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Selfless CEO Makes Time for Search and Rescue Volunteer Work

It was 3 a.m. on a frigid day in January when Chris Van Gorder helped his search and rescue team find an elderly Alzheimer’s patient in Chula Vista.

While other folks in high-powered jobs might spend their downtime golfing or puttering around in the garden, Van Gorder, the president and chief executive officer of the $1.7 billion Scripps Health system, logged in 1,200 hours of volunteer time in 2006 as reserve commander in the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue unit.

A licensed emergency medical technician and CPR/first aid instructor for the Red Cross, Van Gorder, a former police officer, was recognized in 2006 for his volunteer work with the Maltese Cross Award: Spirit of Courage by the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.

“He shows up in the middle of the night,” said Mike Munsey, coordinator for Van Gorder’s search and rescue unit. “He’s worked in 110-degree heat and blowing snow.”

Munsey also gives Van Gorder points for his “great leadership style.”

“The team has come together under Chris,” said Munsey. “There is not a lot of drama going on. I am the facilitator. I get paid to go out at 3 in the morning. They don’t.”

Munsey considers Van Gorder “a friend and a good person.”

“When you consider what he does for a living, he doesn’t have to do this,” said Munsey. “He can find an easier way to spend his time. But he wanted to get out in the field.”

In full agreement is Undersheriff William D. Gore, who swore in Van Gorder as the new commanding officer for search and rescue last year.

“There are not enough hours in the day to do what he does,” said Gore. “We had 36 actual call-outs, looking for people in the backcountry, deserts and mountains, and he was on 26 of them. He has that itch. Police work is still in his blood. It fulfills some need that he has to give back, as if being a CEO of a nonprofit is not enough.”

Any complaints?

“He has a Labrador, a yellow one, and I have a chocolate one,” said Gore. “That is the only fault I could find. I am his biggest fan.”

Coping With Katrina

Abby Silverman, a partner with the local office of law firm Baker & McKenzie, and a former chair of the Scripps Health board of trustees, was especially impressed with Van Gorder’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the U.S. surgeon general asked Scripps to staff a temporary clinic for the storm victims in the Houston Convention Center.

“Before anybody else figured out what we could do, he was able to decide where our talents could fit in best,” Silverman said.

Herb Klein, retired editor in chief of Copley Newspapers, who has known Van Gorder for a decade and consults with him occasionally, agreed.

“Chris is very direct, and looks for opportunities to do more,” said Klein. “He organized a team that went to Houston to help out victims of the hurricane, and set standards across the county. It takes leadership to do that. He is a doer.”

Klein said he is impressed with Van Gorder as a consensus-builder.

“He doesn’t antagonize people,” said Klein. “He delegates. He also has the ability to bring people together. He is a problem-solver.”


Van Gorder’s community service , especially his work in Houston following Hurricane Katrina , has garnered him the Humanitarian of the Year Award by MedAssets, a company based outside of Atlanta that provides software and human resources solutions to hospitals nationwide.

He will receive the award at the 2007 MedAssets Healthcare Business Summit, scheduled for April 12 at Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, which is expected to draw 3,000 attendees, said John Bardis, MedAssets’ CEO.

According to Bardis, MedAssets’ senior management team reviewed nominations from across the country for the award, and eventually narrowed the slate down to 40 candidates, finally giving Van Gorder a unanimous nod.

“What put Chris over the top was what he did during Katrina,” said Bardis. “He not only supported efforts in Houston by sending staff to work with dislocated folks from New Orleans, but he went himself and worked. It’s amazing to us that someone would take time away from a substantial job in running Scripps to go serve people he didn’t even know in another state. Chris’ behavior, and the reflection on his character, has inspired us all.”

Van Gorder gives his family major points for “tolerating a lot of this for an awful lot of years.”

His family includes wife Rosemary and sons David, 20, and Michael, 17.

“They have been fabulous,” said Van Gorder, who also credits his parents for their early influence.

“I am lucky to have parents who instilled a set of values and work ethics and public service,” he said.

Van Gorder’s day job involves overseeing more than 2,600 affiliated physicians and 11,000 employees across five hospital campuses, Scripps Clinic and Scripps Mercy Medical Group. When does he sleep?

“I sleep extremely well because of everything I do,” said Van Gorder, 54. “There is an old saying, ‘When you want to get something done, go to the busiest people.’ ”


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