LEWISTON — Peter Holden knows hospitals.
He was the youngest hospital CEO in the country when he took over Clifton-Fine Hospital in Star Lake, New York, at age 23. He’s led big medical centers and small ones, troubled ones and successful ones. Hospitals have been his life’s work for 40 years.
But when he walked into St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, he noticed something different.
“People make eye contact. People smile. People introduce themselves. They ask you what they can do to help you. If you have that universal confused look on your face, they’ll surround you and take you where you need to go,” he said. “That culture, you can’t fake it. It’s very genuine. It’s very real.”
A few weeks ago, Holden was named interim president of St. Mary’s Health System, which includes St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. One of his goals for the next nine months or so: Don’t mess up what makes St. Mary’s special.
“When I go into an organization not named St. Mary’s, I want to do everything I can to build up the culture and strengthen the insides of the organization to make it like the culture that already exists here,” he said. “I just want to make sure I do nothing but support it (at St. Mary’s).”
Holden replaces Chris A. Chekouras, who was president and CEO for two years. Chekouras recently resigned to take a job out of state to be closer to family.
Although Chekouras’ resignation was not supposed to be effective until Oct. 6, he’d left St. Mary’s by the time Holden arrived Sept. 11.
Holden, 63, was hired by Covenant Health Systems, St. Mary’s parent. He will lead the Lewiston-based hospital system while Covenant searches for a permanent replacement.
But while Holden is determined not to change St. Mary’s culture, he said he’s also not there just “to keep the seat warm.”
“There are things that have to be done,” he said.
Top among them: Covenant’s reorganization and standardization of care among its three hospitals: St. Mary’s, St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor and St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, New Hampshire.
“We have to make sure the reorganization goes smoothly so that these three hospitals ultimately function as one,” Holden said. “All the systems have to be in alignment. All of the hospital-based services have to be in alignment. And the quality of care — you sort of take the best of what everybody does and put that across the system.”
He will also help oversee the installation of a massive new electronic medical records system.
“That’s going to require an awful lot of effort across the system to make sure those go-live (dates) go well,” he said. “As they say, it’s very career limiting when they don’t.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Holden saw a lot of illness in his family and knew he wanted a career in medicine. But at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where Holden had started to take pre-med courses, a dean suggested he check out administration instead.
“I didn’t even know what he was talking about,” Holden said.
Insistent, the dean arranged for Holden to spend a day shadowing the CEO of the Georgetown University Medical Center.
“I was mesmerized,” Holden said. “And when I talked to the dean of the college, he said, ‘I think you would get more value out of being able to help communities even more than individual patients.’ How he knew that, to this day, I’ll never know. But I’ve never once regretted the path I took.”
Holden graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American studies and would later earn a master’s degree in health administration from Xavier University in Ohio.
His first job out of Georgetown was as CEO of a small hospital in upstate New York.
“I am happy to say it’s still in existence,” he said. “I was the youngest CEO in the country. Probably the dumbest, too, but I tried to hide that. I was very lucky. I can honestly say they shouldn’t have hired me. They simply liked the way I interviewed and the fact I said I’d work really hard for them. I didn’t tell them I had all the answers; I just said I’d work hard for them.”
Holden stayed for nearly four years. The experience shaped his career.
“For the first year or so, I didn’t really understand how important that job was to that community keeping its health care,” he said. “By the time I really understood the stakes and the gamble, if you will, that the board had taken, we had done some things at the hospital that turned out to be very helpful. I knew the hospital was going to be OK by the time it sort hit me like, ‘Oh, my gosh, if I make a mistake, it could be terrible.'”
With that experience in mind, Holden founded a nonprofit to help find leaders for troubled New York hospitals. He went on to head a number of hospitals and health systems, the most recent of which was Beth Israel Deaconess Plymouth Hospital in Massachusetts.
Holden considered retirement when he left but didn’t feel ready. He plans to reassess after his time at St. Mary’s.
Holden is the father of four boys, the youngest a high school senior. His wife and youngest son stayed behind in Massachusetts so the teenager could finish school. Holden commutes home on weekends.
He doesn’t see trading his interim status for permanent, though “part of me would love to say I’ll be here until the cows come home.”
“But the agreement was that I would be here for a defined period of time and do what needs to be done to help the hospital get through these transitions,” he said.