When Arlene High was diagnosed with cancer in 1978, the resident of rural Gallup, N.M., immediately was sent 150 miles away to a hospital in Albuquerque.
The local hospital, Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, "had no facility for that," recalls High, 67, a retired sixth-grade teacher who owns a travel agency and sells real estate on the side. "They sent me to Albuquerque right away. That doesn't happen anymore. It can be handled right here."
High's dedication and savvy during her 11 years on the board of trustees at Rehoboth, including the past eight years as chairwoman, have been central to the transformation of the organization, say those who have worked with her. "She's got some personal reasons for staying close to healthcare," says Herb Mosher, director of the Western Health Foundation, the hospital's fund-raising arm. "She felt that the healthcare system saved her life, and she's a very fair-minded person who said, `I'm going to give something back.' "
For her efforts in expanding services available in Gallup and growing the facility, High was chosen as the winner of Modern Healthcare's Trustee of the Year award for healthcare organizations with fewer than 250 beds or less than $75 million in annual revenue. The competition is co-sponsored by Witt/Kieffer, a healthcare executive search firm based in Oak Brook, Ill.
Under High's leadership, the now 118-bed hospital has doubled in size, with a 60,000-square-foot addition completed in 1998 that includes a new intensive-care unit, laboratory, emergency room and space for several new specialties. The organization's revenue has more than doubled in the past seven years-from $26 million to $56 million-and so has the number of doctors on staff, from 20 to 50.
In addition to the main hospital in Gallup, Rehoboth now includes three physician clinics in outlying areas of McKinley County, three dialysis units, a home health agency, a behavioral health and psychiatric unit, a hospice and an adult day-care center. High also helped spearhead the creation of an HMO and a PPO, both owned by Rehoboth, which peaked at 10,000 and 4,000 members, respectively, but were phased out as the trend toward managed care faded. The county is one of the nation's poorest, with an average annual income of $11,000, a population that is 78% Native American, and an economy based largely on tourism and Indian artwork.
"(High) has donated a ton of hours to making healthcare a priority in our community," says John Pena, mayor of the city, population 20,000, who served on the hospital's board from 1996 until his election in 1999. "Fifteen years ago, we didn't have good facilities or many healthcare professionals available."
"It has turned, more or less, into a regional center," High says of Rehoboth. "One of the most rewarding things is the people in the community-it took a while for them to warm up to us because they hadn't used this healthcare system that much-but they realize how much we have been able to do for them."
High began her involvement humbly, as a volunteer "pink lady" in the hospital's basement cafeteria, and worked her way up to become president of the hospital's auxiliary, says Rehoboth President David Baltzer.
"There can be `outsiders' in governance in healthcare, but it takes years to develop the background, knowledge and familiarity that Arlene has developed," he says. "For example, as a `pink lady' at our hospital, you work in the kitchen along with 20 other volunteers." Through time spent involved in basic hospital operations, one learns the business "almost by osmosis," Baltzer says.
High's familiarity grew significantly through her role as auxiliary president; she visited every hospital in the state during her tenure, Baltzer says. "She developed a broad understanding of healthcare in our state as well as the facilities, the people, the capabilities and the philosophies of healthcare," he says.
High continues to try to learn as much as possible. "Once a year, I hit every committee and every department, and find out what they're doing and let them know I care," she says. "I visit the departments and let the patients know how important they are to us. I give a lot of very personal attention to this hospital."
Development is another area High has given much personal attention, co-chairing a capital fund-raising campaign that netted $2.4 million toward the hospital addition, which cost $7.8 million. The centerpiece is an annual golf tournament that raised more than $400,000 last year.
"The thought of raising $400,000 in a county where 35% of the adults and 52% of the kids live below the government poverty line was a bit of a stretch," Mosher says. "But she tapped into a network of friends. ... She is one of the most persistent and loyal people you'll ever meet."
Mosher says High also has encouraged the recruitment of homegrown talent in a county that's heavily Native American and a city where Hispanics are the majority-with English a second language for many. "Her heart's in it. She began as a teacher. She wants people to improve themselves," he says. "But her head's in it, too. It takes a little longer to grow them at home, but they stay with you longer than contract employees."
Beyond Rehoboth, High has tapped into a network of hospital trustees and administrators through her role as chairwoman of the American Hospital Association's Western Regional Trustee Symposium, which will be held in June in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.
"One of the challenges for rural healthcare is to stay current with modern healthcare trends," Baltzer says. "It really does take a lot of energy and activity to go out, learn and stay up with things. That's one of her gifts to our community."
Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill. He can be reached at [email protected]