From left, Phoebe Putney Health System CEO Joel Wernick listens as John Culbreath, chair of the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital Board of Directors, reads a resolution in Wernick's honor as Joe Austin, chief operating officer for the health system, looks on. Wernick is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the organization this month.
ALBANY, Ga. -- After starting his career working as a hospital groundskeeper when he was in high school, Joel Wernick arrived in Albany at the age of 34 to serve as the 19th top administrator for Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital since Margaret M. Angland first held the post beginning in 1911.
Twenty-five years later, he is still here.
"I've been in health care since high school," Wernick said. "I didn't necessarily come from a privileged family. If I wanted money, I had to earn it."
The Phoebe administrator said he later worked as an emergency room orderly and in a hospital maintenance department, where he had the opportunity to get a close look early on at what prospective physicians have to go through to get the training they need.
"The jobs most people have here (at Phoebe) I have done myself," Wernick said.
Probably one of the most important things he learned was from that very first job, during which his primary responsibility was making sure the outside of the hospital looked aesthetically pleasing -- a priority he has maintained at Phoebe for one simple reason.
"People judge a book by its cover," he said.
In early 1988, Duncan Moore, then serving in Wernick's current post at Phoebe, accepted a position as president/CEO of the Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center in Florida. The search for a replacement began immediately, ultimately resulting in Wernick coming in to serve as Phoebe's CEO on July 1 of that year.
Holding to the mindset that the hospital could either grow or die, Wernick's early direction was a mandate to organize a health care system that could handle the volume necessary to provide care to all the region's citizens closer to home. One of the biggest initial steps in this mission came in May 1989 with the announcement of plans for a 250,000-square-foot renovation and expansion -- with a price tag of roughly $35 million -- that included new operating rooms, reorganizing and doubling the size of the emergency center, expanding facilities for outpatient radiation cancer treatment, food services and a laboratory.
The expansion also included a professional office tower as well as a multilevel parking deck. Since then, a second medical tower has been added to the Phoebe campus as well as a network of other hospitals in the region brought into the Phoebe Putney Health System -- resulting in a reach to more than 30 counties in Southwest Georgia.
"Growth is coming in so many different ways," Wernick said in a recent sit-down with The Albany Herald. "It is comforting to know the board (has an interest) in specialty care close to home.
"... It is true we have grown from a square-footage standpoint, but the building is just a vessel."
The facilities expansion has also brought with it greater investment in people, and more opportunities for education as well as gainful employment, Wernick said.
"My greatest satisfaction is being stopped in the grocery store (by people) commenting on how the staff has helped them," he said. "The real goal is that we can have a major urban center in a rural setting."
Wernick acknowledged that Phoebe has been the subject of attacks over the years, and he syas the hospital has a long list of things that have yet to be tackled.
"This is a very complex business," Wernick said. "If you could be a timewalker and see what was here then (in 1988) and fast-forward to today, it is undeniable the progress the organization has been able to achieve."
A native of Arkansas, Wernick came to Albany from Pensacola, Fla., where he served for seven years as the vice president of operations for Baptist Regional Health Services. There, his responsibilities included management involvement with several rural hospitals in both Florida and Alabama.
"At a young age, I was in a leadership position that prepared me for here," he said.
Wernick said he was encouraged by Moore to apply for the job at Phoebe. When he was introduced to the area, it felt like home to him.
"I was attracted to Albany and Southwest Georgia because it reminded me of my hometown in Arkansas," he said. "... I was attracted by the people who employed me and those I worked with."
As far as where things go from here, meeting benchmarks is an ongoing process rather than a specific destination, he said, which means there are still a number of things to aspire to.
"We have met many goals, but it seems like when you meet one, another comes up. From that standpoint, we are constantly challenging ourselves," Wernick said. "Constant improvement is always a goal, and you don't think you'll ever get there.
"We try to take success and build on shortcomings and try to improve."
There are a number of people at Phoebe who have been with the hospital longer than Wernick has. They, Wernick admitted, might be able to tell of the progress that has been made over the last 25 years better than he could -- but he was able to give one example aside from construction and acquisitions.
"Sometimes it's hard to understand progress," he said. "In 1988, a baby born at less than 2 1/2 pounds (was considered) not very viable. Today, those born at less than that can become productive members of society.
"Those things are great achievements, but those are things the whole Phoebe family can bask in ... any accolade that comes my way, I don't accept for myself."