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Dartmouth-Hitchcock chief describes strategy in wake of fatal Sept. shooting

October 15. 2017 1:13AM
The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center campus in Lebanon spans nearly 2 million square feet. The corporation's reach extends across New Hampshire's health care landscape. (COURTESY)

Just five weeks into her new job as the chief executive of the state's largest private employer, Dr. Joanne Conroy faced a chilling crisis: The son of a 70-year-old intensive care patient at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center walked into the hospital and shot his mother dead.

Conroy applied what she learned in South Carolina, where she worked through two major hurricanes. It's the kind of presence of mind you need to lead a team of 18,000 employees.

Conroy visited Manchester last week to meet with local hospital leaders and media representatives. During a one-on-on interview with the Sunday News on Wednesday, the former CEO of Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., talked about her vision for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health.

She also recounted the trauma of Sept. 12 that led to Travis Frink of Warwick, R.I., being charged with first-degree murder in the death of Pamela Ferriere of Groton.

Conroy faced a hospital in lockdown mode and staff frustrated they couldn't get back inside to help colleagues and tend to patients.

While handling an active-shooter situation is not the same as battling hurricanes, Conroy says her experience in Charleston, S.C., taught her the importance of taking care of the "urgent and the immediate."

Dr. Joanne Conroy, president and CEO of Dartmouth-Hitchcock, gestures during an interview with the Sunday News on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

"After you do that, appreciate people's reaction to it," said Conroy, 62. "One thing I learned from Hurricane Hugo and Hurricane Floyd is that people will do almost anything for an organization if they know their family and their pets are safe. You have to attend to that personal safety first."

Police were first called to the intensive care unit on the fourth level of the hospital's North building shortly before 1:30 p.m. that day. Witnesses said they heard "code silver" and saw heavily armed officers streaming into the building and going door-to-door to evacuate staff and patients, Union Leader staffer Mark Hayward reported.

"When we did the evacuation of the facility we were interested in the personal safety of all our employees and our patients there," Conroy said. "And then the next piece is, once everybody is safe, then how can we go back in and assist the people that stayed within the facility to continue to care for patients?"

Police arrested Frink about an hour after the shooting. In the immediate aftermath staffers, pumped on adrenaline, felt proud of how the hospital responded to the crisis, Conroy said. "And then next day the vulnerability steps in, when people say, 'How could this happen?'"

Conroy organized a "town meeting" attended by 300 Dartmouth-Hitchcock employees and streamed online for others. The gathering was primarily a time to vent.

"Instead of just talking about what we were doing, I just opened it up to the audience, and I asked people how they felt," Conroy said. "How were they reacting to it?"

The main mall at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon (COURTESY)

What she heard was a variety of perspectives.

"There were some people who had been nurses and providers for a long time. They said this is a really hard job and it was horrible situation, but this is what we're trained to do," she said. "And then there were some people who were really still shaken. It really emphasizes that you couldn't push the recovery process. It was just going to have to take its own pace and own course."

During the lockdown, Conroy and hospital staff had to negotiate with law enforcement, who wanted more time to sweep the campus before clearing people to return. Conroy praised how authorities handled the situation and their eventual willingness to compromise.

"Law enforcement and health care providers have a lot in common, but we have to respect the fact that they wanted to sweep the facility, which is almost 2 million square feet, a huge facility. Many of them had never been there before," Conroy said. "The providers knew what was going on inside, and they had to get back to help their colleagues."

Conroy said tension in such situations is inevitable, but both sides worked through it.

"We did have a really honest conversation. (Law enforcement) would have liked to have another couple of hours, but they said yes. I think the providers understood and were thankful for that."

When news broke barely three weeks later that a sniper had opened fire on a large crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing nearly 60 and wounding hundreds more, Conroy said Dartmouth-Hitchcock staff had a greater appreciation for how the shooting in Lebanon didn't lead to more deaths beyond the 70-year-old victim.

"I think we all felt lucky. All of the sudden, we said, 'Wow. We had a horrible experience, but imagine that times a hundred,'" Conroy said.

Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or

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