Working Wonders at Wilcox

Photos by Amanda C. Gregg

She’s still a nurse at heart, but now Kathy Clark, president and CEO of Wilcox Memorial Hospital, looks after patients, staff, physicians and the community

For some, it may be hard to believe that a hospital on a small island in the middle of the Pacific could be a world-class health care facility. But for Kathy Clark, president and CEO of Wilcox Memorial Hospital, it’s a challenge that has become a reality — a reality that puts a smile on her face.

“I wake up every day with the goal of doing the ‘right thing’ for the patients, the staff, the physicians and the facility,” she says. “I am a patient advocate first and foremost. It helps me to always remember to see things through the patients’ eyes.”

It makes sense that she’d have that perspective, as Clark is hardly just a bottom line-driven executive running a hospital that now ranks in the top 100 rural hospitals in the U.S. Even though she’s got an adept business sense (and an MBA), she also has three decades’ worth of experience as a registered nurse working directly with patients and medical staff in a wide range of capacities, including trauma coordinator for a level II trauma center.

So, Clark says, she knows all too well what it’s like to be in the “trenches.”

“Although many times it is a challenge to please (everyone), I never forget being on the front lines,” she says. “I know how very difficult and demanding it can be and how it is to work as a bedside nurse.”

She also knows that a lot is asked of nurses. “It is a tough job,” she admits. “But they are outstanding and really pull together in order to provide the patients with the best of care. It’s the same with the staff and physicians.”

If there is a bottom line, it’s the patients.

“I try to alleviate their concerns and make sure we provide them with excellent service,” she says. “It may be hard to give the patient a perfect experience every time, but that is our goal.”

Addressing the needs of women patients is something that happened on Clark’s watch, too, with the October 2010 opening of the Women’s Center, a spa-like facility with a softer touch than the sterility of most hospitals, where women can get everything from bone scans to mammograms.

The rapport Clark builds with others is a direct result of improvements from which the hospital and its patients benefit. She doesn’t take credit for the Women’s Center, but thanks the staff and community for helping it come to fruition, as well as the support of Chuck Sted, CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health.

“We started raising money for a women’s center through a gala event and began the planning. The community and the Wilcox Health staff really came through,” she says, adding that when it was time to pay the bills, “we were more than $1 million short.” Sted, Clark says, funded the deficit.

It’s not the only high-end addition that Clark has helped bring to Wilcox with her advocacy and relationships. The hospital also is the proud owner of a 320-slice scanner, which has cardiac capabilities. What this means for Kaua‘i is that CT scans can be done on-island versus patients having to fly to Oahu for much of their interventional diagnostic cardiac care.

Clark got her start as a nurse in 1980 after her husband died. After attending nursing school in Iowa, she moved her family to California. There she worked in a coronary care unit, cardiac surgical intensive care unit and, later, the emergency department.

She joined Wilcox as its chief nurse executive in April 2005, but was promoted to president and CEO in October of that year.

Born in Michigan, raised in Minnesota and Iowa, perhaps it’s a good old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic that pushes Clark and inspires others, including those who put her in charge of the hospital just four months after she came on board.

Typically starting her days before 6 a.m. to “take advantage of the quiet time,” she certainly has no aversion to hard work and long hours. Attending meetings, problem-solving and making rounds on patients and staff isn’t all she does.

She’s a member of the state Health Planning and Development Agency, state Health Coordinating Council and the American Red Cross. She also is Chamber of Commerce board chairwoman.

“I want the hospital to be seen as a good community partner, so I try to stay involved with other groups,” she says.

Randall Francisco, president of Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce, says the community is lucky to have someone with Clark’s leadership skill volunteering her time. He says Clark has helped the board achieve new milestones. “During the past few years … Kathy demonstrated the leadership needed in our community when our island is still in recession-recovery mode,” he says.

That ability to lead by example is something Gwen Tsukayama, who has been at Wilcox for 42 years, appreciates. “We have seen a lot of changes happen in this organization which have made it a great place to work,” she says. “Kathy has made a difference to all of us who work here in that she is very supportive of what we do and has made many improvements in the services we provide to the community. She is the best.”

An advocate for transparency, Clark also has the ability to bridge communication gaps, and believes in collaborating to make progress.

“I am extremely proud to say that everyone works really well together,” she says. “I can’t help but smile when a meeting ends and I see people staying to talk with each other about how to make things better.”

Making things better for the hospital and its patients and staff is something Clark is honored to do.

“I have been blessed with tremendous opportunity to learn and grow in my ability to care for patients and manage people,” she says. “I prided myself on being an excellent clinical nurse, so making the transition from clinical to management was very challenging for me — I missed the patient contact. Now I see patients in a different way, and hope I still have a positive impact on them.”

When there is a day off, Clark says she enjoys working outside, reading, golfing, playing with her dog, Lucy, and “putzing around the house.”