By Gari Voss
Ascension Borgess announced that Natalie Ryder, MBA-HM, MSN, RN, NE-BC, administrator of Ascension Borgess Allegan Hospital (2022), Ascension Borgess-Pipp Hospital (2022) in Plainwel,l and Ascension Borgess-Lee Hospital (2018) in Dowagiac, had been named by Becker’s Hospital Review to its 2023 list of “Rural Hospital CEOs to Know.”
Becker’s is a strong supporter of rural hospitals and their critical role in the U.S. healthcare system. With that, they acknowledge the role of CEOs, aka hospital administrators or other titles, as crucial in bridging the work within in the hospital to the wider community the hospital serves. These executives pour their hearts and souls into ensuring that their rural hospitals do not experience the closure that so many rural hospitals have faced in recent years.
In summarizing Ms. Ryder, Becker’s wrote:
“Natalie Couturiaux Ryder. Hospital Administrator – Ascension Borgess Allegan Hospital, Ascension Borgess-Lee Hospital, Ascension Borgess-Pipp Hospital of Ascension Michigan (Kalamazoo, Mich.). Ms. Ryder is the regional administrator of three area hospitals — two critical access, and one long-term acute care hospital with a freestanding emergency department. Her ultimate goal is to provide resources and remove barriers so the hospitals can provide the best care possible to the community, right where they live, without needing to travel out of town to get what they need. She led her team through the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing to provide uninterrupted, quality care throughout.”
Ascension Borgess’ press release read much like a LinkedIn laundry list of Ms. Ryder’s background.
“Ryder has been an active member of the Michigan Center for Rural Health Critical Access Hospital Planning Committee since 2019. She also holds certifications in advanced cardiovascular life support and as a Lean Six Sigma White Belt, progressive care nurse and geriatric care professional. Ryder earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Point Park College in Pennsylvania and an associate degree in nursing from Columbus Technical College in Georgia. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. Ryder also holds a Master of Business Administration degree in healthcare management from Western Governors University.”
Beyond the standard career progression, the more relevant question to examine may focus on how all these degrees in academia assist in developing a hospital administrator who can attend to the needs of rural hospitals. The short answer may be that they are only the tip of the iceberg and the base of that berg began developing strength even before the degrees began.
Ryder’s appreciation of rural health began in the Borough of Patton, Cambria County, PA. Growing up in a small coal mining community that had no hospital became the foundation for an understanding of what it meant to travel miles to receive care.
“I think that was my biggest driver – my upbringing. All my experiences, including when we were in Germany, have been with urban hospitals. When I was recruited into the position with Borgess-Lee, that is when I fell in love with rural health. It hit home with me. I grew up in a small town and had to travel half an hour to a hospital that did not have the best reputation, so we went 45 minutes to an hour to get high-quality care. This is my driver at the core of the decisions I make and the things I do in the communities to provide rural health because I want to provide high quality care to people. In short, the level of care my family does not have access to.”
That family has a mom who is one of fourteen and a dad who is one of eight. Ryder’s 88-year old grandmother calculated 76 grands, great grands and great, great grandchildren. “It’s a big family, and I think about them when I am making decisions. They do not have access to all of this. It affects your care and other people when you have to travel outside your community – finding a ride, arranging for someone to watch the kids… there is a lot to consider especially for the elderly, those with no transportation, or those with a lack of other resources. We need to give them care where they live so they can be proactive.”
Natalie continued, “People want to know their doctors and have care where they live. Our goal is to keep people happy and healthy – essentially so they can live their lives without constantly going to a hospital.”
The professional experiences that reinforced Ryder’s small community foundation began with a degree in embalming. When working in PA as an embalming field director, Ryder had little time for leisure travel, but wanted to have some additional life experiences and to see the world. Joining the military gave her a potpourri of experiences in a variety of places – including meeting her husband and beginning their family.
Life in the military did not allow for setting roots, but did offer a glimpse into how health care is provided in a variety of places and situations. Whether in Kansas, Alabama, Georgia or Germany, there were challenges and interesting ways of conducting business. Suffice to say, those adventures expanded Ryder’s base of health techniques that support a community.
