UF Health Jacksonville CEO discusses his return to healthcare after loss of friend and colleague Dr. Leon Haley

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In August, Russell Armistead stepped out of retirement and returned to his CEO role at UF Health Jacksonville (Fla.).

But his return came in the wake of a tragic loss: The hospital's CEO, Leon Haley Jr., MD, died in a jet ski accident in July.

"The loss of Dr. Haley was so traumatic to this place, and to me personally," Mr. Armistead told Becker's in October. "Leon was a friend."

Dr. Haley succeeded Mr. Armistead in 2018. When the hospital asked him to return, Mr. Armistead and his family agreed he needed to go back.

"It's bittersweet in the sense that we've had a couple of ribbon-cutting events that were highlight events, and I'm there cutting the ribbon, but it's really Dr. Haley who did all of the work to make that event happen," he said. "He was just, frankly, so effective and almost bigger than life."

Mr. Armistead returned to a far different landscape than the one he'd left. The hospital was waging a fierce battle with an unprecedented COVID-19 surge.

"I thought we were 10 to 15 patients from closing the hospital," he said. "And none of us knew what closing the hospital meant. We had added 130-ish beds, no more staff because we couldn't get them. And we had patients everywhere, ED stacked up. I mean, it was hard to describe. People had to sort of pull me off the ceiling because I had not experienced the other surges."

Thanks to a multimillion dollar investment made by the city of Jacksonville, Mr. Armistead said expansion plans are underway, including additional urgent care and emergency facilities throughout the city.

"All of that is really the result of, I believe, Dr. Haley's influence with both the city and the university," he said. "So it's quite different than what I was dealing with before [I retired]. And, frankly, it's really a breath of fresh air."

As for how long he'll remain CEO of the hospital he thought he'd said goodbye to, Mr. Armistead said he doesn't yet have the answer.

"I love what I'm doing," he said. "But the price is personal time and I'm frankly trying to balance that. So I don't have an end date. I'm here as long as I can be effective."

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