I was a single mom, working in accounting, and my oldest son—he was about 2 years old—was home with my mom. They were making tea, and he pulled it down and ended up with severe burns on his chest. He stayed in the hospital burn unit for 45 days. During that time, I was so touched by the compassion the nurses showed our family. They took care of my son like he was one of their own. I knew then that I wanted to do this for someone. So I went to nursing school.
By 2007, I was the chief nursing officer of a long-term acute care hospital (LTACH) in New Jersey. LTACHs are small, specialty hospitals that take care of chronic, critical-care patients who need more time to recover than a typical hospital ICU allows—25 to 40 days, on average.
A physician I’d worked with previously had told me, “I’m going to open a hospital someday. When I do, I’m going to call you and ask you to be my CEO.” Five years later, he called, and he asked me to run his LTACH in Modesto, California. I wasn’t sure about moving my family across the country, but once I got here, I knew this was my chance to give back, just like those nurses gave back to my son and me in the burn unit more than 22 years ago.
Modesto is very rural; it’s a low-income, high-unemployment area. In New Jersey, LTACHs are only about 15 or 20 miles apart. But here, there’s no other LTACH for more than 100 miles. How can your family visit? How do patients have that incentive to get better? We’re taking care of people whose families would have to travel so far if we weren’t here.
In July 2013, we opened our facility. We have 100 beds, and we’re consistently operating at 90–95% occupancy. I’m now CEO of the American Specialty Healthcare Corporation, which owns this hospital and is expanding into home healthcare and opening a training school for vocational nurses, medical assistants, and other healthcare providers this year.
We are helping so many previously unemployed people in this area; 900 people came to our first job fair in February 2013. We’ve hired more than 600 employees since then, and our training school will provide a pathway to education and a career for even more healthcare providers.
My Walden education gave me courage to move to California and become a change agent. If you don’t have that impetus—if someone doesn’t tell you, “Hey, you can do this”—it’s hard to take that step. Walden ingrained that philosophy in me from the very beginning, taught me that I could make a difference—and I did.
Gia Smith ’12, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) alumna and a current Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) student, is the CEO of Central Valley Specialty Hospital and American Specialty Healthcare Corporation in Modesto, California.
Gia Smith Photo credit: Martin Herbst