Frontline Leadership

When Laura Grill was growing up, she had a strong desire to help others. She knew at an early age she wanted to attend nursing school and work in a hospital. Since becoming the CEO at East Alabama Medical Center in October 2018, Laura has led the staff through last year’s devastating tornadoes, as well as being on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the county being a hot spot for the virus. She was recently recognized as one of the country’s top five administrators from 22,000 nominations submitted by emergency room physicians, appearing in Linkedin Pulse Magazine.

“I never thought of doing anything else,” says Laura, a Birmingham native. “We didn’t have medical professionals in my family, but I had an interest at an early age. I never wavered from that. I really loved my early hands-on nursing career. I worked my way through nursing school on a scholarship and working as a tech. That afforded me lots of opportunity.” Laura received her bachelor of science degree in nursing in 1984 from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a master’s in business administration in 1990 from the University of Alabama. She worked at Brookwood Medical Center in Birmingham prior to joining East Alabama Medical Center in 1992 as the hospital’s director of cardiology. In 1995, she was promoted to vice president of patient care services and chief nursing office , and in 2000 was named the chief operating officer (COO) The EAMC Board of Directors selected Laura to be the CEO-in-waiting at their April 2017 meeting. She assumed responsibilities of the CEO on October 1, 2018, the start of a new fiscal year for EAMC.

In January this year, Laura began working with Dr. Ricardo Maldonado and the infectious disease team on what was happening with the virus overseas. “We were in constant communication with Dr. Fred Kam at Auburn University who is also on our staff,” she says. “The thing that was so important for us was to educate ourselves early because we do have a diverse community. We have a lot of international travel in our community from the university as well as manufacturing plants. “We knew we would have people who had international travel, and we are so near the Atlanta airport. The third part of that was as things began to heat up, we knew that the university and Auburn City Schools were going to be on spring break. This meant several of our staff were going to have travel plans throughout the U.S. as well as international travel. “We were on high alert early,” Laura adds. “We were one of the earliest with virus cases, and we were considered a hot spot early on in the state. Around March 15, we had our first positive case, and then began to see a huge influx Some of that was people traveling and returning as well as clusters in small communities.”

Lee, Chambers and surrounding counties had a peak in cases beginning in late March through mid-April. “There were about three months that are a complete blur,” says the CEO. “We were so overrun and busy with some very sick patients. Our intensive care units (ICUs) were full. We had to open up two alternative ICU and reallocate staff to different areas.” The first week in March the hospital began to limit visitors and began screening employees on entry. Some entries were locked down in order for everyone to come to a screening and temperature check site. Two nursing homes owned by the hospital were concerns as well in keeping the residents safe. “I think our staff responded really well early on and tried to keep ourselves informed,” states Laura. “Access to supplies was tricky. We met twice a day to talk about Covid-19 with the leadership team and medical staff leaders. A lot of people went a long time without any time off.
“Because things changed so quickly,” she adds, “our access to testing was hard initially as was access to additional supplies and equipment. We were fortunate in that we were hit early that we were able to learn a lot about how to treat the disease and how to recognize people and their symptoms.”

The access to drugs and medications allowed them to treat patients earlier and try to prevent them from getting so sick they end up on a ventilator. The mortality with those on a ventilator is high. “I think our medical staff and employees all had a singular focus on how to take care of one another as well as keep themselves safe and take care of their patients,” she says. “I am really proud of how they all stepped up and responded. It was taxing on them. “It was an emotional time and a fearful time for the emergency staff, ICU staff and physicians. They prayed with the patients, the families and one another when they would lose a patient. It takes an emotional toll.” She feels the toughest decisions were on how to make sure they had enough staff to take care of patients. Decisions had to be made early to close some areas and reallocate staff. “It was very hard to not be able to perform hospital operations as normal when we had to make those decisions internally before they were mandated by the state. It was an economic impact on both the physician providers as well as staff, but we were able to reallocate staff. If we couldn’t do elective surgeries, we were able to reallocate that staff to take care of an alternative intensive care unit or a screening or testing site. “I think the hospital is prepared to handle another spike,” Laura states. “We talk every day about our case numbers. If we begin to see clusters, we keep a close count every day on our inventory, our equipment and have in place plans that we could initiate.”

She feels strongly about the guidelines. “We stress with staff that we wear our masks because we care about other people. We all want to open our economy, but we want to do it safely. I think we can keep ourselves protected and protect others. “I think there is more research to come,” she adds, “and more testing capabilities. The more you test the more you find That is a good thing because then people can know and isolate themselves and keep their families safe.” Like everyone else, Laura misses many things we took for granted, such as the ability to give someone a hug. Students want to go back to school, and we want to see sports. With the community growing quickly, the hospital has been reinforcing its medical staff with primary care physicians as well as specialists. Between this past spring and this coming January, the hospital will add 27 new physicians. Several others have committed from the class of 2021. Laura feels recruiting to the Opelika and Auburn area is easy. “Once we get them here, they fall in love with the area as we all do. “I can’t say enough about how fortunate we are to live, work and serve in this community  because I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” she says. “The community has been so supportive and generous through this pandemic feeding our bellies and souls, donating meals and supplies and praying for staff and patients. Our community always rises to the occasion, and I am so thankful for that.” As the community continues to grow, the hospital looks at what the community needs that would prevent patients having to travel for care. The community was a tremendous support  with the Spencer Cancer Center through supporting the EAMC Foundation.

The next initiative on the hospital’s strategic plan is opening a neonatal intensive care unit.  The community’s help will be needed through the Foundation to support the project with construction and equipment costs. This will allow parents of preemies to stay here and not have to travel someplace else. When Laura learned she was selected as one of the top fi e administrators in Linkedin Pulse  Magazine, she quickly deflected the praise and stressed the work of the entire EAMC family. “As I told our employees in an email one night,” she says, “we have worked through disasters in the past, such as last year’s tornadoes, where a sizable number of employees were impacted. But we’ve never worked through a situation where literally every employee had to pitch in through one way or another. The response throughout the organization has been one of total cooperation and buy-in.“I couldn’t be prouder to be here,” adds Laura. “I am super proud of our medical staff and the care we deliver to this community. I think it is a calling. I am proud to be associated with everyone at the East Alabama Medical Center.”