Retirement for Gee means it's time to race
There's an adage that says when one retires it's like riding off into the sunset. For one long time West Tennessee healthcare executive, retirement will include literally riding off into the sunset. After 25 years, Henry County Medical Center Chief Executive Officer, Tom Gee, hung up his coat and tie at the end of October but will replace it with a bike helmet and racing attire to pursue his dream of competitive cycling. While he may be running a different kind of race, he plans to also continue to make an impact in the fight for rural healthcare.
At the age of 66, Gee felt it was time to pass the torch while he was still in good physical shape to pursue his passion of competitive cycling. "I have been a competitive cyclist since high school and still in good shape so it was time to really focus on competing before I can't," said Gee. "One of my biggest goals is to go back to the world championship race in Italy next year. I competed in it this year and really learned so much so I want to go back and see if I can improve. I also have the distinction of being the only American to have completed the Paris-Bret-Paris, a long-distance cycling event, eight times and I want to add a ninth."
Much like training for competitive cycling, Gee prepared for his retirement well in advance. "I have always been a planner and succession planning in our industry is very important. I have watched hospitals struggle with transition of power so several years ago I developed a succession plan with the board chair," said Gee. "About a year ago I told them a date I would retire. It did get announced sooner than I would have liked so it has been a bit confusing as to when I was actually going to step down."
As a part of the succession plan and the early announcement of his retirement, the Board had time to evaluate what kind of person they would want to take the reins. "While we did initially consider looking outside of the organization, as we began to determine the type of person and what type of knowledge base we wanted them to have, we realized we may very well have the candidate in-house," said Gee. "As we interviewed and evaluated our chief financial officer, Lisa Casteel, we saw that she had everything we were looking for. The Board has been very comfortable with their decision and the transition."
Gee has been preparing Casteel for the transition for several years. "The issues facing rural hospitals are not new to Lisa," he said. "Making ends meet, the financial stresses and the need to be more efficient, she is aware of them all. My best advice to her has been to hang in there, things are cyclical and they will get better. She has a solid background in the basics, and it's just a matter of keep on keeping on. She will think of goals she wants to achieve and she will get there. I have told her and the Board that I am happy to help in any way I can."
While he initially thought he would only stay five years at Henry County Medical Center (HCMC), after 25, Gee is proud of what he has achieved. "When I came here this hospital was about to be sold. They hired me to come in and try to save it and I saw great potential here. We needed more doctors and to be more strategic in our thinking. It has been such a gratifying process to take a hospital and make it a real asset in this community and this state," he said. "We have one of the best run facilities and are one of the best rural hospitals in the state. We have so many things here that lots of small communities would love to have."
During his time at HCMC, Gee has managed to not only double the size of the physical plant but has also seen the medical staff double in size as well. "We have also expanded our behavioral health program to include geriatric psych and adult psych programs," he said. "We have upgraded our robotic program and were one of the first in Tennessee to use the type of orthopedic robot we have."
Gee says he has seen some challenges over his career. One of the greatest has been dealing with the financial frustrations of the TennCare program. "There has been an apathy in legislators and government to recognize the importance of the healthcare system," he said. "There are simple things that they could do to support the system. I have just gotten so frustrated with all the politics, and now we are in danger of losing jobs and resources in our rural communities that we need and that should be here. The real frustration is elected officials' lack of understanding of healthcare and how it works. There seems to be an erosion of what we have built and I am afraid we will have to take several steps back before we figure it out."
As a private citizen, Gee still wants to support healthcare in any way he can. "I want to be a real voice for rural healthcare," he said. "There is a real need for it and I hope to use the knowledge I have to help be that voice. I have been extensively involved in organizations such as the Tennessee Hospital Association and was even awarded the THA President's Award in recognition of my years of service. I still plan on being involved with them in some capacity, since I still have a few years left on the state licensure board. I will also be around to help with long-range planning and such at Henry County Medical Center."
After 25 years in the community, he and his wife plan to stay in Paris. Gee says it is also a great place to train for his bike races and it will be nice to train in the daylight. Retirement will mean more time to travel and enjoy his grandchildren in Colorado. He also plans to stay active in the community, the Rotary Club and his church.
Gee says it will be hard to go from being a decision maker and leader for 40 years to a private citizen. "I hear the first couple of weeks can be tough but then you get used to it," he said. "I know I won't miss the stress of worrying about the hospital each day but I will definitely miss the people. Going up on the floors and being greeted by the staff each day as I made rounds made me always feel so appreciated and I am going to miss that. I do hope to keep the many great friendships that I have developed."