::: Photo By SeQuoya Robinson :::
In the first few months as the new CEO and President at Southern Regional Medical Center, Ela Lena transformed the working environment from “what do I do?” to “just do it.”
“I walk around the hospital every chance I get. If a phone needs answering, I answer. If a room needs cleaning, I clean it,” she said recently in her office. “I keep my clogs out there.”
Lena brings more than three decades of medical leadership to SRMC, a non-profit hospital that is one of the 14-member Prime Healthcare Foundation that includes 46 hospitals in 14 states.
She began her career as a nurse but along the way she was asked to become an interim senior leader at one of the hospitals she worked at not long after graduating from the Summerville School of Nursing.
“I never wanted to get into management. I was told it would not be long,” she said, some 30 years later. “But I found I really enjoyed balancing business with the altruistic way of healing.”
She is a long way from the young girl in Massachusetts who wanted to become a nun (“I dreamed of being in a habit.”), who attended an all-girl high school and an all-girl junior college. Her trajectory was forever changed when she was 16 years old. While riding her bike she was hit by a drunk driver. What followed was multiple surgeries and months of rehab for her traumatic brain injury. The reconstruction of her mouth alone took a year and a half.
That’s why I have these pearly whites,” she said, pointing to her flawless upper teeth that radiate with her brilliant smile.
During her long recovery period, Lena was impressed by the kindness and care provided by her nurses and other healthcare professionals. It helped her get through the difficult days of rehabilitation and dark nights of recuperation. They provided her with the resiliency and courage to continue through the pain.
The compassion the nurses displayed when I was full of fear comforted me,” Lena said.
You might think that was the impetus for her to become a nurse. It was not. Lena decided to become a legal secretary after leaving rehab. Her future looked to be in the legal profession as she then studied for and became a paralegal. But the legal life, she found, did not offer much kindness or compassion.
Her life changed forever when she was 24 years old. A devastating disease overtook the young Lena, sending her back to the hospital and again submitting her to months of pricks and probing for endless tests. She rediscovered the kindness of the many nurses she encountered. When she was released, she entered nursing school and finally earned her degree to become a registered nurse.
“It was more than I could have imagined. I had the opportunity to care for someone,” said Lena. “And I was able to share with them how I looked very different before the accident. I told them that they have to have the strength and fortitude to make it through the day. I told them that I didn’t want them to feel alone.”
As CEO, Lena still takes the time to visit as many patients as she can, spreading kindness, answering questions, comforting the sick.
“I try to bring levity to the situation whenever I go into a patient room. I tell them that I bring no needles,” she said with a laugh. “I would show them my scars.” Lena worked steadily up the chain of command in the hospital world, moving from Vice President of Operations at SurgiCare Surgical Associates in New Jersey to Director of Nursing at Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. She was promoted to Chief Operating Officer where she discovered how healthcare in a hospital is an interconnected system. By acting as a bridge between the CEO and the Director of Nursing, Lena developed more efficient methods of providing healthcare.
She met and married a paramedic named Ignazio. Together, they had five children, now grown and scattered from Florida to Utah. Two of them – Vanessa and Sophia – have followed their mom into nursing. The empty nesters aren’t sitting in their rocking chairs, however.
She describes her husband as “fun-loving, loud, and funny, everything I am not. What I love about him most is that we both enjoy volunteering.”
Ignazio joins Ela in a variety of community projects, including working at a food pantry for 58 foster families. Last Christmas, she and her SRMC colleagues delivered 150 gifts for kids and staff at the House of Dawn, a Jonesboro aid agency that supports young mothers (18-24) become independent and self-reliant.
“Our team piled into our private cars to deliver the gifts. This is just one way we want to be more than just a brick-and-mortar place in Clayton County,” said Lena.
Volunteering is not something new for Lena and her family. In years past, he remembers loading the kids into the car to attend food pantries, free clinics, and health fairs. “I wanted them to be good people and to give back because we are so blessed,” she said.
During the pandemic, SRMC, like other medical facilities, suffered from a severe shortage of qualified nurses. Lena noted that many of the nurses in their 40s and 50s simply got so burned out that they quit. She immediately began to inaugurate relationships with four area universities, including Clayton State University, to bring in new blood.
“We need to be more flexible by growing our own. We need to invest more time with the students in our local schools to show them that the nursing profession is such a wonderful profession,” she said. Not only does the shortage of nurses hurt healthcare, “The labor shortage is financially crippling,” she said.
To facilitate putting more students into nursing, in her first few months on the job Lena has made numerous trips to the state capitol to meet with the governor and legislators where she has pleaded for more grant funding for nursing. One of her projects is to turn the hospital into a teaching hospital, bringing in nursing students to get their first real on-the-job medical training.
Lena intends to recruit more physicians to use SRMC.
“It is amazing the quality of physicians in Clayton County,” Lena said after meeting with many across the area. “We want them to have a trust in this hospital. We want them to believe that this hospital is their hospital.”
In addition to making many changes to the work culture, she is actually changing the physical offerings of the hospital. One major change Lena is undertaking is to have SRMC designated as a trauma hospital.
“There is a gap in care when in this metro area it could take driving for 30 or 40 miles in sometimes horrendous traffic for a trauma victim to receive help,” said Lena.
She told the story of how several trauma victims have ended up at SRMC’s doors because there was no place else to go. The hospital hurriedly puts together a trauma team as best they can to handle the situations.
“Our goal,” she said about becoming a trauma center, “is to improve mortality and morbidity.”
Yet another addition on the horizon is a free clinic. Lena said she expects to have that up and running sometime in the fall. “I want to close the gap in inequality. Our ultimate goal is to come together to serve all of our community,” she said. “I want to offer the best access to care in the country.”
When she first came on board SRMC, her ultimate goal was to empower her staff, nurses and doctors. Her first standing order was short and to the point.
“You are not my child. You are my quarterback. Be strategic,” she said. “Just do it.”
Beyond proud of this great leader and all she’s pursued in her time with the organization! She truly is an example of being the change you wish to see!