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MAKING GOOD ON THE DEAL

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Chris Lumsden at his hospital office, and above, when he first came to South Boston.
SoVaNow.com / April 09, 2018
Chris Lumsden’s introduction to the community was a rather rude one.

“The thing I remember was playing Halifax my junior year,” recalled Lumsden, then a young shooting guard for the Cave Spring basketball team, back when the Roanoke school was a familiar rival of the Comet athletic program. “It was the year after you played Moses Malone” in the 1973 state championship game. Even without several star ballplayers from that fabled state runner-up squad, Halifax was an overpowering foe.

Cave Spring trailed by 20 going into halftime. The Comet gym “was cranking,” said Lumsden, who still marvels at the Blue Heaven gymnasium memory. In those days, dunking wasn’t allowed in high school basketball games. So the athletic Comets would sky over the rim and lay in the ball, as if to proclaim their dominance over the less talented Knights. “We had towels over our heads,” said Lumsden.

Finally, a Comet player had had enough of the constraints of the rulebook and threw down a thunderous dunk that brought the building to a frenzy (and drew a technical foul). “We were glad to get out of there,” said Lumsden, laughing.

Life in South Boston would get better for Lumsden, who found his way back to the community a decade later, via a circuitous route that nearly saw him pursue a career in law rather than hospital administration. In 1985, he joined then-Halifax-South Boston Community Hospital as an assistant administrator. He would stay on for 33 years, guiding the organization as CEO through a series of major changes: the rebranding as Halifax Regional Hospital in 1994, the establishment of Halifax Regional Health System a year later, and the 2013 merger with Norfolk-based Sentara Healthcare, which recently tapped Lumsden’s successor, Georgia-based hospital executive Jason Studley.

Sitting down for an interview in his office March 29, his next-to-last day at work — it was also the week of the 60th birthday — the retiring hospital president talked about the twin pillars of his career in Halifax: first, reinventing an under-resourced, not-entirely financially stable rural hospital as a regional medical center and the community’s largest private employer; and second, his side work as a community leader with a special dedication to broadening educational opportunity, most notably through his longstanding involvement with the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.

“I enjoy giving back to the community,” said Lumsden, who was praised for doing just that by statewide healthcare and education leaders who traveled to South Boston recently to speak at his retirement dinner. “And I enjoy the recognition, but that’s not what I’m here for.”

From his various leadership stints at the state level — Lumsden has served as former chair of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Virginia Community College System and Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association — he said he has found that “the good news is that a lot of people across the state think we [Halifax County and South Boston] are bigger than we really are. I think we’re viewed as a premier rural community.

“What makes me tick is the opportunity to grow things, to build things and make life better for the community,” Lumsden said. Becoming president of the hospital created a platform for such a leadership role: “The healthcare part is what I was paid to do, and I’m proud of that, but it’s the community part that I wanted to do.”

***

Lumsden was in his mid-20s, already three jobs into a budding career in hospital administration, when he began to wonder if was the life he really wanted to make for himself.

He had begun thinking in earnest about a career while a junior at Bridgewater College, his landing spot after graduation from Cave Spring. The topic came up in a conversation with his father, an engineer who owned his own business, who offered a suggestion: “How about hospital administration? He knew about that because he was doing some site work at the time for Lewis Gale Hospital [in Roanoke],” recounted Lumsden.

Landing a summer job at Lewis Gale, Lumsden found himself enjoying the work — so much so that he enrolled in a graduate school program after Bridgewater to train to become a hospital administrator. The requirement that he complete an administrative residency led him back home to Roanoke, where Lumsden accepted a position with Community Hospital of Roanoke Valley. He worked under the hospital’s CEO, Hunter Grubbs.

Lumsden was about halfway through his residency when Grubbs came to him one day with a proposition: “Chris, we’ve got a job interview for you in Danville,” Lumsden recalled. “I said, ‘But I haven’t finished my program here.’” The Danville opening was for an administrative assistant — third in line to the hospital’s CEO. Despite his qualms over not fulfilling his Roanoke residency, Lumsden understood that hospital administration was a pipeline field, where moving around and moving up were often one and the same. So he went through with the Danville interview and did well. It was the boss himself who broke the news that he had gotten the job. Lumsden, only 24 and recently married to his wife, Linda, a nursing student, asked Grubbs for day or two to think over the offer. “He said, ‘Yeah, go speak with Linda, but you start Jan. 20,” said Lumsden, smiling at the memory.

Lumsden was last in line in a three-man chain of administrative assistants in Danville. However, the two aides ahead of him soon departed, considerably expanding his portfolio of duties. But after two-plus years, Lumsden had become disillusioned in Danville, enough so that he was intent on trying a new career. He was accepted into law school at University of Richmond. This prompted a second family intervention — but not this time from his father. “My brother, who was an attorney, told me, ‘You don’t want to be a lawyer.’”

