project’s facility on Federal Street in Greenfield, the many assembled players spoke with one voice about the power of such peer-to-peer counseling and the even greater power of a community coming together to address a problem that has touched everyone in that community directly.

Sarah Ahern, another peer leader and recovery coach, lost two family members to overdose, and remembers feeling a wide range of emotions, but especially anger at a system she felt had failed miserably to prevent such a tragedy.

“I’m that person who decided to bang on the doors from the outside, because I was really angry, and I saw the system was broken,” she recalled. “But someone told me — and I’m pretty sure it was someone here at the Recover Center — you can’t make change that way; you have to make change from the inside out.

“So I started attending task-force meetings,” she went on. “And I met all kinds of wonderful people who are just trying to figure out a solution.”

“I’m that person who decided to bang on the doors from the outside, because I was really angry, and I saw the system was broken. But someone told me — and I’m pretty sure it was someone here at the Recover Center — you can’t make change that way.”

‘Creating change from the inside out.’ That’s one way of describing what this collaboration is doing. But there are many others.

David Sullivan, Northwestern district attorney, had his own way.

“Going back five years, there was recognition on my part, and also by [Franklin County] Sheriff Christopher Donelan, that there needed to be a fundamental shift in the approach to addiction,” he said. “We needed to look at this as a chronic disease and not be looking toward incarceration and criminal sanctions. So the emphasis has been on treatment and recovery, and we’ve put a lot of resources into moving in that direction.”

Deborah McLaughlin, coordinator of the Opioid Task Force, may have summed it up best when she said, “people creating these terrible drugs have no shortage of creativity on their end, so we have to respond in kind to keep ahead of this as much as we can.”

In most all ways, this collaborative effort is creative and truly cutting-edge in its approach to combating opioid and heroin addiction. And it is becoming a model that other community task forces are trying to emulate. Indeed, individuals and groups from across the Commonwealth as well as other New England states, New York, and Ohio have reached out to learn more about this collaboration and its unique approach.

The crisis is far from over, said all those we spoke with. But they were also in agreement that the energy and, more importantly, the hope created to date is fueling general optimism in a region where that commodity has been in short supply in recent years.

And for generating that optimism, all those involved in this collaborative are true Healthcare Heroes.

Coming Together

Anthony Bourdain, the colorful host of the Parts Unknown series who tragically took his own life earlier this year, came to Franklin County in the fall of 2014 to learn about the task force and the many players involved in this collaboration.

He immediately sensed that it was something different and something special, and described the collaborative as a grass-roots response — people coming together to find a “community-based solution to what is finally being recognized as a public-health crisis rather than just a criminal-justice problem.”

He would go on to say, “‘war on drugs’ implies us vs. them, and all over this part of America, people are learning that there is no ‘them’ and only ‘us.’ And we have to figure this out together.”

Nearly four years later, those words seem prophetic. The nation now considers opioid addiction a public-health crisis, and the many players involved in this collaborative effort in Franklin County clearly understand that there is only ‘us.’

Indeed, in a small community like this, almost everyone has a family member, friend, or co-worker who is addicted to opioids or has overdosed. And this closeness to the problem, this familiarity with tragedy, certainly helped bring people together behind that mission to save lives, said Merrigan.

“The district attorney, the sheriff, and myself, who had worked closely together on a number of initiatives in the past, really saw our community being uprooted by the opioid epidemic,” he explained, flashing back roughly five years. “We saw it within our families, within our neighborhoods, and we knew we had to respond and convene members of the law-enforcement community, the medical community, the court community, and the recovery community.”

That response started with a phone call he placed to Linda Sarage, then the director of the Recover Project, and a request — more like a plea — to start a dialogue, something that didn’t exist between the two entities before that call.

Larry Thomas says he was hesitant to apply for a position as recovery coach, because the last time he held any kind of job, he was still in prison.

Larry Thomas says he was hesitant to apply for a position as recovery coach, because the last time he held any kind of job, he was still in prison.

“He introduced himself to me,” said Sarage, noting that there was some irony in the fact that an introduction was needed. “he knew of the work that the Recovery Project had been doing — we been doing some re-entry work at the jail and some re-entry work in the community that really put the importance of recovery out there.”

Those initial talks led to many more and eventually what D.A. Sullivan called an epiphany about the importance and power of recovery communities to finding a long-term solution to the addiction problem.

“You can’t incarcerate your way out of this crisis,” said Sullivan. “I think that people have come around to this, although others still need to be convinced. It’s absolutely clear to all of us that, with really good treatment and recovery, people can lead productive lives and not be wrapped up into the criminal-justice system; the last thing I want to see is people going to court and going to jail — I’d rather see them go to treatment and find that pathway to recovery.”

Which brings him to the subject of lived experience and recovery coaches like Larry Thomas, who are, Sullivan said, some of the real keys to changing the equation in this ongoing battle.

“Five years ago, we were flat-footed — we did not know how to approach this problem. Our system was built for alcohol situations and domestic-violence situations, and the one thing we’re seen across the spectrum — medical, the court community, the recovery community — is the peer-mentor piece,” he explained. “That lived experience, as opposed to a probation officer in the court system, has many advantages. A recovery coach can approach someone who’s struggling; it’s people helping people, and that’s the bottom line, because there’s no magic bullet otherwise to help us cope with this.”

This is what the architects of the collaborative had in mind, said Mary Lou Sullivan, executive director of the Western Mass. Training Consortium, a Holyoke-based agency which has a stated mission of “creating conditions in which people with lived experience pursue their dreams and strengthen our communities through full participation.”

And each word in that phrase is important, she said, starting with that word ‘conditions.’

“A lot of what’s happened in our society is that people are looked at as if they’re broken and they need to be fixed,” she explained. “And we feel like a lot of that is response to life and what’s going on in the world. The opposite of addiction is connection; you can’t separate out people and say, ‘what can we do to tinker with you and fix you?’ That’s a fundamental flaw in the way we go about things.

“So we try to turn the tables on that,” she went on, adding that the next key part of that phrase is ‘lived experience.’ Everyone has it, she said, and there are proven benefits to bringing people together who can share common experiences, whether its addiction, domestic violence, or significant health issues.

Then, there’s the ‘strengthen our communities through full participation’ part of that phrase, she told BusinessWest, echoing Sullivan and others when she said that the community is much stronger when people like Larry Thomas are involved with helping others and not incarcerated.

“It doesn’t serve us to have all these people in jail that we do in this country,” she said. “It would serve us much better if these people were part of the community.”

Parts of the Whole

As she talked, as others did, about the many ways the collaborative is changing the fight against addiction and generating momentum and progress, McLaughlin said groups working together can achieve much more than individuals and groups working independently of one another.

“We’ve been able to do things we wouldn’t be able to do ourselves,” she said, offering as examples everything from a ‘Building a Resilient Community’ event that focused on the role of trauma in one’s life, to a toiletry drive for individuals in recovery — an initiative that involved five locations, with donated items distributed to nine different organizations — to a recovery-friendly resource fair called ‘Where to Turn?’ involving more than 30 nonprofit agencies from the Greenfield, Franklin County, and North Quabbin areas.

And those represent just the tip of the iceberg, she said, adding that there have been a host of other initiatives ranging from a ‘bowling for recovery’ event to a program focused on recovery during the holidays.

Collectively, these events and others show how the community is coming together in this fight and grasping Bourdain’s wisdom when he said, “there is not them and only us.”

“There’s a groundswell of support for individuals impacted by opioid-use or substance-abuse disorder,” she said. “There’s support for families, there’s support for individuals, and I think we want to find out more about what it means to be a recovery-friendly community so that people feel that they are welcome here.”

This support takes many forms, from peer-to-peer counseling to a theater program, to the People’s Medicine Project, an emerging program of the consortium. This is a small but committed group of alternative-health practitioners, gardeners, social-justice advocates, and community members who believe that all people have a right to wellness and an empowered connection to their health.

Leslie Chaison, director of the project, said one of its main goals is to focus attention on the problem of pain and, more specifically, the over-prescription of opioid medications and the need to help people discover alternatives.

“We offer alternative therapies to people in recovery,” she said, adding, however, that the project has been hampered by a lack of funding and has been kept alive by the task force. “We have multiple therapies in our clinic, including acupuncture, massage, homeopathy, craniosacral therapy, herbal consults, and more.”

Through a grant from the task force, the project forged a partnership with Greenfield Community Acupuncture that has enabled a number of early-stage recovery individuals to receive acupuncture treatment for their pain.

“The feedback has been really great,” she said, adding that the project’s regular clinic, housed at the Recover Project and staffed by volunteers, has brought a variety of treatments to people in need.

Count Thomas in that group, and as one of the believers.

“We needed to look at this as a chronic disease and not be looking toward incarceration and criminal sanctions. So the emphasis has been on treatment and recovery.”

“Every Tuesday, they set this up back here,” he said referring to a space within the Recover Project. “There were lights and low music and all this stuff. I remember saying, ‘what is all this?’ and walking out; it took me a while to trust and just make an appointment.

“But I came to trust,” he went on. “And I have full-body massages, herbal medicine … they gave me tea, and it worked better than the medicine I was getting from CVS.”

Summing up the collaboration and the progress made to date, Sullivan said the most notable change has come in breaking down barriers and putting people in the same room — either literally or figuratively.

“In Franklin County, I think there were more silos than there were barns,” he explained. “This is really about good people communicating with other and working on solutions. It’s a big problem, and it still exists, but we’re seeing progress.

