Inside Track: Baumgartner is a lifelong caretaker
Mercy Health Saint Mary’s chief medical officer started 46-year hospital career at 16.
Mercy Health Saint Mary’s chief medical officer has spent his entire 46-year career at the hospital, starting with his very first job mopping floors.
At age 16, Dr. David Baumgartner got his first job in 1972 in the housekeeping department of what was then Saint Mary’s Hospital.
He had just gotten his driver’s license and a car, and his father pointed out he needed a job to pay for gas.
He has experienced a fruitful career since then, continuing with Saint Mary’s throughout college before working there as a doctor and then in administration, pushing boundaries all the time in the name of patient care.
Baumgartner has seen the hospital grow from where he started on Cherry Street and Lafayette Avenue SE to its current location at 200 Jefferson Ave. SE.
Even his three children were delivered at the hospital.
After working in a few departments, he joined the surgical processing unit and cleaned surgical tools, fostering his interest in the medical field.
Baumgartner stopped pursuing a business degree at Grand Valley State University and joined a friend at Aquinas College, where he completed a premed biology degree.
He continued working in surgical processing each summer throughout medical school at Wayne State University, completing a rotation with a family doctor at Saint Mary’s.
DR. DAVID BAUMGARTNER
Baumgartner said the “motherly figures” he worked within that department have had a lasting effect on him and his career.
They were mostly older African-American women who had moved north from Mississippi after World War II.
One of them, the department supervisor named Ruth Stevens but nicknamed Grandma, gave him his first experience carrying out some admin work.
Baumgartner said the women were not college-educated but always encouraged him to pursue education.
Even during the toughest times of medical school, when he felt discouraged or too tired to go on, they continued encouraging him.
They told him stories of obstacles they overcame and how difficult it was to start over after moving north.
So, during his tough times, Baumgartner said he thought: “I can’t quit because they didn’t quit.”
“I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.
Baumgartner finished medical school and completed his residency at Saint Mary’s but realized surgery was not his preferred field. He spent a lot of time in a veterans hospital working with some of the same patients.
Rather than seeing one-time surgery patients, he realized he preferred the ongoing relationships.
“I was interested in what happened to them after they had the surgery,” he said. “And how were they doing a year later, and how did it affect their lives.”
He attended the University of Michigan to study infectious disease while working in the Saint Mary’s emergency department on the weekends.
The University of Michigan began seeing HIV patients in Ann Arbor while he was receiving training there.
He said he hadn’t thought much about working with HIV patients during his infectious disease training, but he developed a passion for them that shaped his career.
“That really wasn’t in the course catalog at the time, but I found myself kind of immersed in it at U of M,” Baumgartner said.
The virus was just coming to light, though no one yet knew what it was, and an HIV diagnosis was practically a quick death sentence. He said there was a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness around the subject.
Every treatment at the time was an experiment, he said.
He was in the Saint Mary’s resident lounge when a French team announced in 1985 that HIV is a virus; he compared the memory’s significance — something he said he will never forget — to the way many of his generation can recall where they were when U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Once Baumgartner returned to Grand Rapids from his training, he learned people there also were infected, and they wanted help.
“There was a lot of fear in the community about taking care of people with HIV and even being around them. People were afraid to shake their hands or even talk to them,” he said.
So, he decided to be one of the few doctors who would ignore the stigma and work with those patients and began seeing them in his small private practice for infectious disease in Grand Rapids.
Baumgartner said there were so many nonmedical needs his patients could not access, like counseling, insurance and housing.
He asked Saint Mary’s about working together to help patients access those services.
Saint Mary’s agreed and received an $87,000 grant from the state to create a clinic that would identify HIV patients in the area and provide care and social services.
He said the plan was to identify 30 local AIDS patients in three years; that many were identified in three months.
He said the clinic quietly opened, while much of the controversy was directed at the Kent County Health Department and its prevention efforts.
At the time, Baumgartner was on the medical staff of every hospital in Grand Rapids and said other health care systems did not have much interest in providing care to HIV patients.
With treatment, he said HIV patients now can live a relatively normal lifespan. He said Saint Mary’s clinic has about 1,000 patients and continues to be the major source of HIV treatment in West Michigan.
One of his first pregnant HIV patients spoke during a ceremony in January celebrating Baumgartner’s retirement from clinical practice late last year.
Baumgartner and his team had successfully ensured the patient’s son was born without HIV.
She attended with her son, who brought along his own newborn son.
Baumgartner said dealing with all the issues throughout his career led him to a broader thinking about how to approach medical solutions.
“HIV taught me I couldn’t do it by myself as a doctor,” he said. “You have to be part of a team if you’re going to really make an impact on people.”
That led him to working in hospital administration, which he has done for the past 20 years.
One of the first administration projects he worked on was bringing the area’s first team of intensive care physicians to Saint Mary’s.
Though there was resistance at the time, he said people told him years later he was right to push the issue.
“You get gratification from knowing that every patient who’s been taken care of in our critical care unit has benefited because we advanced quality and safety,” Baumgartner said.
He said there are hundreds of small and large changes he helped implement that have improved the quality of care, adding he believes his openness to change is what has made him successful for all these years.
“One of the things I always have to remind myself is that while I’ve been here for a long time, I have to guard against the idea that because we’ve done things a certain way, we’re going to keeping doing things a certain way,” Baumgartner said.
Part of what has kept him around, however, is his alignment with the hospital’s continued mission of helping everyone access care and realizing care goes beyond patients’ physical needs.
Baumgartner said he wants to help ensure the hospital continues that practice even as technology development continues. Just as many people feel the urge to look at their phones during dinner, he said it can be tempting in the medical field to substitute technology with human interaction.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re dealing with people,” he said.