In early May 1985, Lumsden got an offer “out of the blue” from Hospital Corporation of America, which managed the Danville hospital: There was an opening available at the South Boston hospital, also managed by HCA. “I’d never been here other than passing by on Highway 58,” said Lumsden. (That’s not quite the full story, as his high school basketball experience attests.) Lumsden interviewed for the position of Chief Operating Officer under then-CEO Dick Graham. After an initial interview with an HCA hospital president in Martinsville, Lumsden sat down for a second round of talks with board members of the Halifax hospital: community leaders such as Halifax attorney and county supervisor Jimmy Edmunds, board chairman Walter Cox and businessman Tom Crowell.

“I really liked everyone I met. Jimmy Edmunds, all of these guys were very kind to Linda and me,” he said. Lumsden got the job at the tender age of 27. A year later, Dick Graham left for a new position in Washington, D.C., and “there was a discussion on whether I was ready to take the top job.” A year and a half later and still the designated COO, Lumsden said he had made the decision to move on from Halifax — “I was on my way to another opportunity” — when the board agreed to offer him the big job, the position of Chief Executive Officer. “I was 29 at the time, about to turn 30,” he said.

“They felt like I had potential,” Lumsden said of the board’s hiring decision. “Of course, when you’re 29, you’re looked at as someone who is inexperienced, and I’m sure I fell into that category. They asked me to commit to five years, and I said ‘of course.’”

Lumsden started the job in 1988. “I think I fulfilled that five year commitment,” he added wryly.

***

Back then, the name was Halifax-South Boston Community Hospital, and it hadn’t reigned as the county’s only hospital for very long. South Boston General Hospital, at the current North Main Street home of Boston Commons, had closed in 1979. “I know some people didn’t like it” once Halifax County no longer had two independent hospitals, said Lumsden, “but having two hospitals here competing against each other was a recipe for failure.”

Dick Graham’s five-year tenure as CEO was largely spent bringing measure of stability to Halifax Community Hospital, which not only had been weakened by competition, but also was coming off of a period of intense labor strife between management and a disgruntled staff, nurses in particular. Graham was successful calming the waters, but the hospital’s financial situation “wasn’t very strong, to say the least,” said Lumsden. “We had a little money, but we were hardly out of the weeds.”

The sandy-haired, just-turned-30 administrative wunderkind was determined to shore up the hospital’s organizational and financial resources. That work took place largely behind the scenes, out of the headlines that had roiled the hospital only a few years earlier. With an earnest, wonky management style and buttoned-up professionalism, Lumsden proved to be a comfortable fit for the job, and for the community. But he wanted to do more than simply stabilize Halifax Community and preside over what had been handed to him.

In 1988, the hospital was a single building, surrounded by doctors’ offices. Lumsden aspired to create something greater. “That’s what I liked to do — that was the vision for Halifax when I became CEO. Dick stabilized things, but we took it to the level of becoming a true health system.”

In 1994, Halifax County-South Boston Community Hospital became Halifax Regional Hospital. The next year saw the establishment of Halifax Regional Health System, reflecting the growing scope of the operation, which included hospital-owned clinics, back-end business and real estate offices, the hospital foundation and The Woodview long-term care facility (later joined by MeadowView Terrace, a sister facility in Clarksville. The hospital campus, once cradled by trees, was consumed with expansions: prominent additions included the East 3 wing, the Cox Rehabilitation Center and other medical and administrative buildings.

The latest add-on to the main building, rather than growing outward, pointed up: the addition of two patient floors, East IV and V, completed in 2009 at a cost of $16 million. “We’ve expanded 50 times in the time I’ve been here,” said Lumsden. In terms of facilities, Halifax Regional’s footprint reaches into Mecklenburg and Charlotte counties, while the Nathalie clinic draws patients from nearby Campbell and Pittsylvania counties. The evolution into a regional health system also meant a doubling of the payroll: Today, about 515 employees work at the main hospital, with the rest of the nearly 1,200-member health system workforce spread out among clinics, physician practices, the downtown South Boston administrative office (at the old Leggett department store building) and the two hospital nursing homes.

This trajectory — from a 1950s-era community hospital to a regional medical center, becoming the area’s largest private employer along the way — would not have happened, said Lumsden, without the leadership team that coalesced in South Boston: most prominently, Tom Kluge and Stewart Nelson, the hospital’s chief operating and chief financial officers, respectively, who worked decades at the task of expanding medical services while spinning administrative operations off from the core campus: “We had an aggressive growth strategy” and a “very nimble, flexible governing structure,” said Lumsden. In 2002, the hospital leadership undertook another, quieter step: ending its management agreement with Hospital Corporation of America, the country’s largest hospital chain. Halifax Regional Hospital, for all intents and purposes, was on its own.

All this led up to the most momentous change for the hospital since its founding in 1953: the decision to merge with Norfolk-based Sentara Health, a $115 million deal completed in 2013. In exchange for acquiring the hospital, Sentara put the $115 million into a fund to support the hospital’s operational and capital improvement needs. The deal was less flashy than other such transactions in the region — Martinsville and Danville each created community foundations with the proceeds from their hospital sales, while South Hill got an entirely new facility after VCU Health bought its community hospital — but Lumsden maintains that judging the Sentara-Halifax Regional merger in such a context misses the value of what the community received.

