Russell Guerin, one of a tight-knit group of executives responsible for two decades of growth at Carolinas HealthCare System, died Thursday, 11 years after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 59.
In 26 years with the hospital system, Guerin had worked his way across departments, from finance to community relations to market development. He retired early in June 2013, after surviving cancer for years longer than many would have predicted.
In 2004, Guerin 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 was tumor-free. But in 2012, doctors discovered small spots on his remaining lung, an indication the cancer may have returned. He had more surgery. Then last fall, more tumors were discovered. As Guerin characterized it, “Things just started blossoming in an unfriendly way.”
Earlier this year, he underwent 35 radiation treatments for tumors in his throat, and the therapy left one side of his neck hard and stiff. When he met with an Observer reporter in June, he had difficulty holding his head erect. But he was enjoying life and spoke proudly of his first and only grandchild, Ella.
“I put everything in God’s hands,” he said in June. “... No matter what, there is always hope.”
Carolinas HealthCare’s Chief Financial Officer Greg Gombar, who hired Guerin in 1987 and became his friend, said Friday that Guerin kept his positive outlook to the end.
“He had unbelievable faith in God and was probably the most upbeat, positive person I’ve ever known.…There were times during his treatment, most people would be knocked on their backs, but he was still here.… He got up every day with a positive attitude.”
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). 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 region’s largest hospital system. In his final job as executive vice president for business development and planning, Guerin was responsible for the system’s acquisitions and management agreements with smaller community hospitals.
While Guerin’s treatment was grueling, he described 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. The other came when he was referred to NIH. A new study had opened for patients with a particular genetic marker. He had the marker, and the treatment worked for him.
“I am a nine-year survivor, which is incredible,” Guerin said in 2013. “I’ve gone over four years without a new tumor, when I never went nine months before that.”
Six months later, after surgery to remove his stomach and connect his small intestine to his esophagus, Guerin learned a new way of eating – tiny portions, slowly, more often. He lost 30 pounds. But except for a couple multi-week absences, he continued to work and stay physically active – skiing, scuba diving and golfing.
Time to travel
Since leaving Carolinas HealthCare, Guerin and his wife had spent time at their mountain house in Blowing Rock and visited family in Chicago, Florida and Texas. Suzanne Guerin said she was grateful for that time. “We got to travel. We had a good year and half before we had to stay at home.”
Survivors in addition to his wife include two daughters, Bridget Inklebarger and Emily Guerin; two stepchildren, Hunter Hindes and Haley Hindes; a granddaughter, Ella Inklebarger.
Visitation will be Monday, from 5-7 p.m., at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, 6828 Old Reid Road. Funeral mass will be Tuesday, at 10:30 a.m., at the church. Memorials may be made to the Russell C. Guerin Melanoma Research Fund, Carolinas HealthCare Foundation, 1221 E. Morehead St., Charlotte, N.C. 28204, or www.givecarolinas.org/russell-c-guerin.