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Bartlett's new CEO talks job, life, family

Christine Harff started at hospital last week

Posted: August 21, 2012 - 11:05pm
CEO Christine Harff of Bartlett Regional Hospital speaks during the hospital's executive committee meeting on Tuesday.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
CEO Christine Harff of Bartlett Regional Hospital speaks during the hospital's executive committee meeting on Tuesday.

When Christine Harff was announced as Bartlett Regional Hospital’s new chief executive officer earlier this summer, her background in nursing, multiple degrees and professional experience were among the qualities named by the hospital board’s president and others that distinguished her.

Harff doesn’t downplay those aspects. But when asked Monday what she hopes will define her at Bartlett, she went back a bit further in her life.

“Being a nurse, I get the lingo, but what really helps is I was a dairy farmer’s kid. I saw my dad work with people who worked out of their wallet, to people who were sophisticated and buying futures on the market,” Harff said. “He treated them all with respect. So I can work with and appreciate all types of people, and I will see them here. So that’s, I think, my signature thing, is I can talk to anyone.”

Harff grew up outside Minneapolis, in Minnesota’s Hennepin County. In high school, she said, she milked cows mornings and evenings with her father. In her senior year, though, something happened that she suggested may have changed the trajectory of her life: her father had a heart attack.

Harff said she watched as her father was treated at a small rural hospital, where the internal medicine doctor was new on the job.

“I was very impressed by what he did with his team to save my father,” Harff said.

When her mother contracted breast cancer, Harff added, a mobile mammography machine was able to detect it.

“It was caught early, and she’s still alive today,” she said.

Inspired by her first-hand experience with rural health care, Harff eventually went to the University of Minnesota and earned a degree in nursing.

As a nurse, Harff worked in Washington, including at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, before returning to Minnesota. Along the way, she earned a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota and a Juris Doctor from William Mitchell College of Law.

“I went to an evening program at William Mitchell,” said Harff. She said she got her law degree “not so much that I’m going to go be the lawyer of the world, but so I can talk the lingo, understand the risk, understand … contracting, just get a more fully rounded experience for being in a leadership role.”

Earning her nursing, business and law degrees, Harff said, helped her “glean a few things that have been very helpful in the role I sit now.”

“Health care is not this sacred business. … It’s not sacred in how we have processes and flaws,” Harff said. “It was good to go to school and get kind of the outside perspective.”

Asked whether she has any particular initiatives she plans to implement at Bartlett, Harff deferred the question to a later date.

“I really want to learn about the hospital before I do any of that,” she said, explaining that she wants to get assessments from staff, medical department heads, community members, board members and others first.

Harff added, “I want their input into developing what those initiatives are, because I think that a lot of staff here probably have a lot of great ideas. And we want to open that vault instead of top-down, and get them to say, ‘Hey, I have an idea if we do that or try this.’”

Harff started as Bartlett’s CEO last Wednesday, after having been CEO of Sanford Medical Center in Thief River Falls, Minn., since 2005. Her three children, who are all in high school, and her husband have yet to make the move up to Juneau, but she said she hopes to have her family in town soon.

“My husband’s actually working hard to get our house on the market eventually,” Harff said. “We’re excited to kind of make Juneau our home.”

Her kids are “kind of flying away already” to start their own adult lives, Harff added.

“I think we all raise our kids like our parents,” said Harff. “I hope they’re young, independent souls, because I’ve kind of raised them to be that way.”

Harff’s introduction to Juneau and Bartlett has been a hectic one. Her schedule has been packed with meetings and facility tours. She just announced Monday the hiring of Ken Brough as the hospital’s permanent chief financial officer. On Tuesday, she had her first public committee meetings at Bartlett.

But Harff indicated she is still going strong despite the busy schedule, working off jetlag and immersing herself in hospital goings-on.

“I’d like to watch a patient get admitted from the emergency room, admitted for surgery, discharged, so I can see and get a feel of how departments interact, and how our patient flow is,” said Harff. “I’ve took the mini facility tour. Another thing I’d like to do is take a real long tour.”

Robert Storer, president of Bartlett’s board of directors, said he thinks people have received Harff well at the hospital.

“She’s been meeting with the staff,” Storer said Tuesday. “I think everyone seems to enjoy her.”

Storer added, “Like all places, you always end up having to deal with issues, and I think she’s been very impressive in how she’s been dealing with the normal issues, day-to-day issues here and all that. In my opinion, she’s off to just a terrific start.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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