Don’t live in denial

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

When the chief operations officer of a hospital system says health management should be a No. 1 priority, most people would think she is just doing her job. However, Therese Pandl, COO of Milwaukee-based Columbia St. Mary’s, is speaking from personal experience.

Pandl let her condition of degenerative arthritis in her hips go un-managed for so long, that she had to have both of her hips replaced in one year.

“I believe managing your health is as vital as managing any other aspect of your life,” Pandl said. “Sometimes when you have a demanding pressure-cooker position, you put health last and at times your body tells you you can’t.”

Pandl was in constant pain that escalated over a period of 10 years before having her first surgery. The arthritis ate away at the soft tissue in her hip joints to the point that the bones within Pandl’s hips were pressing against the head of her femur.

“I had phenomenal pain, and what was causing the pain was bone on bone,” Pandl said.

Pandl was noticeably limping and had restricted mobility.

Pandl knew she had degenerative joint disease, and that eventually the joints would deteriorate and the only solution would be hip replacement surgery. However, she could not accept that she needed surgery and spent time strengthening other muscles in an attempt to delay it.

“I put it off for so long that I was relegated to use a walker, and a few weeks before I had the surgery, I could not drive because I was unable to press the accelerator,” Pandl said.

At one point Pandl was giving a speech and had to pause for a moment before attempting to stand up to reach the podium because she was in so much pain.

Pandl underwent one hip replacement at the Columbia Campus of Columbia St. Mary’s in August 2005. She was told she could wait another five years before having to replace the other hip, but when she was intermittently unable to walk because of continued pain, she decided not to delay the second hip surgery. Pandl underwent her second hip replacement surgery in July 2006.

“One lesson I did learn is how reliable the people I work with are,” Pandl said. “I had to take four weeks off for each surgery, and the senior leadership team was able to take over without skipping a beat. They kept the facilities running and services going. It was tremendous how they stepped up.”

As COO, Pandl has a group of vice presidents and executive directors who report to her from each campus and for Columbia St. Mary’s services across the health care system, Pandl said.

“The lesson for me was that I am striving with my fellow employees at Columbia St. Mary’s to make sure that all patient experiences are exceptional, and that means every day, everywhere, everyone and every second (is committed to this),” Pandl said.

The hardest thing for Pandl was letting go of some of her responsibilities as COO and giving her senior leadership team more responsibility. Once Pandl allowed herself to delegate, she realized that some of those extra responsibilities could be retained by the leadership team permanently.

“In all positions within a company, you have to be cautious about this, but particularly in a situation such as this where I was gone eight weeks in the span of one year, that you recognize fully the capacity for increased contribution is there and that you can let people run with it,” Pandl said.

Today, Pandl has titanium metal hips and is living pain-free. She notices that she can be more focused on her work, and she is swimming three times per week to build up strength in her hips and legs.

“When you are in pain, denial is a very effective coping mechanism and in many executive positions, there is not a good time to take four weeks off so you say you will do it later,” Pandl said. “The two things you have to remember are to manage your health and count on the people you work with.”

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display