A heart attack changed this health system CEO's life

Todd LaPorte brings more than 35 years of healthcare experience to his role as CEO of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HonorHealth, a role he's held since April 2017. While he has undoubtedly faced numerous challenges during his career, including those related to the pandemic, it was a sculpture that brought about the most difficult professional challenge he's ever faced.

Mr. LaPorte told Becker's he walked away from the experience with an important lesson. He shared this lesson in an interview Feb. 23, along with his thoughts on the industry today. And while a sculpture brought on his worst day, he also shared how a heart attack 10 years ago brought on the best one.

Editor's note: This is a regular series of conversations with CEOs of the nation's health systems. Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What's something the healthcare industry isn't talking about enough?

Todd LaPorte: We're not talking enough about proactive health versus reactive health. What I mean by that is we have a tradition of simply responding to episodic care as it comes to us, and we should be talking more about how we engage with community members. How do we engage with them in terms of healthier living and well-being so that they can avoid what ultimately becomes chronic conditions that they then have to manage? There is a real epidemic of obesity in our country. If you looked at the amount of what one would define as obesity in 1985 and what its prevalence was and then looked at it 40 years later, there is a dramatic difference. The CDC, in fact, put out a report that showed sort of a coloring of the intensity of obesity throughout America 40 years ago and then looked at it in five-year increments evolving from there. This was a report about five to 10 years ago, and it was quite dramatic to see how far our country has come in just a relatively short amount of human time. And that obesity translates into chronic diseases, so we need to as an industry be talking more about how we can engage more in proactive health than reactive health.

Q: What's an unpopular (or uncommon) leadership or healthcare opinion you have?

TL: I get looked at kind of funny sometimes by peers and community members when I say, "HonorHealth wants to keep people out of hospitals." We're not just a hospital system. We provide a whole array of services that range from trying to help people be well as well as how to be in lower-level settings. But nonetheless, it is a victory for us if we can keep people out of hospitals. As baby boomers keep aging, the demand for healthcare services keeps rising because of this acuity that keeps rising in our country as well. And yet we talk all the time about a labor shortage of healthcare workers. So we're going to have a real supply and demand issue that's going to come at us, and, frankly, we have to do this as a defensive posture. But the real reason we do it is because that's our mission. Our mission is to improve the health and well- being of those we serve. So it starts there. But it also happens to be a matter of self-defense that we may be challenged with having enough supply of caregiving to meet the demand. We need to get out on the front end. We're doing it, for example, by promoting as a community leader, a Blue Zones project in one of the communities in our backyard. We're excited about it. We're starting with this in one of our communities we serve, and we hope to expand it. We're doing this in formal cooperation with a national Blue Zones organization that has done it in 70 other communities across the US. But we're the first in Arizona. It's about how to improve the built-in environment of our community that makes it easier for people to live healthier lives and  allows them to live better and longer.

Q: What was the hardest day of your career? How did you get through it?

TL: Most people think, being the CEO of the health system over these last seven years, that the logical thing would be to say something related to the pandemic. That was certainly a long and sustained mode of crisis management. There was a point in which more than one-third of our hospital beds were being occupied by people with COVID-19 infections. And, for those who are very vulnerable, it was resulting in a much higher mortality rate. 

But what I'm going to share is tangential to the pandemic. I had an orthopedic surgeon who is an accomplished sculptor and wanted to honor his colleagues and their collective response to the pandemic. He sculpted a statue that was in honor of his peers and colleagues. It had a dragon in it. It had an orb that was somewhat resembling the COVID-19 symbol. And it had a nurse holding this orb, keeping it away from this dragon that was engulfing the nurse. It was visually quite bold, but it came from the heart. It was very well-intended and, again, wanted to honor the effort of the caregivers.

I had a focus group from the hospital that the physician was based in take a look at it and said, "Hey, what do you think?" Thumbs up, great. We move forward with being able to put this sculpture on display at the hospital where he was on the medical staff. No sooner than inside of 24 hours, there was a scathing social media backlash coming from a journalistic association feeling as though it had a tone of being anti-Asian. And it was just awful because I knew the artist and his incredibly good intentions. But then I also felt terrible about hurting the feelings of some folks. I had not been smart enough to reach out to understand how they might receive that artwork. And so it was an awful time. What I learned from that is I've got to widen my circle of feedback. 

The situation, in essence, then ended up being part of what inspired our movement in a more organized and expansive way in managing diversity, equity and inclusion. And, of course, there was all kinds of buzz about that that was around us in that general time frame, The Black Lives Matter movement and other various forms of bringing attention to that area. And I think we said, "We need to be much more purposeful and serious about this as we move forward." Looking back on it, I probably would have had wider, more multifaceted focus group feedback on it. And, at the end of the day, I could tell you I wish that organization before they had jumped into social media had reached out to me and we could have talked about it. 

Q: If you could go back in time 10 years, what would you tell yourself to start doing, or start learning about? What ended up being a bigger deal than it might have seemed at one point? 

TL: Ten years ago, I had a heart attack. I was only 52 years old. I recognized I needed to be in better shape. So I was in the process of concluding a workout and had been in a series of workouts preceding that. I probably overdid it that day. But suffice it to say, I was driving home from my rigorous workout and ended up having a sensation that turned out to be symptoms of a heart attack. I actually pulled into a parking lot at a Home Depot that was on the way to my home, and, after stopping, and I had light rushing in faster than I could process it, I leaned on my driver's door and fell to the ground onto the 120-degree pavement in the parking lot. And I had the good fortune of being seen by a physician who came over, attended to me and then, of course, emergency services all kicked in. What I learned from all of that is that my attitude of selfless service to others had to start with, ironically, taking care of myself. It's a lesson in servant leadership in that you can't be a good servant leader unless you're first taking care of yourself. As I was sitting in the hospital the day after, I declared to my daughters that I was going to view that day as the best day of my life. And the quality of my life the last 10 years has been exponentially better than the previous 10 before that attack. It's because I have been living a healthier lifestyle. I've become better educated. I've felt empowered to make a difference with my health. And it's amazing how it's translated into a higher quality of life on so many fronts.

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