Ask Bob Connors, MD, why he likes caring for kids, and you might as well pull up a chair and have a seat. It’s going to be a while.
“Kids are innocent, and they are fun. They’re funny. They’re energetic and optimistic. They’re very playful.
“And they are very honest. When they are sick, they are sick. And when they are well, they are well. What you see is what you get.
“They are built to grow and heal. They are wonderful patients to work with.”
All that—and much more—came out as Dr. Connors reflected on his career and role as president of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Connors is retiring Jan. 3, 2020, after a 45-year career dedicated to caring for children—including 30 years in pediatric care for Spectrum Health—as a skilled pediatric surgeon and as a thoughtful leader behind the creation of a highly specialized children’s hospital.
Through it all, he has served as a powerful voice for children, advocating for the youngest and most vulnerable patients.
He sees his role as spokesperson for kids as part of his mission. Child patients have unique needs, often relying on caregivers for basic functions, including feeding. They require—and deserve—expert services geared specifically for them.
“Children are an interesting minority that is uniquely disadvantaged. They don’t vote, they have no money and they have no voice in the public forum,” Dr. Connors said. “They don’t rise up and demand the things they actually should be able to demand—because they’re kids.
“One of our jobs is to do that for them. And sometimes that is advocating for special services and special resources.”
Providing that care is a privilege that comes with immense rewards.
“We have the opportunity to impact the whole life of a human being. That’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “When we save a baby’s life we are talking about the whole life—we are talking about 80 years, or whatever it will be.”
Building a hospital
The medical landscape in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has changed dramatically since Dr. Connors arrived in 1990 at Butterworth Hospital. A 1975 graduate of University of Michigan Medical School, he completed residencies in general surgery and pediatric surgery.
He saw West Michigan as an underserved area and began to work with other physicians to expand pediatric medical services in the community.
In time, that led to the creation of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, the 11-story, round, blue building that towers over Michigan Street NE.
The 234-bed hospital, opened in 2011, “is a wonderful facility,” he said. “It helps our patients heal. It’s a great environment for giving them care.”
But the story of transformation is best seen in the people who provide the care.
“In 1990, there were maybe nine or 10 pediatric specialists,” he said. “A lot of kids were having to leave the area for care.”
Today, more than 300 pediatric physicians, practicing in more than 50 specialties, provide advanced medical care for children.
And Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital has become a regional referral center and teaching hospital, serving children throughout the region, the state and often the world.
“We have certain programs drawing beyond the state and even outside the country,” he said. “We really are a resource for a very large area.”
He takes great pride in building that team, particularly amid a national shortage of pediatric specialists.
“One of the fun things about working in children’s health care is that it’s full of people who love kids—warm, compassionate people who like working together in teams,” he said. “We recruit very much for those kinds of people.”
The emphasis on collaboration is crucial to improving patient safety—a passion for Dr. Connors that has earned him recognition at state and national levels.
Several years ago, he launched his “Call me Bob” initiative, which encourages physicians to drop the “Dr.” titles when communicating with colleagues.
“It removes some of those traditional barriers that keep people from speaking up,” he said. “Our physicians have embraced it because they have seen it’s about working with other people at the highest level to be effective.”
Patients come first
Dr. Connors’ interest in building effective programs led him to administrative roles. He served as director of pediatric surgery and director of trauma services before becoming president of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital 14 years ago.
But even as an administrator, he continued to treat patients—and encouraged other physician leaders to do the same.
“It is built into our model that we are going to be better executives and leaders if we are still practicing,” he said. “It sustains that piece of doctors that really love taking care of patients. We love it. We are very passionate about it.”
Working as a member of a clinical team also provides leaders with insight into the effectiveness of an organization.
“You get a very different data set when you are using the hospital and the services that you are in charge of providing,” he said.
‘A tireless advocate’
Colleagues praised Dr. Connors’ dedication in creating a hospital that will continue to benefit the health and well-being for children long after he steps down from his role as president.
“Under his leadership, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital has grown to become the second-largest children’s hospital in the state,” said Gwen Sandefur, chief care transformation officer for Spectrum Health and president of the Spectrum Health Hospital Group.
“His genuine care and concern for children and families drove Bob to establish new services, partner with other organizations to expand the hospital’s reach and push expectations for clinical excellence.”
“Bob lives the mission of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in word and deed,” said Dominic Sanfilippo, MD, vice president and department chief of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital physicians.
“His immeasurable inspiration will live on in so many children, families and team members that his career has touched. That is his true legacy.”
Shari Schwanzl, BSN, MBA, vice president of nursing for Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, praised Dr. Connors as “a tireless advocate for children, a consummate professional and an inspirational leader.”
“It’s hard to put into words the impact Bob has had on this hospital and this community,” she said. “I truly believe we would not be where we are without Bob.”
William Bush, MD, MBA, described Dr. Connors as “an excellent surgeon and physician,” as well as a mentor who helped other leaders find the balance between clinical care and administrative duties.
“Bob is the voice for children of our community who need health care,” added Dr. Bush, pediatrician in chief. “Even before he served as president of Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and to this day, his advocacy for health care services for children is known to all leaders of Spectrum Health and our partners.”
Matthew Denenberg, MD, the Spectrum Health vice president of medical affairs, praised Dr. Connors’ superior surgical skill and relentless compassionate care for children for more than 40 years.
“He also has educated and mentored countless students, physicians and leaders, ensuring sick and injured children will receive safe, exemplary care close to home for generations to come,” he said.
In retirement, Dr. Connors looks forward to more freedom and flexibility—with more time to travel, golf, read, hike and visit children and grandchildren.
And at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, he expects to see continued striving for improvement—because the medical team sees that as part of its mission.
“We have an ethical imperative to improve,” he said.
He sees the true measure of success in the reactions of children and their families who come to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. He often hears feedback from parents and grandparents who describe a hospital visit and say, “from start to finish, it couldn’t have been better.”
“When you are doing it right, everything happens right for your patients and their families,” he said. “(Their medical care) is warm, compassionate, effective and timely. ‘It couldn’t have been better’—that’s our goal.”