Marcy Doderer, FACHE, called the past 10 years as president and CEO of Arkansas Children’s “pretty extraordinary.” July 15, 2023, marked a decade since she began serving in the health system’s top leadership role, encouraging a culture of safety and inclusivity while spearheading expansion throughout the state. Doderer transformed Arkansas Children’s from one hospital in Little Rock to a health system with two hospitals, a research institute, a philanthropic foundation, regional clinics and alliances, telemedicine and statewide outreach programs to serve children in all 75 counties.
“I certainly didn’t have an end date in mind. I didn’t stop to really think, ‘Oh, if you’ve been there 10 years, what will that feel like?’ So now that I’m sitting here, man, holy cow, 10 years, that’s a lot. And we’ve accomplished an amazing amount of work,” Doderer said.
But her history with Arkansas Children’s surpasses her leadership role. It dates back to her teenager years, making her tenure more of a homecoming.
Her family moved to Little Rock when she was in third grade for her father, Dr. JB Norton, to become the first fellowship-trained pediatric cardiologist in the state at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Doderer began volunteering for ACH, eventually landing her first paid job in high school and later a summer internship.
“Way back before the digital age, there was this process of taking paper and converting it to really tiny replications of it on a piece of film called microfiche. The billing division of the department of pediatrics was trying to convert all their paper files to microfiche to reduce the amount of storage they needed,” Doderer said. “And I came over here every day after school and worked in a small office on a conference table and took paper and converted it to microfiche until my father, who was also still a physician here, whenever he was ready to go home, he’d stop by the office, knock on the door and say, ‘I can take you home now.’ My brother brought me here, my dad took me home (after) three or four hours a night.”
But despite that start, health care leadership was not always the clear path to take. Doderer shared that while attending Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, as a finance undergrad, she hoped to find a professional career that blended business and caring for people. While health care did cross her mind, she didn’t like science, so the role of a caregiver didn’t fit.
“I was really struck when I took an elective in business school called “Health Care as Business” and learned about all that happens in hospitals from a business perspective and found it fascinating. It changed my trajectory, and I pursued a career in health care. The rest is history, 30 years later,” she said.
Doderer received her bachelor of science in finance from Trinity and her master’s in hospital and health administration from the University of Iowa.
Before Arkansas Children’s, Doderer served as a member of senior leadership for CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System in Texas, becoming its children’s hospital administrator in 2008. Her previous leadership experience includes positions at CHRISTUS St. Joseph’s Health System and McCuistion Regional Medical Center, both in Paris, Texas, and Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas.
“It’s kind of pretty cool to think that I could possibly come full circle in a career, having learned about health care as a business, learned about health care as a powerful place of service to others and then come back to be its leader,” Doderer said. “So when we think about timing and career, it’s not just about what you’ve done and how prepared you are; you got to have the luck of what’s available when you’re ready for it. And everything came together.”
During her anniversary month, Doderer reflected on her career at Arkansas Children’s, her family and the best advice she can give others pursuing their health care path, answering 10 questions for 10 years of leadership.
What drew you to Arkansas Children’s in July 2013?
At first it really was the timing. I was in a wonderful job in San Antonio, but was at a point having spent my career in health systems that the draw of a freestanding children's hospital where everyone and everything was solely about the caring for children was a big draw for me. There was a perfect timing in my own career being ready for something new, being prepared for something new that this job became available. So timing is everything, right, when you're looking for a new job. You might want something but if it's not available, it's going to be really hard to be that or do that.
You've held leadership positions at other health systems. Why do you prefer pediatrics?
I think it's really the power of walking the hallways of a pediatric hospital and knowing that you are able to influence a life that really needs support by others. I don't know if I said that that well, but adult health care is wonderful. I spent a long time in adult health care and taking care of adults is very fulfilling. When people are sick or injured and you can be part of a team that helps someone be healed, fixed or sent home in a better way than when they arrived, that's fulfilling on any level regardless of the age of the patient.
