Russell Guerin, one of a cadre of executives responsible for two decades of growth at Carolinas HealthCare System, is leaving his posts at the end of June.
Im not considering it my retirement, Guerin said last week. Im going to take some time off, spend time with friends and family, do some reflection, take care of some medical issues, and then decide what I want to do.
In 26 years with the hospital system, Guerin, 58, was an unabashed ambassador for the system, and worked his way across departments, from finance to community relations to market development.
Ive had so many opportunities, Guerin said. I think I got to the point where it was enough for me. ... I need to take care of Russ now.
In 2004, he was diagnosed with advanced melanoma that had spread to his lungs from an unknown origin. Subsequently, he developed tumors in his brain, abdomen, back and leg.
After multiple surgeries and radiation therapy in Charlotte, he underwent experimental therapy in 2008 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he also had his stomach removed to get rid of an abdominal tumor.
For more than four years, he has been tumor-free. But in the past year, Guerin said doctors discovered two small spots on his lungs, an indication the cancer may have returned.
I want to use what time I have left to do the things that I think are going to be productive, enjoyable and help others, without too much stress.
An advocate for growth
A Chicago native, Guerin came to Charlotte in 1984 as an accountant for Deloitte Haskins & Sells. Three years later, he joined Carolinas HealthCare when it was basically a single hospital, Charlotte Memorial (now Carolinas Medical Center), then perceived as the county hospital for the poor. He started as vice president for finance, joining a young, aggressive administrative team led by then-CEO Harry Nurkin.
Over the years, Carolinas HealthCare grew into the regions largest hospital system, with revenues of $7 billion and nearly 40 hospitals.
In his current job, executive vice president for business development and planning, Guerin has been responsible for the systems growth strategy, including acquisitions and management agreements with smaller community hospitals.
While some studies conclude hospital consolidation contributes to the high cost of health care, Guerin disagrees, citing improved medical care, financial stability and added jobs that benefit communities across the Carolinas.
There has been nothing but a positive impact from our ability to grow Carolinas HealthCare System.
In recent years, Guerin has been among the top 10 highest paid executives at Carolinas HealthCare. In 2012, he earned $1,060,931 in salary, bonuses and other compensation.
Carolinas HealthCare announced Guerins decision last week.
We will miss Russ and are very grateful for his many contributions to our mission and his personal dedication to excellence, said Michael Tarwater, who replaced Nurkin as the systems CEO in 2002.
Guerin will also relinquish his position on the board of Charlotte Regional Partnership, a 16-county planning group, and his chairmanship of the board of MedCost, a health benefits company co-owned by CHS and N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.
MedCost is at the center of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor. Guerin said that is unrelated to his departure.
In 2009, employees of N.C. Baptist filed a lawsuit, alleging the hospital didnt look out for their interests when it chose MedCost to provide benefits. Admitting no wrongdoing, Baptist settled the suit and agreed to take steps to lower medical costs.
The Labor Department has been investigating whether Carolinas HealthCares relationship with MedCost, which provides benefits to about 30,000 CHS employees, poses a conflict of interest.
Last month, a Labor Department investigator interviewed current and former county commissioners about whether the county exercises any oversight of the hospital system.
Help from friends
In recent weeks, Guerins close friends Banks Bourne, Todd Houser and John Georgius Jr. and their wives established the Russell C. Guerin Melanoma Research Fund.
His strength through this journey with cancer has been such an inspiration to me, Houser said. He has such infinite faith. Hes never poor pitiful me. Hes never down about it. Hes faced it with courage, and hes dealt with it.
While Guerins treatment has been grueling, he describes many miracles along the way.
For one, the first tumors in his right lung were discovered by accident when he had a chest X-ray for bronchitis in 2004. Doctors thought it was lung cancer. But after surgery to remove a lobe of his lung, tests showed it was melanoma that had metastasized, or spread, from another place.
They came into my room and said, You never told us you had melanoma, Guerin recalled. And I said, I never had melanoma.
There is no cure for metastatic melanoma, but as tumors developed, treatment continued. Five months after the lung surgery, an MRI scan revealed three brain tumors that hadnt been there before.
About every six to nine months, new tumors would show up, Guerin recalled. Two more in his left lung. One in his abdomen. One in his back. Two on his leg. Finally, Dr. Richard White, a melanoma specialist at CMC, referred Guerin to the NIH.
There, Guerin said he experienced another miracle. A new study had opened for patients with a particular genetic marker. He had it. The treatment involved introducing new white blood cells into his blood, along with an anti-viral drug to attack the marker.
I am a nine-year survivor, which is incredible, Guerin said. Ive gone over four years without a new tumor, when I never went nine months before that.
There was one complication. Six months after entering the study, Guerin went back to NIH so surgeons could remove a remaining abdominal tumor.
The doctors were surprised to find the tumor had invaded Guerins stomach lining. Instead of two hours, the operation stretched to 12. They removed his stomach and connected his small intestine to his esophagus.
Guerin had to learn a new way of eating tiny portions, slowly, more often. He lost 30 pounds, which he hasnt gained back. But except for a couple multi-week absences, he continued to work and participate in sports skiing, scuba diving and golfing.
Plans for living
When he leaves Carolinas HealthCare, Guerin said he plans to spend time with his wife, Suzanne, at their mountain house in Blowing Rock and to visit family in Chicago, Florida and Texas.
He also wants to give back. He has visited church groups that kept his name on prayer lists. You may not know whether this is making a difference, he said he told them. Im here to tell you it does.
With more free time, he hopes to help others with cancer to talk to them, pray with them, give them some hope.
Officials at the NIH have told Guerin that second rounds of the experimental therapy havent been successful. So that is not an option.
In the fall, he expects to undergo radiation to treat the new lung lesions.
Our hope is that these will be isolated, and it wont spread to other parts of the body, Guerin said. I have every reason to believe that will be the case.
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