“I was able to experience being on the receiving end of health care. Growing up, we had no health insurance so we only went to the doctor if there was something seriously wrong,” explained Ryder.
Being in Germany with children who had health problems proved to be complicated and overwhelming at times. There was no family support for advice or assistance. This solidified Natalie’s decision to go into nursing as a career and support the family along with helping others navigate the system.
“I decided to go into nursing using my GI Bill. Because of being in the military, I needed a career that was more mobile than a mortician. Researching the different possibilities found nursing most parallel to what I had been doing. Plus, there are many different arms to health care.”
Ryder realized, “Reflecting on living through the COVID pandemic, I was tapping into my experiences in the different industries. It occurred to me that all of my past experiences were grooming me for where I am right now. This was the master plan which has enabled me to do what I am doing right now – in this hospital, providing care, in the midst of all the chaos COVID brought. Many people look at their background and have a straight line trajectory, but mine is kind of like over here and over there. This is what it was all for – grooming me to be successful in this role at this time to give this community what its people need.”
For Ryder this means, “I am bringing some different ideas, thought processes, and questioning how things are done. Sometimes when you have been doing something in a certain way all your life, that is just how you do it. I can ask questions like ‘Why are we doing this?’ Maybe, we need to figure out better ways to provide what the community needs. ‘How do we make that happen with the constraints that may exist – physician shortage, funding…?’ ‘How do we get creative?’ Sometimes it is cross-training people, or leveraging resources across different facilities. ‘Why can’t we share or consolidate things or do things remotely so people are freed up to do other tasks?’ It is these sorts of questions that my varied background allows me to ask.”
When assessing her staff, “I have good leaders and I am all about developing my leaders and making them decision makers,” explained Ryder. “A good sign of good leadership is that they can run without you. Everybody knows where we are headed, what the game plan is, and we develop them to handle their business and be resourceful.”
The complex problem of personnel shortage across the work force has led the health community to work with local schools to move students into the pipeline and into the work force. Different ways to fund and educate students means providing more opportunities to learn and do clinicals for on-the-job training. This could include hybrid programs to fill the void left by nurses who had stayed beyond retirement age, but retired during the COVID response. The good life of having veteran nurses is gone. Where newly graduated nurses had to wait for day shifts, today’s graduates are able to by-pass the night shifts and pick up some of the preferred positions.
Upon returning from Germany, the Ryder family was assigned to Kalamazoo, MI. Master Sergeant Robert Ryder would be teaching ROTC to juniors and seniors at Western Michigan University. Natalie would seek employment in the health care field. When Robert retired about five years ago, the family had already fallen in love with the area.
“We are coming onto eight years of being legit Michiganders,” quipped Ryder. “When you are in the military, you are not able to grow roots. We are happy to give the stability to our kids and even settle down ourselves in a place where our grandkids can come.”
The love for rural living took the family to a small farm where they raise alpaca, llamas, chicken, cats and dogs. They love having people drop by to gawk or feed the “livestock”. Additionally, they allow groups of seniors and others to come to meet the animals. Each summer, they shear the alpaca and sell the fiber to locals.
That same love keeps Ryder seeking to provide additional services in the rural hospitals she guides for Ascension Borgess.
“I really do enjoy these communities and have a desire to provide them with the services they need. I love to have that connection with the people that you really don’t have in an urban environment. You know the people coming in. It allows you to celebrate with them, but you also grieve with them.
Though “Hospital Administrator” Natalie Ryder does not hold the official title of CEO, her 5 years of work at Ascension-Lee and now at the Allegan and Pipp Hospitals has led her to be a “Rural Hospital CEOs to Know.”
She plans to continue orchestrating the work of some fine leaders and cultivate the autonomy of each hospital. “I am here to be a resource, guide and remove barriers. It is important to let leaders lead and create an environment they are proud of. They are highly engaged, competent and effective. I trust them to make decisions and build relationships. I am just a team captain who links them to whatever they need to do their jobs. The relationships and rapport building feeds the work. Some things are not tangible but you see growth over time.”
Over time, Ryder expects the hospitals to continue moving forward in meet community needs. She will continue watching and listening to those in each community to guide decision making.