Chanda Chacón, who joined Children’s Hospital & Medical Center as president and CEO in September 2020, has a unique understanding of children’s health care that predates her education and professional experience.
“When I was a preteen, 11, I was in a car wreck,” she said, recalling lingering chronic back pain and the inability to comfortably stand or sit longer than 30 minutes at a time, necessitating the use of a wheelchair. “I had really smart parents who were trying to be good advocates in a complicated system. [But] I was shuttled around the health care system for about two years … My parents kept taking me to different physicians trying to figure out what was wrong.”
Surprisingly, although the family lived in the Houston area, they never connected with the local children’s hospital, which Chacón said is a reflection of health care standards for children and the complexities of the health care system in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It was more than 30 years ago and there wasn’t a lot of information out there at the time on what makes children’s hospitals different, and why we would have gotten different care there that wasn’t just right-sized for a child,” she said. “We would have been with people who were trained like people at the children’s hospitals I have worked with, that are trained specially to take care of kids and their families.”
The experience was “fractured and traumatic,” Chacón said, but it ultimately inspired her future career.
“We finally landed with a physician who, from my perspective, changed my life. He was the first physician who came in the room and talked to me as the patient,” she said. “I remember that moment and it sort of pivoted for me what I wanted to do for my career, to focus on helping make the system of health care more accessible.”
Impacting the system
After spinal fusion surgery at 13, Chacón was able to fully enjoy her high school years, even becoming a drum major in the marching band and playing the saxophone. She considered studying music performance in college but instead earned undergraduate degrees in biology and Spanish from Vanderbilt University and a master’s degree in public health management from Yale University.
“I really focused on my education so that could propel me,” she said. “I was really lucky to have parents who were really supportive of higher education. It was not really a choice, it was, ‘Where are you going?’ not ‘If.’”
She’s been in the child health sector her entire career, Chacón said, adding, “I’ve been very precise with my career … I didn’t want to be a clinician, because [although] I would be able to impact the patients I saw, I really wanted to impact the system.”
Before coming to Omaha, Chacón served as executive vice president and system chief operating officer for Arkansas Children’s Hospital (Little Rock), overseeing the system operations of two hospital campuses, clinical services, human resources, and support services for four years. Prior to that, she served in progressive leadership roles over 14 years with Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus in Houston.
“Every children’s hospital that I’ve worked for is freestanding and independent. That’s really unique because there are less than 35 freestanding, independent children’s hospitals in the United States,” she said.
Getting the right thing done
Her career path has included responsibilities eschewed by others, Chacón said, because they were not particularly rewarding or didn’t offer clear-cut solutions. But she turned them into opportunities.
“I took roles to build a toolkit, to build a set of skills so I would be prepared to be best leader I could,” she said. “I am extremely persistent, so I will stay at something until we get the right thing done. And I will tell people that the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but it’s still right. I think my persistence has helped me in a challenging field … I sort of look at it as, ‘If not me, then who will do this?”
Chacón described leading Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, which served patients and families in 45 states last year, as “no two days that are the same.”
“The biggest part of what I do is about people, and about helping make sure we have the right infrastructure, the right organization, the right leaders, the right people here to do the really hard work,” she explained. “I think leadership determines outcomes every time, and that’s leaders’ jobs: to help teams be successful and do big work. The hardest work we do is the clinical care we provide for children. For parents and guardians, that’s their greatest asset, that child they’ve put into our care … The core of my work is about the people and motivating people to be at their very best when families are at their very worst.”
Her motivation is personal, Chacón said.
“I remember and still feel when I talk to my mom about what happened to me as a child; she still gets emotional. I feel that with families,” she said, adding that she views herself as a change agent who advocates and listens as well as removes barriers and fosters innovation. “How are we going to do better by our team so they are inspired to show up every day to do that hard work? I see my job as kind of the coach for the team.”
It’s been a year of challenges and triumphs for Chacón. She arrived in Omaha in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; “just another wrinkle,” she noted, saying “I think health care does some of its best work when we’re in crisis mode.” She also was on hand for the August grand opening of the hospital’s Hubbard Center for Children, a nine-story addition that will nearly double the hospital’s physical capacity.
“It was awesome to be a part of that and watch the excitement of people who have been part of the project for five or six years, to see that look when they went into this unbelievable space,” she said. “We had intentionally built a facility that would allow us to grow into it, and that gives us a lot of flexibility to move quickly, to build programs fast, to recruit people to do the kind of work that we need to do for the kids in this region. That is a gift, and truly the only time in my career I’ve been able to be part of something like that. That’s exciting because we can say ‘yes’ more easily to program growth and new things we can do to help kids and families.”
Chacón said she has found her new community to be an exceptional place to live and work.
“I love Nebraska because it still feels like a place where individuals can make an impact, she said. “I see the potential of where we can go with Children’s here. And not alone, we go with partners and collaborators and that’s exciting; this is the kind of community that thrives on that.”