“I wonder what she would think.”
Gabrielle Finley-Hazle is leading a tour through the labyrinthine hall of St. Mary’s Medical Center, pointing out features of the nearly 80-year-old hospital, from the children’s medical center to the stroke center. But as she nods and greets, her mind is on one specific employee, who is not here today.
“I know she worked really hard,” Finley-Hazle says of her late grandmother, Rebecca Finley, who worked in the hospital’s dietary department in the 1970s and 1980s, delivering food to patients on a cart. She never got to see all of the strides that St. Mary’s has taken.
And she never got to see her granddaughter running the place.
“There is no way she could have imagined this. It’s humbling,” says Finley-Hazle, who in 2016 was named CEO of St. Mary’s Medical Center. Her grandmother, who lived through the indignities of Jim Crow, started a family legacy at this hospital where her granddaughter, an Ivy League-educated health care administration veteran, is now in charge.
“I find myself so much more passionate than I would be typically. My entire family lives here, so obviously that gives me so much more of a focused reality,” says Finley-Hazle, who, at 38, is the youngest female CEO in the 10-hospital Tenet South Florida Group, stretching from Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center to Miami-Dade County’s Coral Gables Hospital.
When she accepted the job at St. Mary’s, she was excited about re-establishing herself in the community where her father was raised, but didn’t immediately make the connection about her family history at the hospital.
“My aunt called me and said ‘You’re going to St. Mary’s? Oh my God! That’s amazing!’” she remembers. “When Tenet called about St. Mary’s that wasn’t even a thought. I just thought ‘OK, my family’s here.’ But then I stated getting phone calls from my aunts saying ‘Do you have any idea what’s about to happen? Our mom walked those halls!’”
And by the time she gave her first Fireside Chat, to introduce herself to her new staff, she was becoming fully aware that this connection went both ways.
“When I saw the name ‘Finley,’ I knew she was kin. And now she’s the CEO? I was like ‘I bet that’s Rebecca’s kin,’” says Elva O’Neal, who worked with Rebecca Finley, and is now a unit secretary in the hospital’s behavioral health department. “She always told me I needed to smile. She was a very nice lady. And (Finley-Hazle) is just doing great.”
Later, Dr. Craig Lichtblau, who practices inpatient rehabilitation at the hospital, approached Finley-Hazle and asked “‘Did your father play football? Did he ever break his jaw in a football game? My father was his doctor,’” she remembers. “Talk about a connection.”
Finley-Hazle has deep roots in Palm Beach County - her late father, Frankie Lane Finley, played football at Roosevelt High School, but relocated wife Harvetta and their kids to Broward County while making sure they were “surrounded by family,” including her grandmother, who died when she was in high school. “He eventually bought the house that he and his sisters grew up in.”
She knows the history of segregation in Florida, and appreciates that when her grandmother worked at St. Mary’s, it would have been unheard of to imagine a female CEO, let alone a black one. “We were aware of our history, and our parents could see the change happening in the world, but they wanted us to stay focused on school. We did what we needed to do, and didn’t let anything deter us. We were taught to be aware about diversity, but to be about education, and not to use the past as an excuse,” she says.
Her father, who died in 2009 of a heart attack, was an electrical engineer for BellSouth; her mother worked as a corporate paralegal. While “neither of them had the opportunity to go to a four-year college,” they valued education and worked hard to provide that opportunity to their kids, she says.
Young Gabrielle was fascinated with medicine and its impact on a community since “I was very young, younger than 10, and heard the ambulance going past my house. I asked my mother why they were going so fast and she said ‘They’re going to save someone’s life.’ I thought ‘That’s cool.’”
By the time she got to Cornell University, Finley-Hazle was remembering both that experience and the words of a middle-school history teacher who told students that they had two options in life - to take it easy in your youth and then work hard to catch up, or “to work hard when you’re young and have options later in life.”
She decided on the latter, she says, not only as a South Floridian gutting out her first “shockingly cold” winter in upstate New York, but as a hard-working undergrad. A professor told her of the need to have people who understood medicine on the business side of things, so Finley-Hazle got her bachelor’s degree in human biology, health and society, and an eventual Masters degree in health care administration.
Even though her goal was to be on the business side, Finley-Hazle wanted to have some hands-on experience in the field as well. She became a volunteer firefighter in the town of Cayuga Heights “just for fun. Look how much work they do. So much in emergency medicine, you don’t know what happened to the person you just dropped off at the hospital, and now you’re onto the next one. I would watch them come back a second time and ask what happened to the person they’d dropped off three hours ago.”
Meeting those paramedics and firefighters helps Finley-Hazle as an administrator to remember the connective tissue between the patients whose lives her decisions affect. “When you’re in those people’s homes, it humanizes medicine real quick.”
She continued that practice when she worked in North Carolina and in Broward. She hasn’t yet done so at St. Mary’s “but I’ve already made some phone calls.”
She now lives just outside of the city with husband Howard Hazle, daughter Asia, 10, and son Malakai, 6. And now that she’s here, Finley-Hazle says she’s looking forward to reestablishing her family connection,
“I feel like I’ve come full circle,” she says. “I really feel such a strong connection here.”
Recently, another member of that family came to St. Mary’s. Finley-Hazle’s uncle, Walter Finley, of Wellington, was a patient at the hospital, and reminded her of her roots in these halls and outside of them.
“He said, ‘Baby, if your dad could see you,’” she says, smiling, her voice trailing off. She doesn’t finish her sentence. She doesn’t have to.