But children in our society are somewhat voiceless. They don't vote, and health care is really driven by the power of public policy. And so when you're in children's hospitals, there's different motivation to do right by the child because maybe no one else will. And if you think about a state like Arkansas, 700,000 children, we don't take care of all of them. But we need every single child to reach his or her fullest potential as they grow and health care is a big piece of that. So it's just that powerful influence you can have on family by ensuring that a children's hospital is everything they need, anytime they need it.
As you reflect on 10 years of leading Arkansas Children’s, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I've got several that really come to mind as things to be extraordinarily proud of because I witness a team accomplish something, and there's very little of my personal fingerprint in all the big actions:
I would start first with our safety journey. As I do employee forums and make rounds, I regularly remind team members that 10 years ago, we had an extraordinary number of serious safety events. We had too many times when we disregarded policy or diverged from policy or practice or evidence and harmed a child in the course of care. And I think one year there were almost 50 serious safety events. We just finished fiscal year 23 with only three across our entire health system. And that has been really an incredible culture change for every person who comes to work, knowing that harm can happen, knowing that I could make a mistake, because we're people, we're fallible and yet if you are in the moment, if you are situationally aware, if you have a preoccupation with the fact that failure can happen, you can avoid harm almost every time. And we've seen that. Every year, our number of preventable harm events are coming down. Every year the number of patients seriously harmed in the course of care has gone down. The same is true on our safety journey with employees. So that's probably my most proud moment because that has the most impact for kids.
Arkansas Children’s Northwest, Springdale (ACNW)
If you think about growing a health system which is what we've done in the last 10 years, I'd have to say Arkansas Children's Northwest. Ten years ago, people on our board, people on the team who had been here many years said, “We've looked at building a hospital in northwest, it's not possible. It's too expensive. Not enough kids. There was a host of reasons why it couldn't be done then. And yet, I could totally envision it. And so we spent a lot of time in 2015 and 2016 convincing and putting forth a plan that was our convincing tool to tell the board we could do this. And here we are five years later, having a community hospital of ACNW that’s doing things that some found it hard to envision, but I could always see. And now we're going to put a shovel in the ground and make it bigger.
There's no doubt that you've made an incredible impact in your time at Arkansas Children's. What advice would you give to young leaders who may begin a similar journey?
I think some of the best advice I received that I continue to pass along when I have an opportunity to mentor people, early careerists and people interested in health care is keep your mind open to the opportunity to do a variety of things. Never be so fixated on your path that you don't actually have space in your brain to welcome other opportunities. So example — I knew I wanted to be in a pediatric health care environment from the day I went to graduate school. I didn't start there, I started in adult health care; a very large, urban academic hospital in the Dallas area, was eventually over the pediatrics, the women’s and children's program there and I was thinking, “This is my path.” I’m in women's and children's, I'll be looking narrower to children's, I was reaching out to pediatric people. But I had an opportunity to be invited to go to rural Texas and help lead a 100-bed hospital in Paris.
And that was not in my plan, that was not my path. But I can tell you the three years we lived in Paris I learned an incredible amount about leadership specifically, but also about hospital operations. Because in a small place you wear many, many hats. You have to get in and roll up your sleeves and do some of the kind of menial tasks that might be called for on any given day. And you have to cultivate a leadership team who aren't necessarily as formally educated as you might find in a city that has deep commitment to their own community. We spent three years there and then I went from there to a children’s hospital. So I think being open to that kind of opportunity, either in the job you're in or because it's a different job, is probably the best thing you can do to gain the richest amount of experience that will lead you to your next job. Careers do not have to be linear. I'm not a linear thinker, so I also haven't had a linear career. Mine has zigged-zagged and it has paid off every time.
How do you balance your career and family life?