“My view, and the board’s view, was that the equity we had built up in the hospital should be plowed back into the hospital,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” By becoming part of the Sentara’s 11-hospital system, Halifax Regional is much better positioned to recruit physicians; meantime, it has no debt and has not been forced into layoffs, and it continues to invest internally, most recently by spending $12 million to update its electronic medical records system.

“Recruitment of doctors is not free,” said Lumsden of the growth in medical services in the deal’s wake. Back when the board was looking for a merger partner — Sentara prevailed over several other non-profit and corporate suitors — a key consideration was finding a parent hospital group that would fit well with the local organization: “We looked at the money question — financial arrangements were at the top of the list, certainly in the top five — but the number one [consideration] was fit, culture, compatibility.”

Sentara Halifax Regional is part of the non-profit system’s Blue Ridge division (now overseen by Stewart Nelson, who departed in 2017 to become Sentara’s vice-president for the region). South Boston remains the most rural of Sentara’s hospitals, rivaled only by Elizabeth City, N.C., which is only about a 50-minute drive from Sentara’s Norfolk base. Notwithstanding Halifax Regional’s small-town vibe and faraway distance from the mothership, Lumsden said the affiliation has gone well. “People, when they come in here from Sentara, are very complimentary of what we do. I think they think we work hard and do important work.”

Lumsden points to one piece of evidence that, he says, bears out the claim Halifax County and surrounding areas have benefited greatly from the Sentara partnership: the inclusion of Sentara Halifax Regional on the list of Top 100 Rural and Community Hospitals in the U.S., compiled by iVantage Health Analytics and The Chartis Center for Rural Health, an industry advisory group. SHRHS has been named to the list two years in a row, and is one of only two Virginia hospitals to make the cut in 2017.

“Hopefully, being a top 100 hospital in the country is indicative of what we’ve done … I don’t know what other stamp you want to put on it except that it’s pretty darn good,” said Lumsden.

***

Newly retired and having breeched his seventh decade, Lumsden isn’t quite sure what comes next, but he says he and wife Linda plan to stay in South Boston (after enjoying a period of travel). “I’m at the point where I need to recharge the batteries. My wife says I’m not retiring, I’m rewiring.”

A possible repository for his energies is the work that Lumsden has long undertaken to improve local education. Soon after arriving in Halifax County, he became one of the point persons for selling the public on a $3 million bond referendum to purchase computers for school classrooms. “There was a lot of skepticism that bond referendum would pass,” said Lumsden. It did, by a better than 2-1 margin, in 1991. Lumsden served as chair of the steering committee.

He and other members of the civic elite — then-delegate Ted Bennett, local businessman Rick Harrell, South Boston mayor Glen Abernathy, Board of Supervisors chairman Joe Satterfield and others — would go on to spearhead an even more ambitious project: moving the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center out of its home inside a vacated Lowe’s Home Improvement store and into abandoned tobacco buildings overlooking the Dan River that today house the SVHEC, The Prizery and the SVHEC Innovation Center. The Board of Supervisors conditioned public support on whether the committee — which Lumsden again headed — could raise $1.75 million in private contributions. “They even audited our pledges, to make sure the money came through, which is not something you’d see very often,” said Lumsden.

It was a daunting challenge. “I didn’t tell anybody at the time, but I didn’t think that we’d pull it off,” he said. “We were sledding uphill. It had never been done before.” The fund raising exceeded expectations — and voters approved another bond referendum, this time with greater than 70 percent support, to provide local matching funds for the new SVHEC home. Construction, begun in 1999, wrapped up in 2001, and the Halifax Education Foundation, the SVHEC’s parent organization, still had $1 million in the bank. “We worked to have a million dollars in cash to sustain it. We weren’t state designated,” he said.

The SVHEC carved a unique place for itself in Virginia’s higher education sphere — there were other non-college, higher education centers in the state, but those were (and mostly still are) tightly associated with community colleges, not freestanding institutions backed by private funding like South Boston’s new center. “We were the first,” said Lumsden.

Developing a stable funding stream remained a big task, however. In 2005, the SVHEC finally became a formal part of the state’s higher education system, easing the strain on its budget. The center offers classes through the community college system, universities such as Longwood and Virginia Tech, and it added other programs later, such as the SoVa Center for Manufacturing Excellence.

For its part, the hospital helped to establish the nursing training program at the SVHEC because, as Lumsden puts it, “we have to grow our own. Nurses can get a job in any city like this” — snapping his fingers. “The idea that we’re going to pull them away from the city is silly.”

Even as he acknowledges that the heady era of progress that enabled the rise of the SVHEC has dimmed — today, Halifax County faces massive bills fixing up its dilapidated courthouse and high school — Lumsden argues that the community has no choice but to press forward. “Communities that fight are the ones that succeed. If it was easy, everybody could do it. You just have to figure out your competition and try to compete more effectively.

“I love Halifax County, I love southern Virginia. That’s why I’ve stayed here. What’s important to me is giving back to the commonwealth. Either you give up and wave the white flag or you go forward.”

What that means in tangible terms for his future is unknown, but Lumsden said he’s pondering the question. “I hope not to be unemployed too long.”



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