A Healthy Sense of Community
Saving lives is a good life for Tom Neal
by Jonathan Shipley
“I want to retire here,” says Tom Neal, the chief executive officer and chief nursing officer at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital. Of course, he’s only been CEO two years this December, and he plans on being CEO for many more years to come, but it’s the area he calls home and wants to call home. It’s a community that he’s embracing, and who has embraced him back. “It’s a beautiful area,” he says, “and I love the small-town feel.” On a Saturday he’ll take the trails with his wife into town, birds chirping in the bowers, and have lunch, commiserate with the wait staff, say “Hello” to the neighbors. “I love the people,” he says.
He loves the people and, if his 30-plus year career in the medical field is any indication, he loves taking care of people. It is, in fact, one of the driving forces of his life. It started, in part, because of the hit TV show “M*A*S*H.” After high school, he joined the U.S. Army. At the recruiter station, he took an aptitude test and was offered an option as a combat medic. “Well,” he thought, “I watched ‘M*A*S*H’ and that was cool. I decided to go for it.” He served four years of active duty. Based in West Germany, Neal had his first taste of serving others and it left an indelible impression.
Returning home to Louisville, KY, working for EMS, tragedy struck. A mass shooting in Louisville left 20 injured. Nine died. As someone in EMS it sealed his commitment to attend nursing school, where he learned not only the trade, but his deep love of healthcare. “I was in EMS when I developed a passion for this work. To be able to offer help to others during their greatest need for it.” Doctors and nurses, he stresses, are on the frontlines every day, working that line between life and death. Asked, “What is something you wish others knew about your profession?” Neal’s answer is simple and profound: “How much we care.”
Neal’s career blossomed. He had a variety of leadership roles at Jewish Hospital in Louisville. He contributed to opening two outpatient centers with freestanding emergency departments and established the nation’s first hand center. The first hand transplant ever performed in the United States happened at his hospital.
From there he went on to become a hospital executive with Tenet Healthcare at Hilton Head Regional Healthcare in Hilton Head, SC. While there he supported both growth and operational improvements, including the planning, implementation and operation of a new medical campus.
Far from being done or sitting on his laurels, Neal continued to propel himself and the places he served in. From hospitals in West Virginia, to Berwick Hospital in Pennsylvania, Neal has always been keen on strengthening relationships between hospitals and the communities they serve. All the while, also strengthening, quite literally, the people that call those communities home.
What called him, then, to Highlands-Cashiers Hospital? He says, “I missed the hands-on, day-to-day interactions. I wanted to be much more involved in the community.” It’s that involvement, from working with local nonprofits to participating in the annual Christmas parade (“It’s a big deal!”) that Neal is eager to do as much for the community as he can.
First and foremost on Neal’s mind, is to continue to make the hospital safe and of the highest quality. Secondly, he wants to be the provider of choice for the community. He doesn’t want the area to be a doctor desert. He wants to employ the best doctors possible. He wants to work with local high schools and colleges, letting students know there are rewarding pathways into the healthcare profession and those pathways can lead directly into Highlands-Cashiers Hospital. He’s eager to make the organization sustainable and supportive of those who work in the field and have those workers thrive in the community. “We just started Highland-Cashiers Hospital’s OR today,” he said, proudly. It’s this growth he wants to continue.
Thirdly, Neal wants to have stronger ties to the community and become more engaged with local partners - be that chambers of commerce or local health clinics, schools or nonprofit organizations. A rising tide raises all boats. With the pandemic hopefully receding, he’s eager to tackle other problems locally. “What can we do about diabetes? About obesity? What can we do now about breast cancer?” He’s eager to find solutions.
Fourthly, he wants sustainable healthcare. “If we can do those first three points well, the fourth will take care of itself.” Taking care is right. COVID was hard, he freely admits, but there were silver linings. “Getting to know others,” he says. “Getting to support one another.” These, to him, were blessings. The vaccine initiative that the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital did was one of the prouder accomplishments of Neal’s career thus far. “We could be saving someone’s life,” he says of the vaccinations. It was rewarding for him to spread that knowledge to the 200-plus volunteers who helped administer the doses. “There’s a community spirit now,” he says, between the community and its local healthcare providers, “that will far outlast this pandemic.”
Saving lives is a good life. For Tom Neal that has proved abundantly clear. To be able to live a good life while doing that in the Highlands-Cashiers area, all the better. Next time you see Neal at the hospital, or birding in the woods, or eating a hearty soup at the local eatery, thank him. But, be prepared. He’ll thank you, too, for being a part of this community with him, for being a good neighbor, for you both, collectively, calling this vibrant, and healthy, place home.
Birthplace: Louisville, KY
Family: Robin (wife), Claire and Ryan (children), Curtis Horn (son-in-law), Charlie and Maddie (grandchildren)
Education: ADN Jefferson Community College (Louisville, KY), BSN University of State of New York, MHA California College of Health Sciences, and MBA University of Louisville
Hobbies: golf, running, fishing, hiking, gardening