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story.lead_photo.caption Gary Paxson is the successor CEO for the White River Health System, based in Batesville. Paxson is replacing longtime CEO Gary Bebow, who will retire at the end of this year. Paxson has worked at White River Health since 2012, working his way up from chief information officer. Paxson was previously a nurse, working in Illinois. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Gary Paxson knew as a young child that he wanted to work in the medical field. However, when he finished nursing school in 1994, he had no idea he’d end up in Arkansas as the head of a medical system.

Paxson, 46, was recently named the successor CEO of the White River Health System, based in Batesville. He has been employed with White River since 2012, working his way up the administration ladder.

“I’ve made the statement many times that if you told me in nursing school what I’d be doing 24 years later, I probably would have laughed at you,” Paxson said. “It wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t think this was in my future or skill set. I’ve been blessed with a number of fantastic mentors, friends and family who have really encouraged me and helped me in my career growth.”

Paxson will replace Gary Bebow as CEO. Bebow will retire at the end of the year after 28 years as CEO of White River.

Paxson was born in Indiana but lived in Illinois for

18 years with his wife, Jody. He received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Saint Anthony College of Nursing in Rockford, Illinois, in December 1994. He worked as an emergency-room and intensive-care-unit nurse in the first part of his medical career.

“I merged my way into a field that is called nursing informatics,” Paxson said. “I found a new passion for health care as a business, strategic planning.”

According to Nursing Informatics: Scope and Standards of Practice, “nursing informatics is the specialty that integrates nursing science with multiple information management and analytical sciences to intently define, manage and communicate data, information, knowledge and wisdom in nursing practice.”

Paxson said he wanted to make an impact not only at the bedside level as a nurse, but in being able to make an impact at the comprehensive level.

“I pursued a master’s degree and finished it in 2012 at Bellevue University in Nebraska,” he said.

At that point, Paxson said, he started looking for jobs in the nursing-informatics area.

“When I pursued nursing informatics, I discovered my passion for that, and I set my sights on the chief-information-officer role,” he said. “When I finished my master’s degree, I started applying for those if I could find any nibbles. White River called me and had a CIO opening.”

That’s how Paxson made the move to Arkansas.

“My passion for the majority of my career has been in community health care,” he said. “When I interviewed for the job here and saw the community health system, bigger than the one I came from but very similar in the way it operated, it was very appealing. I came here for that career opportunity.”

As CIO, Paxson was responsible for technology, software, hardware and security for everything, including both hospitals and clinics.

Paxson held the title of CIO for the White River Health System and added the title of chief quality officer in April 2015.

“I still held the CIO responsibilities, but CQO is a quasi chief operating officer,” he said. “I inherited a lot of operational responsibilities.”

He continued to work his way up the ladder at White River, and in January, he was named administrator for the White River Health Center in Batesville, one of two hospitals in the White River Medical System. The other is Stone County Medical Center in Mountain View.

“January really became the first significant step toward Gary Bebow’s succession,” Paxson said. “He talked to the board about developing a plan where he would start to step back and begin the retirement process.”

At that point, Paxson said, he was reporting on the hospital directly to the White River Medical Center Board of Directors.

“I was reporting information more to the board at that point on how we were performing, not just in the clinical arena, but also in the business arena and financial arena,” Paxson said.

Paxson was officially hired as the new CEO during the Aug. 28 board meeting. He was given the title of successor CEO.

“The next several months, Gary [Bebow] is still here,” Paxson said. “With 28 years, there is a lot of knowledge, a lot of relationships and a lot of transfers to do work with. The responsibility is now completely mine. [Bebow] is in the process of introducing me to different groups and giving me a lot of history. Then he will formally retire at the end of the year.”

Bebow said he is confident that Paxson will do well.

“I’ve enjoyed my career at White River and very much appreciate the support and guidance of the board of directors, medical-community management, employees, volunteers and communities throughout our service area,” Bebow said in a press release. “Gary Paxson is a capable, proven leader, and I’m confident in his ability to advance White River into the future.”

Boris Dover, chairman of the White River Medical System Board of Directors, said he is pleased with the hiring of Paxson.

“For the past eight months, White River has overseen the transition in leadership by forming a Succession Planning Committee, with the goals of assuring a smooth transition and selecting the best person to follow Mr. Bebow,” Dover said. “Gary Paxson has demonstrated his leadership ability to the board to lead the White River Health System in the future. On behalf of the board, I want to express my appreciation to Mr. Bebow and Mr. Paxson for their exceptional leadership and dedication to advancing health care in this region.”

Paxson said he’s excited for the opportunity to lead White River.

“In 2012, when I came here, I had a passion for the community health system,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with large health systems like [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences], Baptist, St. Vincent. They are needed. They are very critical.”

However, a smaller system, such as White River, Paxson said, can do things in a more timely manner.

“The ability to impact your community in such a direct and visible way, to be able to make decisions, pivot a little more rapidly than a large organization under corporate ownership, is very motivating and stimulating for me,” Paxson said. “As we look at opportunities, health care is changing so rapidly. Many times, we have to pivot and make operations a little different or change directions. To be able to do that more quickly and more effectively is encouraging.”

Paxson said the employees at White River are important for what they do.

“There is a difference between being in a community where you have the sole hospital and valued employees who work here and being in a big area,” he said. “This is our hospital. You can do a lot with that from a customer-service perspective. By igniting the passion with your employees, I truly believe we have more opportunities to grow, to take our customer service to a higher level than we have in the past, simply by working closer with our employees.”

While he’s been out of the nursing area of health care for a while, Paxson said, he would help out if needed.

“I would certainly be willing to help out,” he said. “My skills are rusty.”

Paxson gave an example of when he did have to get back into the nursing game at a previous medical facility.

“At the hospital I came from (Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb County, Illinois), I had moved from the bedside to IT (information technology),” he said. “We had a shooting at a college campus at our town. All of the patients came to our ER. I was in the ER that night, lending a hand. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Whatever was necessary, I’d be there to help do.”

Paxson was referring to the shooting at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, on Feb. 14, 2008. Five people were killed, and 17 were injured.

The Paxson family has lived in the Batesville area for six years now. It took them some getting used to, but they love it.

“There are subtle changes and differences,” he said. “The biggest thing was a smaller access to services and stores. When we came for the interview process, we were blown away immediately by the hospitality and the friendliness. From that perspective, we’ve been readily accepted and assimilated into the community.

“It’s been a great transition for us. The biggest thing that I think my wife, Jody, says she misses are snowstorms. Outside of that, we’re fine.”

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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