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‘A fantastic time’: Kathy Hemmelgarn has enjoyed 32 years on the Perham Health board

After 32 years with the Perham Health Board of Trustees, Kathy Hemmelgarn has retired. She helped facilitate many financial, organizational and structural changes at the nursing home and hospital over the years, and participated in the planning and design of Perham Health’s new facility. The curved hallways inside the hospital, like the hallway pictured here, were one of the design elements she brought back to the board. Marie Johnson/FOCUS

When Kathy Hemmelgarn first joined the Perham hospital's board of trustees 32 years ago, healthcare in Perham was in need of a little life support.

She took her position as the Pine Lake Township representative on the board in January 1985, at a chaotic time just five months before St. Luke's Hospital (now Sanford) of Fargo, N.D., took over management of what was then Perham Memorial Hospital and Homes.

After years of financial turmoil, the organization had nearly bottomed out. The administrator and other directors had left, the board was suffering from high turnover, and there was a worrisome shortage of doctors. People in the community had a lot of questions about what was going on and what was going to happen next. There was real concern that there might not even be a hospital in Perham for much longer.

Fast-forward to today: Perham Memorial Hospital and Homes has transformed into Perham Health and Living, a thriving, award-winning organization with stable leadership and an ever-expanding list of services and staff. A lot has changed since those earlier days.

Hemmelgarn witnessed the transformation for herself. More than that, she played a key role in it. Over the years, she's been a strong leader on the board, an active member who hasn't shied away from hard work or hard decisions. She's served as an officer for 30 of her 32 years with the board, as well as on various sub-committees, including the design committee for the new hospital.

Hemmelgarn’s peers describe her as a dedicated board member who has been instrumental to Perham Health and Living's success; someone who cares deeply, puts in a lot of time and energy, and never expects -- in fact, doesn't want -- recognition or thanks.

But like it or not, she's getting some now. Hemmelgarn's fellow healthcare leaders have been celebrating her efforts and impact lately, in light of her recent retirement from the board. Her last board meeting was last Wednesday. She has been given a plaque for her years of service, and will be officially recognized by Perham Health at an event later this winter.

"She has been a mentor to many and has never been afraid to ask the tough questions," said Terry Marthaler, the current board chair, in a statement to the Focus. "She will ask questions that she knows the answers to so others will hear the answer and understand."

"Kathy's accomplishments on the board are too numerous to mention," Marthaler added. "She does so many things that people don't see. She has been instrumental in negotiating and reaching management agreements. I have been on negotiating committees with Kathy and I was always glad she was on my side."

Chuck Hofius, Perham Health CEO, described Hemmelgarn as, "an integral part of the growth and success Perham Health has had over the years. She led the organization out of tough times and was a key player in the nursing home culture change and the vision for a new hospital."

Kathy Hemmelgarn, with a plaque she recently received in recognition of her 32 years of service on the Perham Health Board of Tr

Hemmelgarn is reluctant to take any credit for Perham Health's success. To hear her tell it, it was the supportive Perham community, "excellent staff" at the hospital and involvement of St. Luke's that saved the day. She said managers from St. Luke’s came in and realigned the Perham hospital's priorities, reorganized leadership, and paved a new path for the organization’s future.

After that, Hemmelgarn said, "we just started building our way up."

The affiliation with the larger Fargo hospital made it easier for Perham to recruit doctors and it also made more services available for Perham patients, she said. When St. Luke's became MeritCare and then, later, Sanford, the relationship with Perham only grew stronger, and the benefits to Perham became more numerous. Eventually, finances turned around and the hospital got back on solid ground.

"It's a really good, strong relationship," Hemmelgarn said of the partnership between Perham Health and Sanford. "I believe that to be the reason why we're open today."

Hemmelgarn was on the committee that negotiated the terms of that partnership. Over the years, she's also served on committees overseeing the construction of Briarwood Senior Living and parts of the nursing home, as well as numerous additions and remodels at the old hospital. But the "crowning jewel" of her experience on the board, she said, has been the construction of the new hospital, which opened in January 2012.

As a member of the design committee for the new Perham Health, Hemmelgarn toured several other hospitals from Wisconsin to Iowa, looking at layout, flow, style, technology and other features that could be incorporated in Perham.

They found they liked simple layouts that made it easy for people to find their way around, she said, so the entrances to Perham Health's different departments were designed to be visible right from the hospital's main entrance. And they liked curved hallways, she explained, because there's a more intimate, friendly feel versus large, long halls.

Helping plan projects like this, Hemmelgarn said, "is just really fun."

"When we built this facility, we saw that a lot of things we never used to be able to do here, we could suddenly do," she said. "We have things here that you no longer have to go to Fargo to get... That's what you call patient care close to home, and that's what people like."

It was the thrill of the next project that motivated Hemmelgarn to stay on the board for as long as she did. It's been one project after the next for the past 20 years, she said, and that's kept things interesting.

The board of trustees, Perham Hospital District's governing body, has 14 members representing three cities, 10 townships and an at-large position. Since joining, Hemmelgarn has represented Pine Lake Township, where she has lived with her husband, Joe, for 40 years.

Her service as a board member has come to an end now, but Hemmelgarn said she will remain active on the hospital's quality committee, as well as the Sanford Network Board. She will also continue to make teddy bears and blankets for patients at the hospital with her St. Henry's Catholic Church mission group.

"It's been an honor and a privilege to have served here," she said of her time on the board. "It has been a fantastic time. To go from what we had, to what we have today -- who could have dreamt it? When I think of where we came from, it's amazing to me that we accomplished what we did."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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