You might consider my answer a bit contrarian because I don't think I conform to this thought that there is actually even a thing called work-life balance. I was actually asked to give a talk on that quite a few years ago and I think I probably disappointed a group of several hundred women in a conference room. People want to be able to put their lives into quadrants and think about squares or rectangles and very precise things. I would encourage you to think about that concept of work-life balance as much more of an amoeba that morphs and shapes — it doesn't have any sharp edges or hard corners, hard sides because I think that's actually how life happens. There are all sorts of priorities a person is called upon to think about in their lives, their personal life, their professional life, if they have a family, if it's not the traditional nucleus family that's in their home. It might be just an extended family or a support group of friends. There might be a spiritual side to your world. All of those are demanding time and attention. And it is really solely on the individual to decide what balance is for them. That is the world according to Marcy Doderer, that's not probably published in any book. I haven't read a lot about that.
How has your family supported your career?
I have the advantage, I have a true life blessing of an amazing partner in my husband, Mark. We've been married 33 years this coming August (2023) and we approach life as a partnership. And so at various points in time we shared our roles, the whole traditional home roles differently. I have spent more hours at work than I ever spent at home. There's no doubt about that. My ideal workday is 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and I follow that most days of the week. I give myself a little grace on Friday afternoons. But at the same time, I was able to attend almost every gymnastics meet, swim meet — that was the one I wish I could have worked to avoid because swim meets are boring, but went anyway — piano recitals, harp recitals, orchestra events. And you know, I made it work and my husband is a huge part of that. Luckily for me, he loves to cook and he does that and he doesn’t mind grocery shopping and he does that. But it's not because he didn't do anything but stay at home. In the meantime, he got a master's degree and a Ph.D. and was a postdoc at a cancer research center and then taught at the university level in Texas and in Arkansas. He didn't become that stay-at-home dad only, but there are sacrifices you make and I think there are times you have to make a choice, there's no doubt. But it needs to be your choice, it needs to be Marcy’s choice.
I had a lot of conversations with my daughters. They knew what I did. And you know what? They're probably two of my largest cheerleaders for having achieved a CEO seat in a world where there aren't very many women. And they will tell you they're incredibly proud of their mom and that I was a very present mom.
What’s an important reality for health care leaders to understand about their work and family life?
I think it's really important for me to instill in leaders that if you take on a leadership role, you actually have to take that seriously. And yes, families should come first. I do believe family comes first. But it also should not be at the expense of being an extraordinarily successful leader in whatever it is you're doing. And it is challenging for people. Those of us who choose to work in health care, particularly in the hospital environment, we knew on the front end, we were coming to work for an organization that’s open 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And with that becomes, particularly in senior leadership, I'm accountable for this place 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And that means I'm not off on the weekends. It means I'm not off on all the holidays. I have an incredible team. When I take vacation, they try to make sure I take vacation, but if big stuff hits the fan; you know I was in Malta in June and when we had an emergency flood here, I got called about it. I still needed to be present. I knew that going in. I knew that I would not work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and never have to connect when I got home. But I knew that going in, and I wanted it. I can't imagine not having that.
Tell us about your two daughters?
I have two extraordinary young adult daughters; they're growing up faster than I can imagine. Older daughter’s Emily, she is a third-year pediatric resident with the University of Tennessee at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital right now. She's married, her husband is a psychiatry resident at University of Tennessee. So two doctor-family, deep in their training, ready to find their path, expecting their first baby. I'm so excited. So I'm going to add a title in the coming months.
Katie, my younger daughter, is 25. She is a school teacher in Chicago. She has a master's in music education and is taking a new job with the coming school year. She will be a sixth and seventh grade orchestra conductor and a fourth and fifth grade strings teacher. She is an artist to her core, my daughter's could not be more different, it’s just what makes them wonderful. Emily is very driven, academic, hard charging. We tease Katie and say there’s not an urgent bone in her body. Literally she can draw or paint almost anything. She's a musician. She picks up an instrument, she learns how to play it. So in her tiny little Chicago, one-bedroom apartment there's a keyboard, violin, full-size harp and a guitar, and she wants more. There's probably a recorder in there too.