“It’s about having that day-to-day conversation with providers — ‘how do you link people up? How does a family find a place for a person to go for treatment? Where do they go for recovery?’ It’s all about these great conversations that are happening now that weren’t happening in the past.”

Bottom Line

Linda Ahern, that angry individual who started banging on doors from the outside out of frustration with a broken system, became emotional as she started talking about battling the problem from the inside — and about the progress made collectively.

“I’m just really proud of what we’ve done together with all our strengths and all the connections that we have,” she said, “and to really welcome people with lived experiences, and not in a token kind of way, but in a ‘your-voice-really-matters’ way.

“We’re setting precedents that are being looked at across the country,” Ahern went on. “I talk to people from all over who say ‘wow, you did that? — share it.’ And that’s what we do; we share the information so that someone in a state that’s not as progressive can do the same things that we are.”

With that, she spoke for everyone in the crowded room. Anthony Bourdain wasn’t there, of course, but in a way, he was — still reminding people that there’s ‘only us.’

Those involved in this massive collaboration don’t need such a reminder; they live and breathe it every day.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

He’s Spent a Half-century in the ‘Helping Profession’

Dr. Robert Fazzi

Dr. Robert Fazzi

There’s more than a little irony attached to the fact that Bob Fazzi’s office has a window that looks out on what was the main gate to the old Northampton State Hospital.

Indeed, Fazzi, the Healthcare Hero in the Lifetime Achievement category, has spent his life working diligently to keep individuals out of institutions like the massive mental-health facility that once dominated the Northampton landscape in myriad ways, and make them part of the community — the one word that probably best defines every aspect of Fazzi’s life and work.

He was doing such work back when his career was getting started as he joined the organization known as Downey Side, which focused on helping to keep delinquent youths out of juvenile institutions and get them into group homes where many layers of support were available.

It was the same when he became the first director of the agency now known as the Center for Human Development. Back then, it was called the Center for the Study of Institutional Alternatives, a name that spoke volumes about its purpose.

And it’s the same, although on a different level and scope with Fazzi Associates, the company he started 40 years ago and incorporated in 1995. Its stated mission is to make a real difference in healthcare by strengthening the quality, value, and impact of home care, hospice, and community-based services.

Fazzi Associates has been a leader and a pioneer in this sector, developing products and services — including the industry’s first home-health patient-satisfaction services — as well as research to make agencies stronger and better able to serve their patients.

The company has grown steadily over the years, so much so that it has had to relocate to larger quarters several times. With the last such move, Fazzi scouted a number of sites, including Tower Square in Springfield, but opted to stay in the community that by then had become home — but in a much different setting.

And in a poetic sort of way, that new mailing address, 11 Village Hill Road, just a few hundred yards from where the state hospital’s administration building, ‘Old Main,’ once stood, represents a lifetime of work well done.

And done in what Fazzi referred to as the “helping profession.”

That’s the term he applied to not only the home-care field, but hospice and the broad human-services spectrum, all touched in one way or another by the company he launched — and the man himself.

Jim Goodwin, the current president and CEO of CHD, who was hired by Fazzi in the late ’70s, describes him as a tireless advocate for those in need, a true leader, visionary, motivator, consensus builder, and manager who was ahead of his time in many ways.

“Today, you hear about CEOs being trained to hire people smarter than they are, to hire people that know things they don’t know,” said Goodwin. “He was one of the first people to actually do that; he hired people like that and made himself successful before that kind of thinking was popular; he put together all the component parts and put the right people around him.”

Fazzi, who noted that he was influenced by a number of mentors in his life, including Father Paul Engel, founder of Downey Side, Paul Doherty, one of that agency’s early board members, and many others, said he’s tried to take the values they’ve impressed upon him and pay it forward, if you will, while also becoming a mentor and inspiration to others.

“I had some great mentors in my life — some people who influenced in my life in a very positive way,” he said. “I’ve tried to do the same for others.”

This manifests itself in a number of policies, formal and informal, at Fazzi Associates. For example, the firm gives away 10% of its profits every year to nonprofit organizations, and has a policy of giving every employee 16 paid hours to volunteer at any nonprofit health, human-service, or anti-poverty organization.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Fazzi was embarking on another new chapter in his life and career. Indeed, after a lengthy search for the right partner, he recently sold the company he founded to Mediware Information Systems Inc., a portfolio company of TPG Capital and a leading supplier of software solutions for healthcare and human-service providers and payers.

He will serve in a strategic advisory role with Mediware, and also be one of the founding board members of ElevatingHome, a new organization created to elevate the role, impact, and influence of the home- and community-based healthcare field.

So, while he’s not exactly retiring, he’s moving in that direction, a step that’s providing some anxiety about what comes next, but also a chance to reflect on his work and his career, which he did for BusinessWest.

At Home with the Idea

While Fazzi is proud of his mailing address, the team assembled to work there, and its many accomplishments, he’s equally proud of something else: how much mail gets delivered there every day.

Indeed, in a community that boasts institutions such as Smith College and Cooley Dickinson Hospital, more pieces are probably delivered to Fazzi Associates than any other location in Northampton.

That’s because those home-health patient-satisfaction surveys, among others developed by the company, must be sent there for processing rather than to the specific agency being evaluated.

“We get almost 1 million pieces of mail a year from patients,” he noted, adding that surveys cannot be completed online at this time. “We compare agencies by how well they do with patients.”

The volume of mail is one qualitative measure of not only how much Fazzi Associates has grown over the years, but also how Fazzi’s career has evolved and touched ever more lives over the decades.

And, as noted earlier, Fazzi may not have known early on what direction his life and his career would take, but he did know he would be getting involved with his community in many ways.

Bob Fazzi

Bob Fazzi has been described by others as a visionary, motivator, mentor, and manager who was in many ways ahead of his time.

“I came from a strong, community-oriented family,” he recalled, noting that he grew up in the Forest Park section of Springfield. “My parents were involved with the church, they were involved with different things within the community; we were always involved.”

During college, he said he was “lost,” as many people who attended in the late ’60s were, but still managed to get involved with a number of groups and organizations, many with community-minded missions and reasons for being.

After college, he had planned on going into AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and thought he had been accepted into that program, but it was so disorganized, as he recalled, that six months later he still wasn’t sure.

While waiting to hear from VISTA, Father Engel invited him to get involved with Downey Side, and he did, living in a number of group homes and working as a community organizer.

He spent only a few years with the program, but its mission, and Engel’s approach to carrying it out, had an indelible impact on Fazzi’s career track and approach to life itself.

“I mention Downey Side all the time, even though I was only there two or three years, and that was a long time ago,” he recalled. “Father Engel was really evangelistic about it, saying, ‘we’ve got to get these kids out of these institutions.’ He was always saying, ‘these kids don’t belong here — we have a moral responsibility to help them.’ That really resonated with me.”

Fazzi eventually left Downey Side to be the first director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Alternatives, which was somewhat of a radical concept back then, he noted, although there was plenty of data to back up that basic premise — and data would be the foundation for the work that would dominate the rest of his career.

The new center started with one program, something similar to Downey Side’s in that the goal was to help keep young people out of institutions, but its mission quickly expanded, he noted, citing as one example that the families of these young people were often challenged by a host of issues, so programs were developed to assist them.

“We found that, in some cases, some of the parents were dealing with severe mental illness; they were up at the state hospital,” he said, referring to the facility in Northampton. “So we began to get involved with the Department of Mental Health.

“The value piece was the key,” he went on. “The value was the least-restrictive alternative; where’s the best place to service people in the least-restrictive manner?”

The answer to that question was “in the community,” he went on, adding that what became CHD was a clear leader in the movement to place individuals with behavioral-health issues in residences within the community.

And while the concept made sense on many levels, there were many individuals who didn’t want such residences in the neighborhoods.

Goodwin remembers some fierce battles with residents in Springfield and West Springfield in particular, and that Fazzi stood his ground and fought hard for those he was working to serve.

“I mention Downey Side all the time, even though I was only there two or three years, and that was a long time ago. Father Engel was really evangelistic about it, saying, ‘we’ve got to get these kids out of these institutions.’ He was always saying, ‘these kids don’t belong here — we have a moral responsibility to help them.’ That really resonated with me.”

“He took a lot of risks,” Goodwin recalled. “In the beginning, when we first opened group homes, there were terrible battles with neighborhoods; people would come out and threaten him and throw things at him. But he always stuck to his guns and worked hard with people in the community to get them to understand the value of community-based programming.”

By the late ’70s, Fazzi knew he wanted to start a new chapter in his career — one that would build on those that came before — and focused on consulting work in realms such as home health and hospice care.

“I felt I wanted to be involved in healthcare, but not the human-service side,” he explained, adding that his doctorate is in organizational behavior and he considered himself proficient at planning and organizational change. His plan was to take those skills and put them to work in consulting to other agencies involved in healthcare.

In Good Company

To say that starting and then growing Fazzi Associates into a business that now employs more than 40 people was a learning experience would be an understatement.

And it started with the first bill he sent.

“I did some consulting work for an agency in Worcester, and they paid me $500,” he recalled. “I sent them a bill, and I called myself ‘Management Consulting’ — very clever; I really stood out with that. He sent it back saying I either had to incorporate or have my name in the title.”

He was set to incorporate but found out that this cost $1,000, twice what he made for the first job. So he opted for plan B and just put his name on the invoices moving forward.

In time, though, and not much of it, ‘Fazzi’ would become more than the name on the bill. It would become synonymous with excellence and innovation in the home-care and hospice realms as the company developed new products and services to help clients better serve their customers and measure their performance.

