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Burrell brings passion, integrity into role as hospital CEO
Medical center team stands behind her
Northeast Georgia Medical Center CEO Carol Burrell, right, gives a hug Tuesday to unit secretary Karen Winkler during a meet-and-greet at the North Patient Tower in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

A cup of hot tea, a piece of cheese toast and Carol Burrell is out the door.

It's a typical start to what is likely not a typical day for most.

A packed schedule awaits, including at least three meetings, one of which is likely held early morning or late night. Then there's time spent with her team to talk about how initiatives are going, touching base with department heads and staff to hear about their day-to-day concerns and talking with the board of directors about major projects, like a new facility in South Hall.

It's all part of the job of leading a hospital that employs 4,700 people and plays a critical role in the Gainesville economy and community.

"There's no routine," Burrell said, sitting in a corner office where she's still settling in.

Burrell was named CEO of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in June, a few months after Jim Gardner stepped down and she took the role on an interim basis. It's a job she says she didn't set out to attain but where her life gradually led.

"I wasn't one of those individuals that says, ‘I want to be a COO or a CEO of a hospital some day,'" she said. "If I look back over, every opportunity was a stepping stone, and I've always said that other people probably saw more in me than I saw in myself and gave me great opportunities."

Setting lofty goals
Now she's using her latest opportunity to raise the bar at a hospital that already has an excellent reputation.

Initiatives include a transparency program in which the hospital's outcomes will be published online, eliminating unnecessary steps and waste in everyday processes and giving physicians a stronger leadership role.

"If we don't have physicians, we don't have a whole lot here," Burrell said. "And they're critical, and we're looking to create models that allow us to better partner with them in how we're improving the care."

Connecting with the staff, each of whom touch patients in one way or another, is important to Burrell. She meets with different departments to "hear back from them what's their world like" and get feedback on how initiatives she's put in place are working.

"It's the folks that are out there who are interacting with the patients and the visitors on a day-to-day basis that are really the lifeblood, if you will," she said. "And so what I get out of that is a reminder — you can easily get caught up in meetings and be out of touch."

And it's efforts like those that have earned Burrell the trust of her colleagues.

"She was well thought of by the physicians that she worked with," said David Westfall, who has directed Burrell in her previous role with the primary care network and also worked under her as she later became COO.

"She at that time, as now, had a lot of credibility with the physicians and understood some of the issues that they had."

She also has long-term, large-scale projects to consider, including building a 100-bed hospital in Braselton and moving a nursing home.

It's a lot to handle, but Burrell acknowledged she has a lot of support.

"I've got a great team of people here," she said. "There's not any one person that makes all this work."

The quality and engagement of her board is also crucial, and something she said is unique based on what she hears from peers.

But Burrell is also well-equipped to lead the team that stands behind her.

A woman of integrity
Those who've worked closely with her describe Burrell as someone with impeccable integrity, wisdom and a can-do attitude. And they're not at all surprised by her move to CEO.

"As the medical center has grown and expanded, she's grown and expanded with it," said Jackie Wallace, who has known Burrell since they were classmates at Winder-Barrow High School and more recently has worked closely with her on the board of the United Way of Hall County.

"She's accepted new challenges and built a really strong team of people and just done some phenomenal things. All you have to do is to drive around the campus of the medical center and see just the incredible facility that we have. What an asset to North Georgia, and Carol was very instrumental in making that possible."

Even her high school biology teacher, Pearl Wall, remembers an inquisitive and dedicated A student who was going places.

"I knew that she would be successful," Wall said. "I am just amazed at how she's gone forth."

In a 32-year career, Burrell worked her way from microbiologist and blood banker to being a vice president at a Jacksonville, Fla., hospital to leading a large multispecialty physician group. In 1999, she was recruited to work with the primary care network at Northeast Georgia Medical and was promoted to COO at the hospital in 2004.

Westfall, now health director at the Georgia Division of Public Health, North Health District 2, helped bring Burrell to Gainesville. As Gardner stepped down, he said he knew the hospital already had the perfect replacement.

"I always knew that if I asked her to do something, it was going to be done, it was going to be done right and she would do it in a way that people respected," he said. "Later when I was actually reporting to her, I found her to always be extremely supportive and to try to identify the resources that I needed to accomplish the goals that were set for me."

It's a job with a lot of responsibility, one Wallace called "arguably the most important position in Hall County." And it can be quite the balancing act.

"You're finding that balance of, you can't be involved in everything but you've got to know that you've been clear and we've set the plan out so that the team can carry forth," Burrell said. "And then I'm kind of checking in on that."

There's also being visible in the community and understanding what's going on outside of the hospital affects operations, she added.

‘It's really a way of life'
And what's going on outside includes keeping up with health care reform, serving on local boards like that of United Way, not to mention spending time with family and friends to rejuvenate herself for the next day.

"It really is about community," she said. "It's not just a job for me. It's really a way of life, and to be able to give back to the community in other ways is important."

Over the years that's included work with Red Cross, her two children's school and sports endeavors and church activities. She also made family a priority and, through careful planning and judicious use of her freezer, had home-cooked meals on the table each night.

Her son Lee Burrell, 25, attested to having those sit-down dinners but also noted that he was able to learn leadership skills from watching his mother interact with people and from listening to her relate the complex issues of the hospital. He now is a financial analyst, and his sister, Bradee, is in nursing school at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.

Burrell's husband, Steve, sells building products to dealers and distributors.

Though she may sound like superwoman, Wallace said one of the things that makes Burrell special is that she "remains a very regular person."

"She and her husband, Steve, live in this community, they're members of a church here, you see them out having dinner, you see her in the grocery store," Wallace said. "She's still somebody that you can just sit down and talk to, be friends with, enjoy spending time with."

And that time with friends and family is important to Burrell, too.

"They help make sure that we still all laugh," she said.

After long hours at the hospital, Burrell comes home to heat up some dinner or have something Steve grilled, maybe pull some weeds or talk to her sister on the phone.

Another day is ahead, but whatever it brings, Burrell is thankful.

"I think about all the people that have touched (me) in some way, and it really has been somewhat overwhelming," she said. "... It's quite a privilege and humbling to be able to be put into a position of this responsibility and to be able to lead such a great organization."