Tell us about your journey being in the health care system on the “parent side of the bed,” as a mom, not as a president and CEO.
It's a story I actually love to share with people because I think it has shaped me as a leader. My younger daughter Katie, who's now 25, was born with an unusual and rare congenital genetic defect. She has what's called congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, CCHS, 1,200 or 1,500 people in the world formally diagnosed with it. Like many genetic disorders, it has a host of symptoms that come with it, there's a spectrum of severity. Katie's particular situation is she's 24-hour dependent on some kind of mechanical ventilation. She's been trached since she was 4 weeks old. She has a cardiac pacemaker. We tease her, because she’s supported by mechanical ventilation and a cardiac pacemaker, I’m like “You're kind of immortal because like technology is just going to keep all those organs going for you.” She's cognitively normal, so she attended school, she went to college, went to graduate school, she's living independently, but it has certainly been a difficult journey many times. I quit counting after her probably 40th hospitalization somewhere back a long time ago. Her first 50 days were spent in a neonatal intensive care unit and then subsequent hospitalizations for illness and evaluation through the course of her world.
So we did spend a lot of time on what I kind of coined was “the parent side of the bed,” whether that was in an ICU, a waiting room, a clinic room and it's pretty powerful to be on that side and just be mom.
How has this experience impacted your work at Arkansas Children’s?
We watched process, we watched how things were communicated to us, we watched how people talked to Katie versus us or with Katie and us. We thought through how decisions needed to be made. Thought about what support do you need when you're in ICU for an extended period of time? What makes sense to our family, what can make sense to others? What are the physical things — have you ever tried to sleep in a sleep chair in a hospital room? They’re terribly uncomfortable.
So there's all of those things that have shaped my leadership style. I give thought to that if we're thinking about planning space. I give thought to that if we're thinking about restricting visitors. The whole process during the (COVID-19) pandemic was challenging for me because of the thought of only having one parent allowed at the bedside of their child during that course of three years. It's really painful to be the person who has to say, “That's the policy for now, and it's got to stick” because I knew those days when I was by the bedside because Mark was at work, or I had taken her, she was often treated at a hospital in Chicago. I had gone to Chicago and Mark had not come and being the sole parent when you have a partner who could be there with you, it's frustrating and it's hard.
It certainly gives me a very different perspective than probably the average hospital administrator. Things I think are different here because of my experience for the better for families. I can really empathize with those families because I've actually walked a mile in their shoes.
Fast facts about Marcy Doderer
Tea or coffee? Coffee
Favorite candy? Skittles
Are you a pet person? If so, tell us about your pets. I am. I currently only have one, his name is Mojo. He's almost 3 years old, he’s a golden doodle. He's a white golden doodle. His mama was at an English cream retriever and his dad was a standard white poodle. He is a mess. I've had all sorts of pets. I miss my cat. I dreamt about my cat the other night. She came back to visit.
First thing you do in the morning to get your workday started? Mark and I get up and take Mojo for a walk. Did this morning, alarm went off at 5 a.m. We went out; it was horrible because it's hot. But it's my favorite thing to do is start my day with a walk.
Digital or paper? I'm transitioning. I am a note taker, so I've always worked with paper. If you go to my office, you’ll find a stack. They're labeled by dates. But for Christmas, I got a Remarkable. So I'm trying to be very digital, but it's like handwritten notes and I can doodle in there and it's so far working really well. So it's a digital-paper environment. Feels exactly like you're writing on paper. I can find everything anyone told me that I wrote down.
I’m a big doodler. Geometric shapes more, but I'm trying to learn to doodle faces, so I do that. I doodle things that are relevant to the conversation. It's often called kinesthetic learning. So when you doodle while you're listening, you end up retaining information, proven scientifically.
The last book you read? “The Paris Apartment”; fiction, mystery, thriller, awesome.
What’s your favorite place to travel? Anywhere; Ultimate aim, hit all seven continents. I've been to four, hope to get to all seven someday.