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Adirondack Health CEO reflects on COVID, career, retirement

Adirondack Health CEO Sylvia Getman, seen here with Adirondack Daily Enterprise Managing Editor Peter Crowley, gives a tour of the Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center to reporters and editors in January 2019. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

SARANAC LAKE — The last year of Adirondack Health CEO and President Sylvia Getman’s 30-year career has been marked by the largest health care emergency in decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the importance of the health care organization’s role in the community, and at the same time increased the stress and long hours of her job. Getman said this all played a role in her decision to retire soon.

There is never really a good time to leave an organization, she said, but she feels Adirondack Health is now in a “good position” after a year of challenges brought by the coronavirus.

The hospital took a “big body blow” with the unexpected pandemic last year, she said, but has become strong in the process: financially, recruitment-wise and in preparedness.

She said around half of rural hospitals in the U.S. are “on the brink of closure,” according to studies she reads, but she said Adirondack Health is not one of them.

Getman said this is for three reasons. Adirondack Health has managed its finances conservatively in years leading up to 2020. It offers a diverse array of surgical services, which were briefly put on hold in the early weeks of the pandemic, but resumed sooner than other regions of the state and country. And the Adirondack Health Foundation does a lot of fundraising to fund improvements to facilities.

Adirondack Health has also not been hit as hard by the coronavirus as other hospitals.

Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake has seen one COVID-related death a few months ago and no residents at its nursing home, Mercy Living Center in Tupper Lake, had tested positive as of this interview. On March 2, hospital officials were notified that one resident who is fully vaccinated and asymptomatic had tested positive from a test on Feb. 28, but when tested again March 2, the test came back negative, according to Adirondack Health spokesman Matt Scollin.

As of Tuesday, the hospital had three COVID-positive patients, all asymptomatic. Scollin said this is an “elevated” level higher than the average, and that usually the hospital has zero or only one positive patient at a time.

Getman’s tentative last day on the job is July 1, but because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic she has agreed to a flexible transition timeline if a new leader is not found by then. A national search committee is being developed to find her successor as head of the Tri-Lakes area health care system.

Getman said whoever she will “pass the baton” to in June will be “well vetted.”

She said she loves the Saranac Lake area for its natural environment, history of infectious disease response in tuberculosis, and potential for economic development. She hopes whoever takes her place appreciates these things as much as she does.

The virus year

Getman refered to the 12 months between March 2020 and March 2021 as a “dog year.” It felt like seven years in one.

“You never expect to be part of history,” she said.

She contemplated that the word “retired” prominently includes the word “tired.”

Scollin chimed in, saying Getman was being too modest.

“We all have on-call rotations here at the hospital, but Sylvia is the only employee — with maybe a few surgeons being other exceptions — who is on call 24/7, 365 (days a year),” Scollin said. “That’s a long shift.”

Health care workers work closely around death, Getman said, and though her hospital has not seen many COVID-related deaths, the virus has killed more than 500,000 Americans in the past year.

“It makes you think about your life a little differently,” Getman said. “I can tell you I think we’ve all realized how very precious and how very short life is.”

She’s been reflecting on how she wants to use that time.

“There are a lot of people who don’t think that these things can happen to them, and I’m very sad to report that it absolutely can happen to anyone,” she said.

Getman never expected a pandemic like COVID-19 to last more than a year.

She recognized the staff at Adirondack Health and said she hopes they are proud of the role they have played in the response to the virus.

It is obvious, she said, that staff have been under incredible stress and strain over the past year, but she said it is even more severe than people may realize.

“They take the job so seriously because they know it matters. … They want to be here for their friends and neighbors,” Getman said. “They actually hate to be away. I really have to tell people they need to go take some time away.”

She said the term “heroes” is sometimes overused but truly fits Adirondack Health’s staff.

The hospital’s response

Getman estimated that the hospital has experienced around 240 regulation changes in the past year, sometimes more than one a day, sometimes late at night, early in the morning or on weekends.

“There are significant consequences if they are not done appropriately,” Getman said.

This pandemic will be talked about for years, she said, and Adirondack Health has meticulously documented its response to the outbreak. Getman said they are in the process of looking back and creating a timeline of events to gather a list of what lessons have been learned.

Adirondack Health first convened its incident command group in January 2020, Getman said, when its officials first heard about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. She said they commonly use outbreaks around the world as times to practice a hypothetical local response to emergencies.

“We actually got together to talk about what it would be if we were doing that here,” Getman said.

She said the hospital got a “head start” on dealing with supply shortages when Purchasing Director Courtney Reynolds picked up on irregularities in the supply chain last year, caused by the fact that many supplies come from China.

Now, while treating COVID-positive patients and testing for the virus are still major focuses, Getman said the hospital is now also assisting with vaccine distribution, wrapping up its collaboration with the Trudeau Institute on a lab producing fast-result tests, and developing a joint replacement program to expand more money-making services.

Getman said the hospital is also still doing regular hospital things like delivering babies, which she called the happy moments of work in health care.

She said the largest, consistent change to the hospital’s daily operations has been the need to social distance for safety. The Adirondack Health community thrives on working together and human contact, she said.

Rural health

Getman said she loves rural health care but that without improvements to the health care system as a whole, rural hospitals will struggle in the future.

“We just need a different structure. What we have right now doesn’t work for rural health care,” she said. “The mechanisms right now don’t support what we do.”

She said for years the health industry has been “just in time,” staying lean while making sure hospitals have everything they need for the moment. The pandemic has made them realize they need to be “just in case,” Getman said. This is more difficult in the middle of the Adirondacks than in a metropolitan area, so more funding for rural hospitals is needed.

Retirement plans

Getman’s love for the community of Saranac Lake may keep her, her husband and their two golden retrievers here in retirement. She said every time she looks up at the mountains, they bring her “energy, peace and hope.”

Getman said she grew up as an “Army brat” and has family across the world. If travel is safe in the summer, she would like to reconnect with them, see her niece get married and meet her 1-year-old granddaughter Ava. Ava is her first grandchild and is a “COVID baby.”

The last year has been busy, and Getman’s focus has been more on action than reflection, but she believes when the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is eventually over she will have a “strong story” of perseverance to tell Ava.