Erdmann’s Reflections on her Career in Health Care
The poet Robert Frost has forever imprinted upon the American psyche the import of long-ago choices. He wrote so impeccably of moments when two roads diverge, and having made your tentative choice, you pick the one less traveled, and it makes all the difference. Speaking with Dorothy Erdmann as she prepares to retire as president and CEO of ThedaCare Medical Center-Shawano this month, one can almost envision her long-past choices, best-bet routes, and decisions made at the crests of hills. After all, she’s worked in health care since 1983, long enough to know how drastically landscapes change. Personally and professionally, Erdmann is at once grateful for such moments of leadership and acutely aware of the many difficult circumstances that directed her to this place and time.
Erdmann is the middle child of 10 who primarily spent their childhoods in the Sheboygan area before moving to Weyauwega-Fremont. Her father was vocal about his distrust of women with educational and career aspirations, so without the full support of her family, (she does warmly distinguish her mother and sisters as incredibly resilient), she first attended college to be an elementary school teacher. “I knew no matter what I did, or what I believed, I would have to rely only on myself,” Erdmann said.
In an era of teaching vacancies that attracted hundreds of applications, a friend who was a nurse recommended a degree in nursing instead. “It’s still a caring career, and there are more job openings.” It was a perfect fit. She married Roger Erdmann, a kind man she’d known from high school, with whom she raised two daughters and son. They were married almost 40 years prior to his death in December 2013.
Erdmann received her nursing baccalaureate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1983 and her master’s as a family nurse practitioner in 1991. She also was awarded the University’s Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award for her study of self-reported vs. professionally evaluated activities of daily living (ADL) capabilities. “I remember other women who had to drop out of nursing school because their husbands didn’t support them,” Erdmann said. “Roger never wavered in his support; because of him I was able to achieve my goals.” Ill for the last 10 years of his life, he and Dorothy returned to Shawano in 2009 from southeast Minnesota so Dorothy could accept the administrator/CEO job at Shawano Medical Center. “I brought him home,” she said.
Community Hospital in Crisis
In 2009 Shawano Medical Center’s CEO was managed from an outside management firm, a common practice for small independent community hospitals. Erdmann recognized the competitive environment between the medical center and the local ThedaCare physician clinic had polarized loyalties in the community. The medical center’s financials were rapidly deteriorating with its future in jeopardy.
“It was a difficult time for small community hospitals, no matter where you looked. What was playing out in Shawano was also happening across the U.S.” Many small community hospitals had already closed with others at risk. It was clear the time had come for Shawano Medical Center to find a strong partner to ensure long term viability of health care for this community.
“Should we join a Green Bay health system? Although that was an option, it didn’t make sense because primary care is the lifeblood of a hospital, and nearly all our primary care physicians were ThedaCare,” she said.
Then two roads diverged. Erdmann met Dr. Dean Gruner, president and CEO of ThedaCare. “It was September, just my third month in Shawano. He immediately struck me as such a man of integrity and vision,” Erdmann said, launching into a genuinely warm list of his attributes. “He is truly a bridge-builder, approachable, and was willing to give our hospital every possible chance to survive.” It was time to end their destructive competitive relationship and explore becoming partners.
Integration with ThedaCare
The fruits of that initial introduction would eventually lead to an affiliation agreement between Shawano Medical Center and ThedaCare in February 2011. The agreement included a $1.5 million contribution to the Shawano Medical Center Foundation, matching the foundation’s current assets, and plans for a new, shared facility that replaced the existing hospital opening September 20, 2015. “The best part of our affiliation with ThedaCare has been seeing our Shawano employees grow and move within the organization. It opened doors of professional and leadership development that were not available before. We are already growing our next generation of local healthcare leaders,” she said.
