Hospital Grows With Connors

January 16, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — As a pediatric surgeon, Robert Connors, M.D., has grown up at DeVos Children’s Hospital. At the same time, the hospital has grown up around him. Like a kid outgrowing last fall’s school clothes, the hospital is starting to bust at the seams. With plans for the new $120 million Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital beginning to take shape, and Connors settling in to his new role as president, the hospital and the man are both getting ready for another big growth spurt.

Connors came to Grand Rapids in 1990 after five years of practice in St. Louis, Mo.Grand Rapids didn’t have a children’s hospital, but it did have something that seemed to make sense to Connors.

“I could see the potential. It was an attractive place for me,” he said. “I knew what I wanted and what I needed to take care of kids with surgical problems. And everything that I needed was here. There was a strong neonatal unit. There was a small, but very high quality intensive care unit. There was very strong anesthesia. All the pieces were here. And I could see, as far as pediatric specialties, it was underdeveloped.”

In time, that development would take place. Connors said that the growth of the hospital wasn’t inspired by artificial pressures, or a desire to offer services that competitors didn’t. Instead, the growth happened organically, or “logically,” as Connors put it.

“When I came here, we didn’t even call ourselves a children’s hospital. We’ve grown up, and each subsequent service has come because we’ve gotten big enough to support those high quality services. And pretty soon, you get big enough that you’re a full-service children’s hospital like we are. And our goal, really, is to be one of the finest children’s hospitals in the country. And that leads you to a children’s hospital facility.”

Even before taking over the presidency in December, Connors was intimately involved with developing the vision of a new home for DeVos Children’s Hospital. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that his vision was of a new DeVos Children’s Hospital and the building that would house it.

“I don’t talk very much about the building. For me, a children’s hospital is the people. So we’re really investing in people and programs here. Our mission here is caring for patients, for families, and doing that with excellence, with compassion, with innovation. … What we’re really trying to do is not to build a building and then go in and figure out how to work in it. We’re trying to change and improve the way that we take care of people and then build a facility that helps us do that.”

Dedicating himself to “building better care” has meant some sacrifice on Connors’ part. His work as president may mean much more strategizing, politicking and fundraising, but it won’t preclude him from continuing his surgical practice — he is adamant about that. It will, however, mean scaling back the number of patients he can treat. For him, that simply means an opportunity to help patients in a different way.

“It’s one of the more difficult decisions that I’ve made, but I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “You have a different kind of satisfaction in treating a patient and family one at a time than you do with administration. But with administrative work, there’s an opportunity to help larger populations, and to facilitate major program growth, and to keep things on track. There are things that you don’t have time to dedicate to when you’re spending all of your time on taking care of kids and families.”

There are new and developing challenges that constantly make providing that quality care a difficult task. Some of those challenges are health-related. For example, Connors said that the recent explosion in childhood diabetes and other illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition have led some experts to suggest that today’s children represent the first generation in American history to be less healthy than their parents. However, the diseases and injuries that plague children are constantly changing, he said. What is not changing is the constant pressure from economic and political forces.

“Children’s medicine has unique challenges, unfortunately,” he said. “We have the same stresses and pressures on the insurance side that adults do, but a larger part of our patients are being supported by a Medicaid system that’s under funded.”

Although he sympathizes with legislators who are faced with constant budget shortfalls, he is not sympathetic enough to be pleased with the state of health care legislation, or the underlying structure of the health care system in general.

“At the end of the day, Americans all deserve basic health care,” he said. “I personally think that it’s a disgrace that we don’t have health care coverage for all of our children. We’re one of the richest countries in the world. Why is it that we can’t figure out a way to have health coverage for all of our children?”

Connors would like to see a universal care system implemented in the United States. He is cautious when he speaks of it, as mention of universal care “conjures up terrible thoughts in people’s minds about a very unwieldy, inefficient system.” That need not be the case, he feels. With incentives and cooperation between the private and public sector, Connors believes that “significant reform” is not only possible, but necessary. He feels that until major changes take place in the nature of the health care system, organizations like DeVos Children’s are left to rely on an inefficient Medicaid system and a great deal of philanthropic support.

“You just have to start asking questions about priorities, about what’s important to you. And what could be more important than your children? And the idea that we can wait to build a good health care system for our children is a bad idea. They don’t wait. They grow up every day.”    

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