I was born and spent my early years in Buford, Georgia, outside of Atlanta. I remember we had a big tree in the front yard whose roots were huge with dirt in between — it made sort of a stage — and we played horses and houses. The only other thing I really remember about Georgia is developing a liking for fried chicken, grits, and biscuits and gravy — all to my detriment!
My parents divorced when I was very young, so Mom raised us, put herself through college, and put my younger brother and me through college. She was a remarkable woman and very committed to us kids. She never remarried, and I never knew my father.
Mom kept a Jackie Kennedy quote on the refrigerator: "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters much." My mother lived that. She was completely committed to her children.
Mother worked during the day, so my brother and I were kids who came home from school and had chores to do — mine was mainly watching after my brother, which was always a chore!
I spent a lot of time in my youth caretaking — my brother and my mother in a way. It was just the three of us, so we had a lot of commitment and responsibility for one another.
We left Buford when I was little and first lived in Detroit before moving to Cleveland in time for me to start high school. It was a job opportunity for my mom, and a new life for us as a small, single-parent-led family.
In Cleveland, my mom worked for the federal government — the Department of Defense — for years. She always said that John F. Kennedy was the reason she had a chance to have such a great job because it was Kennedy's administration that started championing civil rights for both African-Americans and women.
When I graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school in 1968, the options for women were pretty slim. The guidance counselor told me, "You can be a secretary, a nurse, a teacher, or a nun." My mother liked the nun option, but I already had my heart set on being a nurse.
I became an R.N. in 1973, and went to work at Ohio State University Hospital, taking care of adults and children with cancer. About 10 years later, I went on to earn a master's degree in nursing from Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing and a master's degree in business administration from the Weatherhead School of Management. Both schools were a part of Case Western Reserve University. I never dreamed I would end up in hospital administration; I always thought I'd end up being a practicing nurse forever.
My husband, Don, and I moved back to Cleveland in 1987, where I went to Cleveland Clinic to start their center and children's hospital, and that was really the start of my transition from traditional nursing to hospital administration.
When I went to work for University Hospitals of Cleveland Case Medical Center in 1995, it was clearly a senior-level position, so it required more executive thinking and decision-making — it wasn't just "nursing" anymore, but cancer services, pediatrics, and women's health. That was probably the biggest transition for me into hospital administration.
Twelve years later, in 2007, Le Bonheur contacted me. Peggy Troy, the president/CEO at the time, was leaving the hospital, and she had been given my name. Although I didn't know this until later, Peggy specifically wanted her replacement to be a woman in the medical profession.
When she called, I thought, "Well, I've never been to Memphis." St. Jude Children's Hospital, Elvis, and Martin Luther King Jr. were the sum total of my Memphis knowledge. I thought I'd just go down for a day, talk to Le Bonheur, see a little bit of Memphis, and that would be that.
During my daylong interview, however, I found myself becoming enamored with the people and the institution. Of course, they were careful not to show me the old hospital during that first interview! But I liked the people so much, I decided to go back for the second round of interviews.
During the second round, I met the staff, and that was the winner for me. What was so powerful was that the people at Le Bonheur really wanted a strong leader; they really wanted someone to take them to that next level. They were so proud of the project of building the new hospital, and they so wanted to improve. Those are rare opportunities to find and have the chance to shape something in the way you want it to be.
I'm very grateful for that opportunity. These five years at Le Bonheur have been the best five years of my career — and I've had a great career with great success. Le Bonheur has been fun in a different way. This has been meaningful fun. We were able to take "good" and make it "great." We started with something that had the kernels of goodness and the right attitudes, hearts, and minds, and took it to where it ultimately landed.
All I did was captain the ship that was already headed into the channels of success, but I feel very good about it.
Am I where I want to be? Yes. This is the job I will retire from. I got a call six months ago from a recruiter in Chicago on behalf of a company that is building a half-billion-dollar children's hospital, and he asked if I was interested. My immediate answer: No, thanks! I wouldn't leave here for Chicago or anywhere else. I am very committed to the people here, and I think the people of Memphis are very committed to Le Bonheur Children's Hospital.
I knew I wanted to be a nurse when … I was nine years old. Mom came home one day with a Cherry Ames book — I'll never forget it — titled Cherry Ames, Cruise Nurse. Cherry Ames was like the Nancy Drew series of books for young girls, but Cherry Ames was a nurse and the mysteries happened in healthcare settings. I still have all the books in that series in a box in my attic. It was truly one of those moments of clarity when I said, "That's what I want to do: be a nurse." From then on, everything I did focused on my becoming a nurse.
I chose to go into pediatrics because … that's what my mom preached from the time I was small: Children matter; children make a difference; children come first. It was all about children for her. She used to say, "The world would be a whole lot better place if it were full of children and animals instead of grownups." There's a lot of truth to that.
My only concern about coming to Le Bonheur … was leaving my husband and son in Cleveland for five months until they were able to join me. In terms of the job — and I do not say this from a vain perspective — I knew exactly what needed to be done, and I knew exactly how we were going to get there.
Le Bonheur by the numbers … 255 beds, 40 pediatric specialties, 2,200 employees, 670 medical staff members, 850 registered nurses trained in pediatrics, 14,000 hospital patients per year, 95,000 outpatient visits per year, 81,000 emergency room visits per year, and 8,800 surgeries per year.