So much so that, when Fazzi finally decided to incorporate in 1995, and was mulling a name change while doing so, advisors told him the name ‘Fazzi’ had too much name recognition and too much clout for him to consider a change. So he didn’t.

Fazzi recalled that, while he started out working for other people, he always considered himself entrepreneurial.

At CHD, for example, he said the agency was funded by the state, which was often if not always behind in its payments. “I remember having to put my house up in order to carry the organization, and there were other people who did the same thing; if you believed in it, that’s what you did.”

With Fazzi Associates, he started out doing planning and training, with most of the early clients involved with home care and hospice. But the scope of services quickly grew, as did the client list.

While doing organizational-improvement work, home-care agencies would often ask if they were doing a good job, he recalled, adding that he replied, in general terms, that he wasn’t the one to be answering that question; clients should be. And when he asked those agencies if they had patient-satisfaction surveys, most all of them didn’t. And the ones who did lacked that one that would be considered valid.

So Fazzi created one, and before long it was providing them to hundreds of agencies. Then, when the Department of Health and Human Services created the Outcome and Assessment Information Set (OASIS), Fazzi made sure his company became an expert on the subject and began offering OASIS education.

In 2009, responding to the industry’s need to optimize operations to focus on patient care, Fazzi introduced outsourced medical coding, and is now the largest coding company serving the home-health and hospice industries. Through its operational consulting division, the company has helped hundreds of agencies by putting in place best practices in structure, clinical and operational practices, and supervisory models.

Still another contribution Fazzi has made involves conducting scientific best-practice research and then giving that information away for free to the entire industry. The first such study, titled “Collaborating to Compete: A National Study of Horizontal Networks,” was released in 1996. Others to follow included the National Home Care Re-engineering Study, the National Best Practices Improvement Study, and the National Quality Improvement Hospitalization Reduction Study.

“We’re absolutely indebted to our industry — we’ve been in this field since 1978 and believe we have a responsibility to give back to our industry,” he explained. “We feel the best way is to provide every agency in the country with insights on best practices that will make them stronger and more viable.”

Transition Stage

While doing that for his industry, Fazzi wanted to do the same for his company, so he put in place a succession that has Tom Ashe, one of five major partners in the company, succeeding him as CEO.

That leaves him with a problem of sorts.

“I love coming to work every day — I can’t wait to get up and go to work,” he said, adding that, like others facing the transition to retirement, he’s somewhat — OK, maybe a little more than somewhat — apprehensive about what the next phase of his life will be like.

He doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be doing, but it’s a pretty safe bet that that he will stay involved within the helping profession and find new ways to put his vast experience, energy, and compassion to work helping others.

That’s what he’s been doing for a lifetime, and with very positive results for the community known as Western Mass. And for evidence of that, all he needs to do is look out the window toward the gates of the state hospital that no longer exists.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes


2nd Annual Healthcare Heroes Awards

HERO (n.) a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

BusinessWest and Healthcare News have created Healthcare Heroes to honor those who live up to that word’s definition. This region’s health and wellness sector is large, diverse, and dominated by heroes of all kinds. They’re on the front lines, in the administrative office, the research lab, the neighborhood clinic, the family dentist’s office, the college health and science building. They’re making real contributions to the quality of life in our communities, and it’s time to recognize their efforts!

Event Date: Thursday, October 25, 2018
Event Time: 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Location:  Starting Gate at GreatHorse, Hampden

Nominations can now be submitted for the 2018 Healthcare Heroes awards. Deadline for nominations is Friday, June 15 at 5 p.m., NO EXCEPTIONS. Winners will be profiled in the September 3 issue of BusinessWest and the September issue of Healthcare News. Winners will be invited to attend the “Healthcare Heroes” Awards gala scheduled for Thursday, October 25, 2018.

Click on one of the following categories to submit a nomination:


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Health Care Healthcare Heroes Sections

Nominate a Healthcare Hero

Only a few minutes into the first meeting of an advisory board created by BusinessWest and its sister publication, BusinessWest, to provide needed insight as they launched a new recognition program called Healthcare Heroes, the expected question was put forward.

“How do you define that word ‘hero?’ asked one of the panel’s members, addressing the magazines’ decision makers.

The reply, and we’re paraphrasing here, was something to the effect of ‘how we define ‘hero’ is not important — it’s how you define it.’

And by ‘you,’ Kate Campiti, associate publisher of the two publications, essentially meant anyone who would nominate an individual or group to be named a Healthcare Hero in one of seven categories that first year.

Those who did so came up with their own definitions, used to highlight the nominations of a unique class of individuals and groups that would include Sr. Mary Caritas, SP, former president of Mercy Medical Center, in the Lifetime Achievement category; Dr. Michael Willers, owner of the Children’s Heart Center, in the Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider category; Dr. Andrew Dobin, an ICU surgeon, in the Innovation in Health/Wellness category; and the Healthy Hill Initiative in the Collaboration in Health/Wellness category.

“Generally, ‘hero’ means someone or some group that stands out and stands above others in their profession, in their service to others, and in the way their passion for helping those in need is readily apparent,” Campiti said. “And we saw this in our first class of honorees. If there was one word that defined all of them, beyond ‘hero,’ it was ‘passion.’”

A panel of judges will be looking for that same passion as they weigh nominees for the class of 2018.

Nominations are currently being accepted, and will be until the end of the day on June 15. Nomination forms can be found on both publications’ websites — www.businesswest.com and www.healthcarenews.com.

Nominations are being accepted in the following categories:

Those nominating individuals and groups are urged to make their submissions detailed and specific, giving the judges who will review them all the information they need.

The honorees will be chosen this summer and profiled in the Sept. 4 edition of BusinessWest and the September edition of BusinessWest.

The Heroes will then be honored at a gala set for Oct. 25 at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden.

Rounding out the class of 2017 are:

Lifetime Achievement: Sister Mary Caritas, SP;

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Dr. Michael Willers, owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts;

Emerging Leader: Erin Daley, RN, BSN, director of the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center;

Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Holly Chaffee, RN, BSN, MSN, president and CEO of Porchlight VNA/Home Care;

Community Health: Molly Senn-McNally, Continuity Clinic director for the Baystate Pediatric Residency Program;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Dr. Andrew Doben, director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Medical Center;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Genevieve Chandler, associate professor of Nursing at UMass Amherst; and

Collaboration in Healthcare: The Healthy Hill Initiative.

For more information on Healthcare Heroes, visit www.businesswest.com or www.healthcarenews.com.

Healthcare Heroes

Scenes from the October 2017 Gala

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Photos by Dani Fine Photography

healthcareheroeslogo021517-pingThere were more than 70 nominations for the inaugural Healthcare Heroes class, and each one of them was truly worthy of that word ‘hero.’ Each one is to be considered a winner in some respect.

On Oct. 19 BusinessWest and The Healthcare News recognized the inaugural Healthcare Heroes class. Collectively, they are pioneers, and were celebrated at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden. Each one is to be considered a winner in some respect.

American International College and Trinity Health are the presenting sponsors of Healthcare Heroes. Partner Sponsors are Achieve TMS, HUB International New England, and Health New England. Additional sponsors are Bay Path University, Baystate Health, Cooley Dickinson Health Care, Elms College, and Renew.Calm. Tickets to the event are $85 each, with tables available for purchase. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600.


Their stories reveal large quantities of energy, imagination, innovation, compassion, entrepreneurship, forward thinking, and dedication to the community.

There were eight winners in this first class, with two in the category of ‘Innovation in Health/Wellness,’ because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2017 are:

Lifetime Achievement: Sister Mary Caritas, SP;

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Dr. Michael Willers, owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts;

Emerging Leader: Erin Daley, RN, BSN, director of the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center;

Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Holly Chaffee, RN, BSN, MSN, president and CEO of Porchlight VNA/Home Care;

Community Health: Dr. Molly Senn-McNally, Continuity Clinic director for the Baystate Pediatric Residency Program;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Dr. Andrew Doben, director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Medical Center;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Genevieve Chandler, associate professor of Nursing at UMass Amherst; and

Collaboration in Healthcare: The Healthy Hill Initiative.


Healthcare Heroes

Healthcare Heroes 2017

healthcareheroeslogo021517-pingThere were more than 70 nominations for the inaugural Healthcare Heroes class, and each one of them was truly worthy of that word ‘hero.’ Each one is to be considered a winner in some respect.

On Oct. 19, BusinessWest recognized those who stood out the most in the hearts and minds of an esteemed panel of judges. Collectively, they are pioneers, and they will continue in that vein at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden as they become the first individuals and organizations in the region to accept the Healthcare Heroes award.

Their stories reveal large quantities of energy, imagination, innovation, compassion, entrepreneurship, forward thinking, and dedication to the community.

There are eight winners in this first class, with two in the category of ‘Innovation in Health/Wellness,’ because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2017 are:

Lifetime Achievement: Sister Mary Caritas, SP;

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Dr. Michael Willers, owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts;

Emerging Leader: Erin Daley, RN, BSN, director of the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center;

Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Holly Chaffee, RN, BSN, MSN, president and CEO of Porchlight VNA/Home Care;

Community Health: Molly Senn-McNally, Continuity Clinic director for the Baystate Pediatric Residency Program;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Dr. Andrew Doben, director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Medical Center;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Genevieve Chandler, associate professor of Nursing at UMass Amherst; and

Collaboration in Healthcare: The Healthy Hill Initiative.

