KRH President Remembered as Champion for Patient Care

Hospital begins transition process following Velinda Stevens' Jan. 22 death, will begin search for new leader in February

By Molly Priddy
Velinda Stevens. Courtesy Kalispell Regional Healthcare

Velinda Stevens, the president of Kalispell Regional Healthcare, was a strong leader with a compassionate yet firm vision for patients in Northwest Montana, one of care and support, expansion and possibility.

That was the general sentiment voiced by KRH leadership on Wednesday morning, three days after Stevens died due to a prolonged battle with cancer. She was 64.

“Velinda had such a great vision of patients in Northwest Montana getting the highest quality of care,” Dr. Patrick Rankin, chief physician executive at KRH, said.

Stevens captained the ship at KRH for nearly 20 years, leaving behind her a legacy of patient care and a hands-on approach that made her beloved to many KRH employees, Rankin said.

The meeting, which included Curtis Lund, the interim president at KRH, Chief Operating Officer Deb Wilson, radiologist Dr. Anders Engdahl, Chief Nursing Officer Karen Lee, KRH Foundation President Tagen Vine, and Rankin, was held to explain the transition process in place now that Stevens is no longer president.

Lund said planning for the transition began in earnest in early January, usually at Stevens’ house. She was very much involved, Lund said, and he was selected as her interim replacement. Stevens passed away Jan. 22 at 3:50 a.m.

“Our challenge is to carry on and complete some of the projects that Velinda started,” Lund said.

There’s already a strong management team in place, Lund said. The KRH Senior Leadership Team is also involved, allowing Lund to perform the tasks that may interrupt their focus, like one-time discussions with prospective clinics wanting to join the KRH team, for example.

Lund started his career in Minnesota after graduating from college there. In the 1970s, he was president of a successful construction company, and in 1982 he started his own CPA firm. He and his family migrated to Montana, and by 1996, he was president of National Flood Services, and by 2006 he was retired. He joined the KRH Board of Trustees in 2011, and said he enjoyed his time working with Stevens.

“She had a keen sense of what to do,” Lund said.

A search committee consisting of board members and KRH employees will begin pursuing a new candidate for president in February, looking at both internal and external applicants. The committee will define the qualities KRH seeks in a leader, and a search firm will help the process.

The transition also comes at a time of general upheaval in healthcare, with the Affordable Care Act on the chopping block in Congress and the recent collaborative affiliation between KRH and North Valley Hospital in Whitefish continuing to evolve.

“Healthcare is changing,” Lund said. “We need leadership that can respond to those changes.”

Vine, president of the KRH Foundation, said Stevens’ knack for helping people engendered an environment of respect and support. She had a specific passion for the A.L.E.R.T. helicopter program, which her family has identified as a good place to send tributes and memorials in lieu of flowers. Her family also started the Velinda Stevens Endowment for Women and Children to support her vision of expanded services in perpetuity.

In her time as president of KRH, Stevens’ vision is credited for many expansions and additions, including the addition of open heart surgery and a cardiac catheterization lab; the addition of a cancer treatment center; the construction of The Health Center; adding an 18-bed rehab unit; establishing the KRH Foundation to support organizations through philanthropy; adding the Winkley Women’s Center Mobile Mammography Coach and Mobile Nuclear Medicine Coach; the addition of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU); the Montana Center for Wellness and Pain Management and the Neuroscience Institute; a new surgical tower; the planning and development of a new emergency department expansion, new gastrointestinal center, and a new women and children’s center, among others.

Stevens’ approach was to say yes or find a way to make it happen when someone needed something, to make life easier for her medical and administrative teams, and to forge a foundation for a healthy future in Northwest Montana.

“She cared so deeply for the employees,” Wilson, COO at KRH, said.

Lee, chief nursing officer at KRH, worked with Stevens for nearly 20 years and said of the thousands of stories she has about the former president’s attitude toward patients and care, one in particular could sum it up.

Once, after a stage-4 cancer patient had been sent to Colorado for a second opinion, it was determined there was nothing that could be done. The patient was left in Colorado, likely to die, Lee said. When informed that this woman’s wish was to be home in Montana, in her bed, surrounded by her pets when she passed, Stevens’ reaction was immediate and simple.

“Go get her and bring her home,” Lee remembers Stevens saying before dispatching the A.L.E.R.T fixed wing to pick up the woman.

Forty-eight hours later, the woman passed away in her Montana bed with her dogs.

“Velinda was special,” Dr. Anders Engdahl said. “Because of that attitude, she revolutionized this place.”