The first thing I did when I joined Le Bonheur in 2007 … I took six months to do a complete assessment of the place, and I interviewed everyone. Then, when we presented the SWOT — Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats — analysis, everyone said, "Those are exactly what the issues are."
The biggest challenge I face … is getting people to think larger than themselves — think bigger things and more important contributions to children's health and well-being.
The first strategy we implemented … was family-centered care — not that it wasn't being done, but it wasn't being done in a fulfilled way. So we made that one of the core strategies of the hospital. I separated social work from case management, and I added 13 people to the child/life department. Then all I did was talk about it, preach about it, and never stop.
During my first year … we recruited families to serve on our inaugural Family Partners Council, and that was the foundation for the rest of our family-centered-care work. The council has more than 40 family members who help us — as healthcare providers — understand the issues from their side of the bed. They help us with policy, practice, and, most important, education and consciousness-raising so that we keep their needs, desires, and observations key to our daily work.
During the building of the $340 million hospital in 2008–2010, I worried about … just making sure we were living out the full potential for this hospital. Will I figure out the next step? Am I doing the right thing? That was my anxiety — and still is — because there is a lot at stake in making this work. Even after I go, the legacy of this hospital has got to continue. I say that because within a 150-mile radius, there are 1.2 million children and their families who count on us to be here and at our best 24/7/365. This place has to go on. It has to do well. It has to serve the children of today and tomorrow. It has to continue so the next generation of pediatric healthcare providers can be trained and can take our place in the years to come.
I ended up in hospital administration because … I had incredible women mentors my entire career. But it also hearkens back to my mom. When you have a mother who is all the time telling you what's important and what to do, it makes you be responsive to other mentors — so I always listened to them.
My first name … is Meri Melissa. My mother shortened the French name Demeri to Meri. She always intended for me to be called by both names — it was a Southern thing — and it was one of her great disappointments that it didn't work out that way!
I went to Catholic schools because … my mom wanted us to have what she thought was the best education at the time in our community. She always said you can give your children three gifts: unconditional love, the right values, and a good education.
An early lesson I learned …When I was earning my master's, I learned how crucial it is to involve staff in critical decisions, and I learned about management by walking around. Those were pretty foundational for me in terms of skill sets.
In high school, my favorite subject was … biology. Loved it.
Of all the awards and recognitions I've received … I've been humbled and honored by all of them. I was especially pleased when Le Bonheur was named one of the "Best Children's Hospitals" in the nation in 2011. I have received several community awards, but all of them are really because I stand on the shoulders of giants: the doctors, nurses, and staff who take care of the kids! They are the real heroes at Le Bonheur.
From my mother, I got … I hope I got her courage. Certainly, I got her opinionated outspokenness! My mother was not one to not have an opinion on things. She was very strong — she had to be. And I also got her incredible commitment to children.
I cannot … make Southern fried chicken like my mother did! Every Sunday dinner, that's what we had. I still have her big, 12-inch, cast-iron skillet that she used to make it in, using lots of Crisco. I remember that she always had little blister burns on her forearms from the hot grease popping and splattering.
What I miss most about nursing … is the joy from knowing you help someone every day in a real and personal way. When I retire, I'm going to be a hospice nurse. Even though I'm Le Bonheur's president, I still make rounds every day to visit the children and see what's going on around the hospital. It wouldn't be a good day if I didn't see the children.
If I could spend an hour with anyone … it would be John F. Kennedy. I'd like to hear the things he was thinking and what inspired him: supporting civil rights, the Peace Corps, the goal to land on the moon. He had a lot of courage. And if not him, certainly my mom. She died in 1998, and there are still a bazillion questions I'd like to ask her.
The first time I set foot in Memphis, I was surprised by … how incredibly hot it was! That first summer, I thought I would die! And "Elvis Death Week" was an interesting surprise.
I'm a huge believer in … women mentoring women. I don't say that from some feminist perspective; I say it because I don't think enough of it is being done. You've got to help the people in your "group." You've got to be there for them. I was a big beneficiary of that, and I want to be a big benefactor of it going forward.
The best decision I ever made … was to be a nurse. The second-best decision was coming to work at Le Bonheur and taking care of kids. I really, truly believe that.
When I'm not being Mrs. Le Bonheur, I … love to read and be with my family.
I never wanted to be … a doctor! In college, I had a short period when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. It was right after Watergate, and Barbara Jordan was this wonderful black senator and lawyer. I listened to her speak and thought, "That's what I want to be." I took the LSAT and applied to Capital University. During my interview with the law school dean, he asked, "Why does a sweet, young thing like you want to go to law school?" I responded with all the things you're supposed to say — serve people, contribute to society — and he said, "You'll never make it. You'll never be successful at it because every deal is made on the golf course or in the locker room, and you'll never have that privilege." I became incensed, of course. This was 1976, after all. I withdrew my application and vowed to never be a lawyer. It wasn't until much later that my husband suggested, "Did it ever occur to you that he was just testing you to see how you'd react?" Of course, I had not. So my impulsive overreaction, in one way, kept me in healthcare all these years.
I met my husband … Don and I met after college and were married in 1990. Don was in the banking industry for most of his career. Our son, Mac, was born in 1992. He's attending Rhodes College, studying physics.
I believe … that the path lights up if you're doing the right thing. I believe this hospital has been guided by a force — God and a bountiful universe — and I believe there's a reason for Le Bonheur to go forward. Those steps have been clear all along the way for me.
My final 2 cents … Children matter; children make a difference; children come first.