American International College and Trinity Health are the presenting sponsors of Healthcare Heroes. Partner Sponsors are Achieve TMS, HUB International New England, and Health New England. Additional sponsors are Bay Path University, Baystate Health, Cooley Dickinson Health Care, Elms College, and Renew.Calm. Tickets to the event are $85 each, with tables available for purchase. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600.


Healthcare Heroes

At 94, She’s Still Finding Ways to Lead, Fight, and Inspire

 Sister Mary Caritas, SP

Sister Mary Caritas, SP

Sister Mary Caritas, SP says that many of the assignments during her remarkable 70-year career in healthcare, civic service, and work with the Sisters of Providence were unplanned, unexpected, and, in some cases, well, untimely — at least initially.

By that she meant that, by and large, when she was informed that her role would be changing — and that happened more than a few times — she was very much enjoying what she was doing, making a difference in that role, and looking forward to going on in that way. Meanwhile, in most cases, she considered herself totally prepared for the new challenge to which she was assigned.

That was true when she was told early on by her superiors that she would focus her career pursuits on dietary science rather than nursing, a profession she fell in love with, and again when she was told, after serving several years as a dietitian, that she would become an administrator at St. Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield, and again when she was named president of the Sisters of Providence.

But in each case, she accepted what was to come next with enthusiasm and a mindset to make the very best of that situation — for her, but also, and especially, for the constituencies she would be serving.

She loves to fight for a good cause; she’s energized by it, and she communicates that enthusiasm or concern or passion to others. And when she gets in that mode, she’s unstoppable; she’s a remarkable woman.”

“Several times, I was doing something I loved doing, and then I was quickly moved somewhere else,” she told BusinessWest. “But each time I had that experience, new doors opened for me; new opportunities came my way. There were many occasions when I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”

There are countless people who would no doubt say the same thing. And those sentiments — not to mention a seemingly endless list of accomplishments and tireless work within the community — go a long way toward explaining why Sister Caritas, who turned 94 on August 22, was the clear winner in the Lifetime Achievement category for this inaugural class of Healthcare Heroes. In fact, she was the top scorer among the more than 70 nominees for the program’s seven categories.

When looking over her résumé, it’s easy to see why.

That document goes on for several pages and includes a long list of professional appointments, including a nearly two-decade-long stint at Mercy for which she is perhaps best known.

It also chronicles a host of church-related activities and appointments, including a nine-year tenure as president of the Sisters of Providence that preceded her time as Mercy’s president, as well as stints on the executive council of the Sisters of Providence, the Catholic Charities board, and many others.

And it also includes a lengthy list of civic activities and work within the business community, including everything from decades of service to the Easter Seals to her memorable role as chair of the task force on Bondi’s Island in the mid-’90s; from a decade of service as chair of the United Way of Pioneer Valley to a five-year stint as chair of the Springfield Council on Aging.

Now 94, Sister Mary Caritas shows no signs of slowing down

Now 94, Sister Mary Caritas shows no signs of slowing down, and clear signs of only adding new chapters to a nearly 70-year career in healthcare and service to the church.

She served on the board of two area colleges — Elms College and Western New England University — and also a few banks, including the former Springfield Institution for Savings and the former Community Savings Bank in Holyoke. She served on the Spirit of Springfield board for 16 years, and still serves on the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.

And then … there’s her service to dozens of healthcare organizations. That list is way too long to print in anything approaching its entirety, but it includes the Sisters of Providence Health System, Catholic Health East, and Trinity Health New England (all parent companies to Mercy at different times), but also Partners for a Healthier Community, Cancer House of Hope, Holyoke Hospital, the American Hospital Assoc., the Mass. Hospital Assoc., the Academy for Catholic Health Care Leadership, and many more.

But despite all that this résumé conveys, it’s still only part of the story.

The much bigger part is the energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and innovative nature she brought to those assignments — or continues to bring; indeed, a good number of those listings have a starting date, then a hyphen, and then the word ‘present’ — and also her ability to inspire others.

Sister Kathleen Popko, current president of the Sisters of Providence, who has worked beside and been friends with Sister Caritas for a half-century, summed it all up this way:

“She loves to fight for a good cause; she’s energized by it, and she communicates that enthusiasm or concern or passion to others, and they join with her, whether it’s for Bondi’s Island stench or fluoridation or reaching out and advocating for those who are are poor and underserved.

“And when she gets in that mode,” Sister Popko went on, “she’s unstoppable; she’s a remarkable woman.”

Heart and Soul

Sister Caritas was doing quite well in her efforts to mask some frustration.

As she talked with BusinessWest, she was awaiting word on the scheduling of what she called minor heart surgery — and coping, if that’s the right word, with a list of things her doctor told her she shouldn’t be doing. (Editor’s note: That surgery went well, and she has been cleared to do pretty much anything she wants.)

At the time, the refrain-from list included golf, a pastime she’s enjoyed for decades (her record includes a hole in one at East Mountain Country Club’s 10th hole), as well as pilates.

While somewhat disappointed that she had to take it rather easy, Sister Caritas took the marching orders in stride. There were, after all, plenty of other things to keep her busy.

But understand that it takes nothing short of orders from a doctor to in any way slow down this energetic leader, who has been keeping a full calendar (whether it be the printed variety in a binder or her cellphone) since just after World War II ended.

Our story begins in Springfield, where she was born and raised. Her father had designs on her being his secretary, and her classes at Commerce High School, which she didn’t like at all, had her on that path.

Things changed after she met a woman in training to be a nurse. “I got so excited and so enthusiastic, when I came back, I told my mother I wanted to be a nurse,” she recalled, adding that these sentiments were not received warmly by her mother, who warned her that she would spend a career emptying bed pans.

But the young Mary Geary was determined — we’ll see that word repeatedly in this discourse — and enrolled at Technical High School, focusing on the sciences, with the goal of entering the nursing profession.

Upon joining the Sisters of Providence — another decision that did not sit well with her mother — she was sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester as a nurse. But upon making her final vows after her fifth year, in 1949, she was sent to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, a move she was thrilled with until she found out that, instead of nursing, she would focus on dietary services, a decision made by the reverend mother.

Fast-forwarding a little, after receiving a master’s degree in nutrition education at Tufts University and undertaking a dietetic internship at the Francis Stern Food Clinic at the New England Medical Center in Boston, she was assigned to be administrative dietitian at Providence Hospital in Holyoke.

“I had the happiest time of my life for the next seven years,” she recalled employing a tone that made it clear that such happiness had an expiration date. “December 23, 1966, I was busy preparing a party for the sisters when I got a call from the Mother House. With no preamble, and with no explanation, the reverend mother simply said, ‘little sister, as of January 2, you are the administrator at St. Luke’s Hospital.’”

When she replied that she didn’t know anything about hospital administration, her superior responded with a simple ‘you’ll learn,’ which she did.

After St. Luke’s and Pittsfield General merged in 1969 to become Berkshire Medical Center, Sister Caritas served briefly as associate director of that facility. That’s briefly, because her life and career were soon to change abruptly — again.

Indeed, she was chosen to lead the Sisters of Providence and take the title superior general, a title that intimidated her about as much as the long list of responsibilities that came with it.

“I was totally unprepared for this,” she said, adding that, as she did with other stops during her career, she learned by doing.

A Fighting Spirit

And that ‘doing’ included work to create a new Mercy Hospital, a facility that would replace a structure built by the Sisters of Providence in 1896 and open its doors in 1974.

In another strange career twist — yes, there have been several in this narrative — Sister Caritas would succeed the woman she chose to lead the new Mercy (Sister Catherine LaBoure) after Sister LaBoure was in turn chosen to lead the order.

While Mercy had a new facility, it remained what Sister Caritas called “the little kid on the block,” much smaller than its rival just a few blocks away, Baystate Medical Center.

Sister Caritas (a.k.a. ‘little sister’), front row, center

Sister Caritas (a.k.a. ‘little sister’), front row, center, says she likes creating new things and getting things started. “Those are the kinds of things that energize me.”

But in its smaller size, Mercy’s president saw nimbleness and an ability to fill recognized niches, while also taking some bold, innovative — and, yes, entrepreneurial — steps.

Such as an in-hospital surgery center that has a story behind it that provides some insight into Sister Caritas’ determination and desire to fight for something she wants and believes in.

“I was going to buy a surgery center down on Maple Street,” she recalled. “Everything was moving along smoothly, but the night before the sale was to go through, they called and said they changed their mind. I was naturally terribly disappointed, but disappointed was hardly the word for it. I was mad; I was furious.

“So I said, ‘we have some space; we have some extra operating rooms,’” she went on. “So we created the first in-hospital surgery center.”

Other innovations and expansion initiatives would follow, including an eye center created at the hospital, an intensivist program, one of the nation’s first hospitalist programs, creation of the Weldon Center for Rehabilitation, the Family Life Center, the Healthcare for the Homeless initiative, and much more.

The common denominators with each of these efforts were common sense, expediency, and a desire to better serve patients and families, said Sister Caritas, citing the hospitalist program, now a staple in hospitals across the country, as an example.

“It was never really my intention to start a hospitalist program — I just wanted to create opportunities for more surgery,” she explained. “My whole life has been taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves; when I’m open to something and think it’s a good idea, I move with it. And I like nothing more than creating new things and getting something started. Those are the kinds of things that energize me.”

But while Sister Caritas has always been entrepreneurial, the word most-often used to describe her is compassionate.

“What’s truly impressive is the breadth of her engagement, from the national level all the way down to the individual,” said Sister Popko. “She’s been on many national and regional boards and continues to serve on several — she has that dimension. But at the same time, and simultaneously, she has extraordinary compassion and a big-hearted, magnanimous response to the needs of the individual, whether it’s helping someone find a placement for their mother in a nursing home or reaching out to an individual who’s looking for a job or is in trouble.