Business and industry leaders readily recognized the vision of an integrated new medical center with ThedaCare as a plus, vital to attracting and retaining talent to the region. It was also important to respect those who cherished special memories of healing, medical care, and life passages at the old hospital spanning over 80 years. “We had to bring along the best elements of the old hospital into the new, honoring memories yet building for the future. A new medical center constructed as to how medical care is being delivered today with the flexibility to meet inevitable changes yet to come. The complexities of modern health care demanded it,” Erdmann said.
As a distinguished health care executive in Minnesota with the Allina Health before joining ThedaCare, Erdmann led the construction of a new heart hospital on the Abbott Northwestern hospital in Minneapolis, yet was called away to lead the system’s hospital in Owatonna one month before its completion. Similarly, she oversaw the construction of a new integrated medical center in partnership with Mayo as part of her responsibilities as president. She brought her husband back to Wisconsin to be closer to their children and family as his health worsened three months prior to that medical center’s opening. This marks Shawano as her sole hospital grand opening in which she could fully participate. After two major career paths involving the challenge of building a new medical facility abruptly change, “That I should see it (ThedaCare Medical Center- Shawano) to completion and stay a year to share in its success—that is a joy to me, professionally and personally.”
Transition of Leadership
Bill Schmidt, CEO of ThedaCare Medical Center-New London, has been named regional hospital CEO to oversee both the New London and Shawano hospitals after Erdmann’s last day on the job on Dec. 16. “Sharing a CEO is not uncommon in community hospital settings,” Erdmann said. “It is a proven successful model, and Bill has the skills to move within a small community and plug into a large healthcare system. He’s just as comfortable at the coffee shop as the conference table.”
Erdmann is focused on smoothing the transition between her role and that of the man she has considered a partner since February 2011, the first time they met. Schmidt prioritizes openness and transparency. “He started coming to leadership meetings months ago, and the first thing he did was invite our staff to call their counterparts in New London and ask them what they thought of him,” Erdmann said. She expects his reputation as a fair leader with a wealth of wisdom and experience will be well received in Shawano. “It is a very wise decision to put Bill Schmidt in Shawano. Bill understands healthcare services in a rural community may look different than in a larger city. He will be a strong advocate for Shawano’s needs.”
Retirement from her day job will not mean retirement from the issues about which Erdmann has passion and knowledge. She plans to continue her membership on the Fox Valley Technical College Foundation Board after having forged a sincere friendship with Dr. Jeff Rafn, NWTC president. Together they established in Shawano the first-ever Wisconsin hospital-site technical college training program for nurses on the new campus. “This is the first program like it in Wisconsin. I am very proud of it, to have nursing students receive training where they live rather than drive distances for their education,” Erdmann said.
She will serve on the screening committee for the Medical College of Wisconsin at St. Norbert College, helping to evaluate and select students for medical school. Erdmann also has a special interest in “traveling upstream” to meet the needs of high risk vulnerable children in need of early intervention, many of whom are lacking essential resources in their home environments.
Contemplation and Counsel
Erdmann credits her husband Roger’s loving support throughout her nursing education and career choices for much of her professional success. “The love and support of a good spouse is irreplaceable. I also had advisors who pushed me to pursue my master’s degree and worked with mentors throughout my career who challenged me to take risks and explore new opportunities.”
Today, Erdmann’s grown daughters both work in health care; one, as an oncology nurse in Dallas, and the other in a leadership role for Bellin’s fitness centers in Green Bay. Her son works in manufacturing in Winneconne, the family’s home town. Recently remarried, Erdmann and her husband Paul live in rural Marinette County where they are building a new home on his family’s ancestral 40-acre homestead.
Erdmann is fond of telling the story about the path that women in childbirth had to take at the old Shawano hospital if they were in need of an emergency C-section: through long public hallways, down an elevator and more hallways before reaching surgery. “It was a football field and a half,” she says, “and now it’s maybe 50 feet. That was important to me—to make it a lot easier for women and their nurses and doctors.”
Perhaps, then, that is her legacy: a path forward, easier and clearer, for Shawano’s families and health care providers. As the poet Frost said, and that has made all the difference.
The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.