A Man With A Mission

Dr. Keith Churchwell guides Yale New Haven Hospital through an unprecedented time

December 9, 2020
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Article By Cara Rosner

Dr. Keith Churchwell knew early on that he wanted to be a cardiologist but didn’t set out to become a hospital administrator. He knew he wanted to have an impact on patients’ lives, on a daily basis, and for a while the best way for him to do that was by being a practicing physician.

But as his career evolved through some twists and turns, he developed a love for bringing people together, solving problems, and working toward common goals. That path led him to pursue a career in hospital administration – and these days his decisions impact thousands of patients, as he became president of Yale New Haven Hospital in October.

Churchwell, who lives in Guilford, arrived at the hospital from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he was executive director and chief medical officer of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute. At Yale New Haven Hospital, prior to becoming president, he was chief operating officer and executive vice president, having previously been a senior vice president.

In addition to his work at the hospital, he is on the national board of directors of the American Heart Association and is president of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

Q: What led you to pursue a career in medicine and, ultimately, in hospital administration?

A: It was not exactly a straightforward path. In the ninth grade, I was asked in an economics class to write an essay on what career I’d want to pursue. I thought about a career that would mix an interest in science, my interest in helping people, and something that I thought would actually be a life career – one with the appropriate twists and turns to stay interesting.

I made up my mind I was going to be a physician, but I didn’t know what type. I decided to become a cardiologist. It held my interest, and I knew I would make an impact on a daily basis, from a patient perspective. I found out that I really love talking to patients. I really love taking care of patients; I love trying to solve their [cardiovascular] riddles.

Then the twisting and turning started. My brother [also a doctor] called and said his group was looking for a cardiologist to help them with a new practice that they were starting to build [in Tennessee]. So I ended up back in Nashville, which is where I grew up, and which I thought I would never go back to. But I stayed for 20 years. I took on more and more responsibility in the development of that program. I love bringing people together around a common goal and thinking through problems.

Q: What is a typical day on the job like for you these days?

A: Because of the pandemic and because of social distancing, you’re on Zoom all day. I can easily start the day at 7:30 a.m. and I’m in meetings until 6 p.m. You’re in that all day. Prior to COVID, I was meeting with people, in the hallways, and also traveling.

It’s a heavy day, dealing with the clinical opportunities and the problems around COVID, and the financial issues that we’ve got because of COVID; thinking through new opportunities we’re trying to develop; and thinking through how we continue to mentor people. It’s a busy day; it’s a busy week.

Q: Although we are in a pandemic, are there any things you see within the hospital that bring you optimism?

A: There are a ton of bright spots every single day. In the midst of all this, which is incredibly complex and life-altering and life-threatening … the work ethic [among hospital staff] is just amazing. The sacrifices that people continue to make eight months into this pandemic to ensure that we are delivering the best, the most optimal care for everyone who walks through the door, is inspiring every day.

And their attitudes, which are cheerful and uplifting. And I know they are just working at the limits of their endurance. It keeps me up at night a bit [worrying about the toll COVID is taking on first responders] but there’s a bit of a charge every single day, seeing this happen.

Q: What’s the best and hardest part of your job?

A: I’m not sure there’s a toughest part. I actually enjoy all of it. I’m always asked if I miss seeing patients. In this position, I don’t just have one patient; I’m kind of responsible for every patient, everyone who walks through the door. That keeps me pretty charged during the day, and thinking about what we can do better and what we do best.

Q: What inspired you to take on a leadership role at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra?

A: Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I played [trumpet] in high school, played in jazz band in college. I developed an interest in all kinds of music. My wife and I, we love the experience of the symphony. We love studying the music. It’s calming, it’s an enjoyable experience. It’s something that’s a true hobby, something that you can share with your family.

I was on the Nashville [Symphony] board when I was there. Then I was asked to join the New Haven Symphony Orchestra board, and I’ve been president for the past two years.

Q: When you’re not working, what is your favorite way to spend a day in or around New Haven?

A: The last great day before my daughter left [to study abroad], we went to the Mystic Seaport Museum. That was fantastic. For us, being this close to New York City has been wonderful. Prior to COVID, we would be spending time on Broadway, and at the Met, and shopping.

Closer to home, I just texted my wife to pick up Bar Bouchée for dinner. I would say that’s our favorite eatery. The food is very, very good. We would probably be described as regulars.

Photography courtesy of Yale New Haven Hospital

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