“If you know her, you know her thousand closest friends,” she went on. “She just knows everyone.”

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who was mayor of Springfield during Sister Caritas’ tenure as president of Mercy, agreed.

“Her legacy is one of lasting kindness, compassion, and care for all,” he said. “She vowed to ensure that everyone who came through her doors were taken care of, and she fulfilled that promise. She has truly fulfilled the Sisters of Providence pledge to pay particular attention to the cries of the poor and oppressed.”

Small Wonder

Sister Popko told BusinessWest that Sister Caritas, a.k.a. ‘little sister,’ insists that at one time she was at least 5 feet tall, and maybe a full inch over that mark.

Not anymore.

Not that it matters, or has ever mattered.

“She has such a large presence even though she’s a very small person,” Sister Popko noted. “When she walks into a room, everyone recognizes her and wants to speak to her. She has an indomitable spirit, is very courageous, and is outspoken when it’s called for.”

Such comments evoke Mark Twain’s famous and often-borrowed line: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” And with many matters, and in many arenas, Sister Caritas has displayed plenty of fight.

Perhaps the most celebrated example was her lengthy battle to win approval from the Mass. Department of Public Health for a cobalt unit for cancer treatment at Mercy Hospital. She first filed an application in 1978, and it was denied. Applications could only be filed biannually, so she tried again in 1980. And 1982. And 1984. And 1986. You get the idea.

“They said I couldn’t demonstrate that there was enough need for it,” she recalled, with exasperation still evident in her voice nearly 40 years after she was first turned down. “I couldn’t believe it.

“But over the next 14 years, I applied every two years,” she went on, adding that the seventh application was to be her last — at least as president of Mercy — because she had informed her board that she would be retiring.

That seventh time was the charm, and the cancer center that was started but not completed during her tenure now bears her name.

In keeping with her character, however, she said that getting the center approved and built were not the real accomplishments.

“It’s one thing to build something, but it’s the quality of the service, the compassion of the people, and the love they have for their patients that really makes the difference,” she told BusinessWest. “While it’s a beautiful center, it’s nothing without that compassion.”

That compassionate, fighting spirit remains today. Indeed, while the word ‘retire’ was officially attached to the end of her tenure at Mercy, she prefers to say that her energies were simply “redirected.”

Toward Bondi’s Island, for example, and the odor problems that had plagued that facility for years, but in many other directions as well.

She still sits on a dozen boards and continues to look for ways to innovate and serve the historically underserved. Both those missions come together in an ongoing project to create senior housing for lower-income individuals on the former Brightside campus.

The Sisters of Providence are seeking additional funding support (state grants have already been secured) for a 36- to 40-unit facility that will be a demonstration project that will tie in with the PACE (Program for All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) initiative already operating at that site.

“We want to demonstrate the relationship between supportive housing and people’s ability to remain independent,” she said of the project called Hillside at Providence. “And that’s exciting.”

As she talked about the Hillside project and the countless others she’s been involved with over the years, Sister Caritas was persistent in her efforts to make it clear that, with each one, she was only working as part of a team.

Indeed, when asked to consider identifying what she considers her greatest accomplishment, she said flatly, “I don’t think I’ve had any great accomplishment.”

Rather, “when I think about all the people who I’ve worked with and the people who have supported me, and the network needed to get things done … there’s not anything that I’ve done by myself,” she went on. “With other people, though, we’ve done some great things.”

Cause and Effect

As she was concluding her talk with BusinessWest and thus getting on to other items on her busy schedule, Sister Caritas took a few minutes to talk about Mary Elizabeth O’Brien, now serving as interim president of Mercy Medical Center.

“She’s someone you can believe in,” Sister Caritas remarked. “And that’s what you need in a leader, someone you believe can get it done.”

Ironically, generations of area residents, including those who have worked beside her, those who have benefited from her many initiatives, and even those working in competing hospitals have said the same of Sister Caritas. And at 94, they’re still saying it.

As her friend Sister Popko noted so eloquently, she loves fighting for a good cause.

And yes, when she gets in that mode, she is unstoppable. Still.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

This Physician Always Has His Patient’s Interest at Heart

Dr. Michael Willers

Dr. Michael Willers
Dani Fine Photography

Dr. Michael Willers calls it simply “the look.”

When asked to describe it, he said it was somewhat difficult to put into words. What certainly wasn’t is his opinion that generating this look may well be his favorite thing about his work as owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts.

It comes when a young patient finally comes to the realization that he or she is there at the home on Northampton Street in Holyoke to receive medical care — and not just play on the rug with LEGOs or a stuffed animal.

“I’ll be talking to the parents and I’ll be talking to the kid … and then I get my stethoscope out, and I sit down on the floor with the kid with my stethoscope,” Willers explained. “And it dawns on the kid at that moment that this is not just hanging out on the floor at some friend’s house. There’s a stethoscope involved, and they’re in a doctor’s office … and the kid’s thinking, ‘wait a second … I may have been duped.’

“They have this really surprised look on their face,” he went on. “Then I say, ‘it’s all good … we’re just going to have a listen, and maybe you want to listen, too.’ So we’ll listen to their heart together.”

Willers’ ability to prompt ‘the look’ doesn’t completely explain why he was chosen as the winner in the category of Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider, but it goes a long way toward getting that job done. He and his partners, Drs. Cyrus Yau and Meaghan Doherty, have created an environment that looks and feels far more like a home than a place where pediatric cardiologists would typically do their work.

And they run a practice where parents, often very anxious about bringing their child to a cardiologist to begin with, leave with all their questions answered and their fears, in most cases, anyway, put to rest.

Willers told BusinessWest that, unlike most healthcare operations today, this is not a volume business — or, to be more precise, not a business consumed with volume. Indeed, the three physicians generally book only seven appointments a day and spend an hour, on average, with each patient and their parents.

Taking care of kids and being with them … I could do that all day long and not get tired of it. It picks me up every time.”

And while his work is cardiology, Willers says he and his partners regard themselves as experts in stress reduction, especially when it comes to the parents of the children they see.

“I’ll often tell people that we specialize here in anxiety and worry,” he explained. “Our specialty is helping parents who are anxious or worried or scared. We take pride in tuning into that and understanding where parents are coming from and helping to unravel that anxiety and figure out exactly where their anxiety lies.”

But it’s not simply how much time is spent with patients and their families, or all this work in stress reduction that sets Willers apart. It’s also how that time is spent, which, in his case, means getting down to the patient’s level — quite literally.

“When I went to medical school, I knew I was going to get into pediatrics,” he said while explaining how he chose this line of work, or it chose him, as many working in healthcare opt to phrase things. “I love the social aspect of it, to be honest with you. There’s nothing like walking into an exam room and having a chance to get on the floor and play LEGOs with kids, talk to them about their lives and about what they enjoy.

“Pediatrics is intellectually interesting,” he went on. “But socially, it’s invigorating. The real reason I went into pediatrics as opposed to internal medicine or something else was purely social and emotional reasons. Taking care of kids and being with them … I could do that all day long and not get tired of it. It picks me up every time.”

The Pulse of His Practice

Willers isn’t sure of the exact date, but he believes that the home at 1754 Northampton St. in Holyoke is, like most of the others in that vicinity, not quite a century old.

It is large and comes complete with many nooks and crannies. For example, each of the examination rooms on the second floor has a short, narrow closet in one corner, the dimensions of which are determined by the structure’s sloping roof.

The waiting room at the Children’s Heart Center looks more like a living room, which is exactly what it was for roughly 90 years.

The waiting room at the Children’s Heart Center looks more like a living room, which is exactly what it was for roughly 90 years.

Each closet is filled with a trove of stuffed animals and toys, and on occasion, Willers won’t just go into the closet for something, he’ll actually emerge from it to greet a patient. To get his point across, he gave a demonstration.

“They’ll be looking for me to come in the front door, but once in a while I’ll get down in here,” said the 6-foot, 3-inch Willers as he squeezed in and closed the door behind him. “And then I’ll pop out like this and say, ‘hi, guys.’”

This demonstration, and the enthusiastic commentary that accompanied it, speak volumes about not what Willers does, but something at least equally important — how he does it.

Before we get into that in more depth, though, we need to first explain just how Willers arrived in that closet. It’s an intriguing story, and it really begins back at Wesleyan University, where he was finishing his work toward earning a degree in biology.

He wasn’t considering medicine at that time — he was leaning toward getting a Ph.D. in ecology or evolution — but a week spent with a group of internal-medicine residents at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York changed all that.

“Six months before senior year, I decided I wanted to go to medical school,” he noted, adding that he enrolled at Dartmouth and, while working toward his degree, developed two passions — working with and for the underserved, and taking care of young people, for all those reasons mentioned above.

After completing his residency in pediatrics at Cornell Medical Center – New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Willers went to work at the Fair Haven Community Health Center in New Haven, Conn., an experience he described as the best of both worlds — taking care of an underserved, largely Spanish-speaking population, and also having teaching and hospital privileges at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Desiring to narrow his focus to pediatric cardiology, he undertook a fellowship in that specialty at Yale School of Medicine, and upon completing it, he went to work at Baystate Children’s Hospital as a pediatric cardiologist, one of three on staff, while also serving as director of the Pediatric Exercise Physiology Laboratory.

Seeking to provide care in a different setting and in a different manner, he founded the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts in 2012.

“I wanted to be able to take care of people in a way that focused on patients as individuals, and their families,” he explained. “And spending time with them, answering questions, addressing their concerns, understanding their lives and how their heart problems impacted their lives, and how their lives impacted their heart issues.

“I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t like a lot of hospital-based outpatient practices,” he went on. “There’s a lot of overhead with those facilities; you have to pay for the fancy waiting rooms, and you have to pay the CEOs and the vice presidents and the middle managers, and a lot of the money goes toward things not directly related to good patient care. And what that means is that the volume of patients you need to see in a hospital-based practice just to keep the boat floating is enormous, and that means spending less time with patients.”

He started in that home in Holyoke with an operating philosophy that minimized those overhead expenses and called for seeing seven patients a day for an hour each, as opposed to 30 patients a day for 15 minutes each.

When asked how this was doable in this modern age of healthcare, where volume is such a critical factor in a practice’s success, he paused for a moment before responding.

“It’s our priority,” he explained. “In any endeavor in life, if you prioritize the right things, then you can make it work. And we prioritize the relationships with patients and families. We don’t prioritize mahogany desks, and we don’t prioritize over-management.”

As the practice grew, thanks in no small part to a very receptive response from the region’s community of pediatricians, it expanded, both with additional cardiologists (Yau and Doherty) and with satellite offices in Amherst and Great Barrington.

Hardly a Murmur

As he offered a quick tour of the Holyoke office, Willers pointed out a number of design elements and choices regarding décor that were chosen specifically with the goal of making young patients and their parents feel comfortable and, well, at home.

These include the couches chosen over traditional plastic chairs seen in most physicians’ offices, oriental rugs, soft, padded examination tables, toys and games seemingly in every room, and patients’ exploits in coloring between the lines decorating one full wall at the front entrance.

Even the terminology reflects this operational philosophy, if you will.

Indeed, upon arrival, visitors are asked to sit in the ‘living room,’ not the ‘waiting room,’ because while the latter phrase effectively describes its official function, it certainly looks more like the former — because, for roughly 90 years, that’s exactly what it was.

But the friendly, patient- and family-focused tone of this practice goes well behind furniture and phraseology. It also involves everything from the considerable amount of time spent with a child and his or her parents, to the attention paid to the communication process.

To explain, Willers chose as his subject matter the heart murmur, a term that most parents don’t fully understand and one that usually generates far more fear and anxiety than are actually warranted.

So Willers said he starts off by focusing on the child, not the word ‘murmur,’ and moves on to making it clear to parents that, in the vast majority of cases, murmurs are normal and not life-altering.

Dr. Michael Willers

Dr. Michael Willers says his favorite toy is whichever one his patient happens to be playing with at the time.

“I’ll tell a parent that there are seven different kinds of normal murmurs, and say, ‘let me tell you about the one your child has,’” he explained, adding that, for this exercise, he referenced the Still’s murmur, a common type of benign murmur named after the man who first described it, Dr. George Frederic Still. “And I’ll draw them a picture of a heart, explain what causes this murmur, and then tell them, ‘this is a totally normal murmur in completely normally healthy kids, something that develops around the age of 2 or 3 and lasts until the kid is 12 or 13 or 14. But it eventually goes away on its own and never turns into anything bad, and you never have to worry about it again.’”

Overall, Willers said he and his partners work hard to effectively communicate with patients and their parents to ensure they have a solid understanding of what’s happening with the heart in question.

“Some cardiologists will say, ‘your daughter has a heart-valve problem; she’s going to need a procedure on down the line — we’ll talk about it more later,’” he explained. “When we sit down with patients, our discussions are usually 20 or 30 minutes long; we draw pictures, we take notes, they go home — we intend for them to go home — with a really solid understanding of what’s going on with their kid, or with them if they’re an older person.

“In my experience, there’s nothing like uncertainty to breed anxiety, and there’s nothing like anxiety to disrupt the joy of parenting,” he went on. “And so we really try to get rid of the uncertainty and give people definitive answers in terms that are in plain English so that they can home with an understanding and a reassurance, and they don’t have to feel anxious.”

The Internet and all the information available on it has acted to fuel this anxiety, Willers said.

“They’ll hear something or read something on the Internet, and they’re really worried that their kid is going to die for X, Y, or Z reason, but they don’t really want to say it,” he went on. “So unless you can tune into their emotions and be on the same wavelength, you can’t really put their fears to rest.”

But getting on the same wavelength with parents is just part of this story. Getting there with children is what Willers probably enjoys most.

And while the methods for doing so vary with the age of the patient, the common threads are communicating and connecting.

“The first five minutes of every visit isn’t ‘so what brings you here today?’” he explained. “It’s ‘how’s your summer going?’ or ‘what was camp like?’ or ‘dude, how’s it going with your little sister?’ You spend five minutes connecting like that, and it brings a certain energy to that visit.”

A Different Beat

When asked if he had a personal favorite when it comes to kids’ toys and games — remember, he gets right down on the rug to play alongside his patients — Willers gave an answer that neatly sums up how this practice operates, and why.

“Whatever the kid is playing with at that given moment — that’s my favorite,” he told BusinessWest.

Such an attitude explains not only why Willers was chosen to be a hero in the Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider category, but also why he loves to create ‘the look’ and can’t wait to see it again.

Like he said, he can do this all day, and it picks him up every time.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Emergency Department Director Creates Efficiencies — and a True ‘Front Door’

Erin Daley, RN, BSN

Erin Daley, RN, BSN
Dani Fine Photography

Almost from the first moment she stepped into the emergency room at Cooley Dickinson Hospital as a nursing student at UMass Amherst, Erin Daley knew this was the environment in which she wanted to work — and maybe spend a career.

“The ER is one of those places where you either love it immediately or you know it’s not for you, and it’s always been a place I absolutely loved,” said Daley, who, when asked what prompted the fast, deep embrace of this setting, said simply, “everything about it.”

“It’s that ability to be reactive,” she went on, as she went into some detail about what she meant by ‘everything.’ “And be able to change priorities at a moment’s notice. It’s unique, challenging, but not in a negative context, and there is nothing routine about it.”

These sentiments are reflected in the way Daley talked about everything from a much-needed return to the ER at CDH after a stint as a telemetry nurse at Baystate Medical Center to broaden her horizons, as she put it — “even though I learned a ton, I knew labor and delivery were not for me and I needed to get to the ER” — to the enthusiastic manner in which she relayed her affection for the work involved with being a ‘charge nurse’ in the ED at Mercy Medical Center.

“You have to know everything about everyone at all times in order to fit the puzzle pieces together,” she explained. “It’s this constant juggling act.”

And her affection for this setting was clearly evident when she talked about how much she misses being directly on the front lines, if you will, in her current role as director of Emergency Services at Mercy.

“I loved being an emergency-room nurse,” she said, expressing clear regret at having to use the past tense. “On days that they’re really busy and if there’s things I could skip, I’d gladly do that to jump in, even if it’s just to help transport patients; most of the day to day does not allow me to be out there anymore.”

But while there is that drawback to her current position, if one chooses to call it that, there are nonetheless many different kinds of rewards — everything from orchestrating strong improvements in the overall efficiency of the Mercy ER to working with a host of other players to help stem the tide of the nation’s opioid crisis.

Her boundless energy has gained her the reputation of being a go-getter, one who gets things done, and overall future leader for our healthcare system and community. She is both an emerging leader and one who has emerged.”

For her achievements in all these realms, Daley was the top scorer amid a strong field of candidates within the Emerging Leader category for these inaugural Healthcare Heroes Awards.

To put her efforts into proper perspective requires liberal use of numbers. For example, she oversees an ER with nearly 80,000 annual patient visits, making it one of the busiest in the state in terms of visits per bed. She oversees a staff of 160 and a budget of $65 million. More numbers are needed to chronicle the process improvements she and her staff have orchestrated with several key measurements of care. For example, the Mercy ER has:

• Decreased the ‘left without being seen’ rates from 5% to 2%, thus improving revenues;

• Decreased overall ‘door-to-door’ time, as it’s called, by 57 minutes;

• Increased patient-satisfaction scores by 40%; and

• Improved employee-engagement scores by 33%.

However, words and phrases are needed to convey how all this was accomplished — phrases like ‘whole-person care,’ used to describe an approach that views health for ED patients as a segue into engaging them in better health — and ‘care map,’ an aptly named initiative that charts a course for individual patients, especially frequent visitors to the ER.

First, though, some words and phrases from Doreen Fadus, vice president of Mission Integration and Community Health at Mercy Medical Center, who nominated Daley, are in order.

“Her boundless energy has gained her the reputation of being a go-getter, one who gets things done, and overall future leader for our healthcare system and community,” she wrote. “She is both an emerging leader and one who has emerged.”

Volume Business

As she talked about her staff’s efforts in the broad realm off efficiency, or process improvement, Daley told BusinessWest that they are driven largely by necessity.

Indeed, the Mercy ED has 36 beds (just over one-third the number at Baystate Medical Center, by way of comparison), which she described as both a blessing and a curse.

“We’re very spacially constrained considering the volume that we have — 36 beds for just shy of 80,000 patients,” she explained. “That’s driven us to be so efficient; it’s made us relook at how we do things, look at our data all the time, and undertake process-improvement initiatives, because we don’t have the luxury of having a lot of beds.

“We look at every aspect of how a patient moves through the system,” she went on. “And if there’s any means for reducing waste and redoing processes, we’ll find it. If there’s 10 extra steps that a staff nurse has to take to do a particular task, taking that waste out of their day puts their attention where it needs to be — back on the patient.”

How Daley came to be directing these efforts at improved efficiency is an intriguing story, one of moving progressively higher in the ranks in terms of responsibility within that environment she came to love.

After her stint at CDH, she came to the Mercy ED in 2004. She told BusinessWest she was attracted by its reputation for being a nurse-driven environment, a description she found to be certainly accurate, and a foundation she would only build upon.

She started as a staff nurse, taking care of patients at the bedside, and remained in that role for eight years, eventually assuming charge-nurse duties, which, as noted earlier, she found quite rewarding.

Mercy Medical Center

Erin Daley says the emergency room, and especially Mercy Medical Center’s, is a unique environment she described as a ‘constant juggling act.’

“It’s probably my favorite job,” she said. “You’re really trying to manage throughput, and it’s a gigantic puzzle with all these moving parts. It’s about how you have to think about the ED; there’s a certain number of beds, ‘X’ amount of patients you’re trying to get through, you’re trying to allocate resources and potentially pull resources from one area to another area to always have throughput in mind, with the patient at the center of it all.

“You’re like an air traffic controller,” she went on. “One’s coming in, one’s going out, and you’re having to reassess that constantly in order to optimize the space that you have.”

In 2010, Daley became clinical nurse supervisor in the Mercy ED, and in that role was directly responsible for the supervision of the department, with specific duties ranging from staffing to scheduling; from compliance to being what she called a “real-time resource,” meaning she was still in the trenches. In 2015, she became nurse manager of the ED, assuming responsibility for productivity and throughput metrics.

And just over a year ago, she was named director of Emergency Services, meaning oversight of the department and all its personnel and not being in the trenches, as she noted earlier.

But it does mean bringing a higher level of efficiency to those front lines, while also bringing new meaning to the notion that the ED is a hospital’s ‘front door’ and a resource for the community beyond emergency care.

“I want to know what’s happening in the community and how I can be a supporting influence,” said Daley, noting that she is involved with everything from the region’s opioid task force to a committee battling human trafficking.

That phrase ‘supporting influence’ gets to the heart of both Daley’s management style and the philosophy that she and her staff members embrace when it comes to what an ED should be and how it should function.

Regarding the former, she said she is a mentor as well as a manager, one whose simple ambitions when it comes to her team are to “inspire, uplift, and motivate.”

And as for the latter, she said the ED cannot only be a place to receive emergency care. In the whole-person-care model, it is also a vehicle for engaging individuals in better health, through such things as medication-management discussions, assistance with setting up post ED visit primary care, behavioral-health services, and more.

As an example, she cited the drug-overdose victim who arrives at the emergency room.

“If someone comes in that has overdosed on opioids … we could be that last line of support to reach out to them,” she explained. “They may have burned bridges everywhere with their family, with their friends, and we could be that last line to reach out to them.”

Elaborating, she said those in the ED, through the unit’s Complex Care program, strive to be more proactive with those who overdose, for example, and not simply treat them and move them through.

“We follow up with phone calls and try to reach out and talk with these individuals after they’ve had a chance to recover,” she explained. “It’s a traumatic experience, that whole overdose process … you’re given Narcan, now you’re in acute withdrawal; it’s incredibly traumatic.”

Erin Daley

Erin Daley says her management style encourages teamwork and solving common problems together.

Fadus may have summed up Daley’s ‘front door’ approach best, noting that “her understanding that the ED can provide the entry way to both providing medical services and the guidance of health education has led to many patients experiencing healthcare through a system rather than rely on services mainly through the venue of the ED.”

By the Numbers

As noted earlier, there are many numbers, or metrics, involved with an emergency department, and all through her career and especially in her current capacity, Daley has been involved with bringing specific numbers higher or lower — whichever translates into improvement.

In the case of patient satisfaction, an upward trajectory is obviously desired, while, when it comes to the ‘left without being seen’ category, downward movement is the goal, because individuals are leaving generally out of frustration with the time they’re spending in the ER waiting room. And when they leave, valuable revenue is lost, and, more importantly, these individuals may be endangering their health.

To achieve improvement in that ‘left without being seen’ category, and all others, the Mercy team embodies ‘lean’ strategies commonly used on the manufacturing floor and other settings, said Daley, adding that the goal is always to remove waste and improve efficiency. But while doing so, patient care cannot be compromised.

And Mercy has managed to do this with what is perhaps the most-watched ER statistic, the one focused on door-to-door time (from when they check in until they are discharged), which Mercy has managed to reduce by nearly an hour — 57 minutes to be exact — to 157 minutes.

This was accomplished with something called a split-flow model, which, as that name suggests, splits those arriving in the ER into ‘lower acuity’ and ‘higher acuity’ categories. “If you can keep vertical patients vertical, the ease of them getting through the system improves, and you can decrease length of stay dramatically by not even putting them in a hospital bed.”

Elaborating, she said the ED took one of its triage rooms and created the aptly named ‘rapid medical exam’ (RME) room. There, patients deemed to be low-acuity are triaged, seen by a provider, and discharged, all from that one room.

“If all of those patients that are of that lower acuity never hit the back of the ER and never take up a bed, you increase your capacity for sicker patients,” Daley explained. “You increase capacity, not because you’ve added beds, but because you’ve added bed hours.

“When we piloted this on our busiest days, it was incredibly successful, and over the next few years, we went from Monday and Tuesday to Monday through Friday, and then, as our volumes grew, we expanded it to every day of the week,” she explained, adding that the RME model has also had a huge impact on the ‘left without being seen’ numbers as well, because of the additional bed space.

These improvements have come about through that lean approach to operations, learning from best practices, and working together as a team to solve problems and achieve continuous improvement, said Daley, adding that her management style encourages all this.

“I’m successful because I have an amazing team of people that I work with — everyone who’s in a leadership capacity in this department is an over-achiever and a go-getter,” she noted. “I’m not the kind of person who micromanages at all; I like to be collaborative and make a goal together.

“How each individual person gets there … I don’t micromanage that,” she went on, “because everyone has their own style, and they do better working their own project in the way they feel comfortable. But we all have the same goals in mind, and they are lofty goals.”

Looking ahead, Daley, now pursuing an MBA at Elms College, is focused on building upon both her leadership skills and her grasp of the many financial aspects of her position and others within the higher ranks of healthcare management.

“I want to be very knowledgeable about how my business, meaning my department, runs, and feel confident about that,” she explained. “From there … I’m not quite sure what the future holds.

“I like operations a lot — fitting those puzzle pieces together,” she went on. “I can see myself overseeing operations on a larger scale. But I also love the work I do in the community.”

Bottom Line

For now, she will continue to oversee the air-traffic controllers and others in the ED, create more process improvements, and, in general, go on being a ‘supportive influence’ — there’s that phrase again — with her staff, in the ED, and within the community she serves.

As Doreen Fadus noted, Daley is both an emerging leader and an energetic administrator who has, in many ways, already emerged.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Porchlight’s Leader Has Some Illuminating, Innovative Ideas

Holly Chaffee, MSN, BSN, RN

Holly Chaffee, MSN, BSN, RN
Dani Fine Photography

Holly Chaffee says her husband has a line — perhaps it falls into the category of ‘joke’ — that he’ll throw out on a fairly regular basis, like almost every night.

“He’ll say ‘OK, who are we having dinner with this evening?’” said Chaffee, president and CEO of Lee-based Porchlight VNA/Homecare, adding that he says this because there’s a decent chance that dinner between the two will include a phone call — or several — from a colleague looking for some direction, advice, or a much-needed answer.

“The phone seems to always ring when you sit down to dinner,” she said with a laugh, adding that she always answers it. “We’re a 24-hour business; there’s always someone on call, and there’s always someone backing up calls. You have to be there for people, because they’re relying on you.”

This sharing of dinner time goes a long way, sort of, toward explaining why Porchlight VNA/Homecare is the only agency of its kind in this region to receive what’s known as 5-star status from for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS).

It will take much more to explain those high scores, which ultimately determine how an agency is reimbursed, and we’ll do that in a bit.

Those phone calls during the evening meal also help explain why Chaffee was the top scorer in an extremely deep field of contenders for the Healthcare Heroes category called Health/Wellness Administration/Administrator. But again, many more supporting words and numbers are needed, starting with this summation from Kurt Toegel, chair of the board at Porchlight.

“Holly is known as an innovator in the home-care arena,” he wrote. “As an administrator and CEO, she has not only the drive and motivation it takes to be successful, she has the leadership skills to develop the work products necessary to be successful.

“Holly has true heart,” he went on, “and compassion for the work she does. She is collaborative and is always willing to share her knowledge.”

I believe it starts with your heart — you have to love what you do. And if you love what you do, it’s going to show from the top down; you all have to be invested in what you’re doing in your job.”

‘Innovative,’ ‘collaborative,’ ‘compassionate,’ ‘motivator’ … these qualities and others become apparent as one looks at the long list of accomplishments accredited to Chaffee and her team since she arrived at what was then known as the Lee Regional VNA andBerkshire Home Care in 2009. These include:

• Changing the existing electronic medical record to improve efficiencies;

• Orchestrating a merger with Chicopee VNA and Great to Be Home Care in 2014;

• Implementing a branding campaign and new company name (Porchlight), as well as oversight and the development of a new website to increase visibility of the service areas;

• Effectively creating a continuum of care (from acute to chronic care) by developing an internal conversion system;

• Designing and implementing a productivity system that increased productivity from 3.25 to 5.75 visits per eight-hour day;

• Operationalizing the accounts-receivable collection;

• Hiring new management-team members with clinical expertise, leading the agency to a deficiency-free survey in 2012 under a new survey process;

• Piloting a childhood-obesity program in schools in Berkshire County; and, perhaps most importantly,

• Empowering staff to lead in their areas of expertise.

Slicing through all of these and countless other bullet-pointed lines from her CV, Chaffee said she and her team have created an environment marked by innovation and calculated risk taking, one that has enabled Porchlight to succeed — and blaze some trails — in a constantly changing and ever-more challenging home-care landscape.

“Porchlight’s leadership is known for not being afraid to take a risk, to try something new,” she explained. “Seven years ago, for us to embrace the medical record that we did, that was a huge step — that was innovative. And there have been many other examples of that kind of thinking.”

Holly Chaffee, center

Holly Chaffee, center, says she and her team at Porchlight have created an environment of risk taking that has led to its 5-star status.

As for those 5-star ratings, they are a reflection of how the agency is responding to these changing times, which require ever-higher levels of accountability and measurable outcomes.

Porchlight is the only Western Mass. agency given such elite status in the most recent ranking, one of two in Massachusetts, and one of only about 200 across the country.

That benchmark is the result of what Chaffee calls the ‘triple aim’ — low cost, high quality, and patient satisfaction.

“We were able to attain that status with boots on the ground,” she said, attributing the accomplishment to solid teamwork. “We have a superior staff of nurses, home health aides, physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers … all those people are out there creating the 5-star status we have through their encounters with the patients.

“Our goal is keep patients at home and families together,” she went on, adding that the agency’s tagline — and her life’s work — is enabling individuals to live “life as you know it.”

Shedding Light on the Subject

As she talked about that aforementioned rebranding initiative and the new name Porchlight, Chaffee said that, as one expect, there’s a story behind it.

It begins with the original name over the door, Lee VNA, which led many people to believe that the agency served only people in that community, which was not the case. The name was changed to Lee Regional VNA, but it still wasn’t clicking, said Chaffee.

To come up with something that did, she turned to the advertising and marketing agency Darby O’Brien, which had developed a niche in rebranding efforts. The firm eventually came up with ‘Porchlight,’ which resonated with Chaffee and her board chairman, who both conjured up images of front porches with lights blazing (for Chaffee, it was at her parents’ home in New Jersey) when they heard it.

But … there’s usually a ‘but’ in these cases, and there was here as well.

“When you change the name of a 100-year-old agency, there’s a lot of controversy, and we needed to overcome that,” Chaffee told BusinessWest, adding that help came from a board member, then in her 90s, who had served in that capacity for a half-century.

The new name was presented to her by O’Brien, Chaffee, and others, and the response helped dissipate that controversy.

“She told us that when her husband, a doctor, would leave the office, he would tell people, ‘if you need me to stop by on my way home, leave the light on,’” Chaffee recalled. “There couldn’t have been a better entrance for the name ‘Porchlight’ than that, and we were very excited about that response; the name caught on.”

Putting the new name and accompanying logo on signs, letterhead, and the website was far from the most challenging of assignments on Chaffee’s portfolio at her agency, but, like the others, it sheds needed light — pun intended — on those many qualities listed or implied by Toegel in his nomination. They include imagination, forward thinking, teamwork, and, perhaps most important, a willingness to listen and the will to act upon what she hears.

And Chaffee has honed these various careers through a nearly 40-year-long career in healthcare and healthcare administration that might not have happened (well, it probably would have happened anyway) had the market not been flooded with teachers back in the late ’70s, as she was graduating from high school, prompting her to look in another direction career-wise.

“I was talking with my parents,” she recalled. “I volunteered at the hospital as a candy striper, and my father said, ‘you love people, you love helping people … why don’t you think about going to nursing school, because you can do those things and also teach?’”

She thought about it, and then did it, at Skidmore College in New York. Her career in healthcare began in New York (she commuted from her parents’ home) at a pediatric tertiary-care unit, working with children with neurological impairments and kidney disorders. She and her husband would first settle in upstate New York and then relocate to Enfield, after which Chaffee took a job in the pediatric intensive-care unit at Hartford Hospital.

Her career would take a sharp turn, however, after the couple had two sets of twins in a 15-month span.

“That’s when I started my home-care life,” she explained, adding that, while working at Hartford Hospital, she “dabbled” in home care, taking care of a few children on ventilators. She enjoyed that work and, after having her two sets of twins, worked weekends as a home-care nurse, essentially launching a new career that would see her hold essentially every position in that healthcare realm.

Subsequent stops would take her to the Enfield Visiting Nurse Assoc.; Ander-Care Inc. in Springfield, a home-health agency; Special Care Home Health Services in Wethersfield, Conn.; Noble Visiting Nurse Assoc. in Westfield; UConn Medical Center, where she served as a staff nurse and assistant head nurse in the UConn Bone Marrow Transplant Unit; the Enfield Adult Day Center; and Masonicare in Wallingford, Conn., a nonprofit integrated health system, where she directed Masonicare at Home.

In 1999, she also launched her own venture (one that took her maiden name) — Vannucci Consultants, which started as a nursing consulting company that later expanded to include consulting to startup adult day centers and home-care agencies.

In 2009, she was asked to interview at Lee Regional VNA and was chosen as its next president. And with that hiring, the board, taking her vast skill set into account, decided to merge the VNA with a separate company, Berkshire Home Care, and have Chaffee lead both.

Progress Report

Chaffee arrived at LRVNA and Berkshire Home Care in December 2009, roughly six months later than CFO Pat Lamonte. Together, the two have led the organization through a continuous run of growth, innovation, and success — by a number of measures.

“She came from the hospitality industry, was a quick study, and a did a wonderful job of managing the finances,” Chaffee said of Lamonte, adding that one of the first assignments the two took on was implementing a new electronic medical record (EMR) system.

“When I arrived, the staff was using a particular electronic medical record, but they weren’t utilizing it the way they needed to,” she explained. “So I had to look at the operations and change everything that was happening so that things could be efficient and we could get on track financially.

“I went and viewed an electronic medical record called Home Care Home Base out west at a company called Residential Care,” she went on. “I said ‘wow, this is amazing; it gives everyone accountability, internally and externally,’ and so we adopted that system and did the implementation, which was as big change, because everyone’s role changed internally. But we needed to put those efficiencies in place to be sustainable as we are today.”

In many respects, the improvement of the EMR system, as well as the process for doing so — meaning everything from the due diligence to the adaptation of best practices to the quest for new efficiencies — goes a long way toward explaining why Porchlight is a 5-star facility.

The EMR improvements enable the facility to more effectively document information concerning the care of specific patients, she explained, and the process of making that change reflects the environment of innovation and risk taking that she has created.

And these qualities are necessary in this changing environment in home care, one where there is ever-more emphasis on outcomes and measuring them.

“There’s a culture change out there,” said Chaffee. “If someone had home care 20 years ago, they were used to ‘oh, you’re going to provide home care; someone’s going to be in my house for eight hours a day and take care of my mom while I’m at work?’

“It did happen like that 20 years ago if someone had complex medical needs and they were at home,” she went on. “That’s not the way it is anymore — that type of care is not delivered anymore; its been scaled back. Now, you go in, and you’re focusing on the problem you’re there to see that patient for — now, today.”

How agencies fare in those specific assignments is what the CMMS is measuring as it goes about the task of awarding stars.

As Chaffee showed BusinessWest Porchlight’s latest scorecard, if you will, she said scores shaded in light green (in the 60th percentile and higher) were good, and those in dark green (80th percentile and higher) were very good.

With five stars at the top of the card, one would expect lots of dark-green boxes, and there are, in such categories as ‘pain intervention,’ ‘improvement in pain,’ ‘timely initiation of care,’ ‘improvement in management of oral meds,’ and ‘diabetic foot care & education.’

When asked what makes all that green possible, and, in essence, what separates a 5-star operation from one that strives for the rating and falls short, she said there are many factors, many ingredients in the recipe for success.

“I believe it starts with your heart — you have to love what you do,” she explained. “And if you love what you do, it’s going to show from the top down; you all have to be invested in what you’re doing in your job.

“And it’s not just a job — it’s a career, it’s a lifestyle,” she went on. “To be a home-care nurse is a lifestyle, because you have to be invested in your patients. It’s not like you can go to your office at 4:30, click the light off, and it’s done. We’re a 24-hour business.”

Which brings her back to dinner with her husband and the phone calls that can — and often do — interrupt those meals.

And Chaffee is never sure who might be on the other end of that call.

“You might have a manager who wants to run a scenario by you — something they’ve never come across before,” she explained. “You may have a home-health aide you’ve established a long-term relationship with; I’ve had aides follow me from my other jobs into Massachusetts. They’ll call and say that their patient passed away, and they want to discuss how they’re feeling about that.

“I have an open-door policy — all my staff has my cell-phone number,” she went on. “Anybody can call me at any time; sometimes, they just want to check in, and that’s fine with me.”

Bright Future

It may not be an official measure of success in business, but the number of people who want to see what your operation has done, and take best practices from it, is certainly an important statistic — if anyone actually keeps a real number.

Chaffee said she doesn’t, but she acknowledged that many people in her business look to the Porchlight operation as a standard bearer in many respects. The consistent 5-star ratings will do that for a company.

Those who call and visit are essentially looking to know how that mark of excellence was achieved, how a team can be motivated to constantly raise the bar and then clear it, and how a company can excel with that triple aim.

Put another way, they want to know why neither Chaffee nor her husband minds it when he says, ‘who are we having dinner with tonight?’

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]