When parents arrive at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital with a sick child in tow, they come in search of hope and healing. A hospital stay can be an unnerving experience. But Le Bonheur CEO Meri Armour understands that fact and has spent her career imbuing institutions she’s led with compassion and a clear message to families. Here, children come first.
“Women are more nurturing and less competitive than men,” she notes. “They bring a different approach to leadership — an approach that says, ‘All are included, all are part of the solution.’”
After arriving at Le Bonheur in 2007, Armour spent the first six months querying hospital staff and community stakeholders about where they stood as an organization. After releasing her SWOT analysis — an acronym for identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats — colleagues found her assessment spot-on.
“What was so powerful was that the people at Le Bonheur really wanted a strong leader; they really wanted someone to take them to that next level. They were so proud of the project of building the new hospital and they so wanted to improve,” she told Downtowner magazine. “Those are rare opportunities to find and have the chance to shape something in the way you want it to be.”
And shape it she did. Over a three-year period, Armour oversaw the construction of the new, 255-bed hospital and raised $104 million toward the project. She believed Le Bonheur could earn its rightful place among the nation’s most noteworthy children’s hospitals. To get there, she drafted Vision 2020, a strategic plan that would move them to the next level.
First, they needed to improve the way they engaged with families. Providing more family-centered care required building stronger partnerships, so she created the Family Partnership Council. The council better utilizes those parents she calls “chronic users,” families for whom the hospital was, and is, a vital part of their child’s well-being. The parents’ feedback from attending doctors’ rounds and engaging with nursing staff has helped to shape Le Bonheur’s policies and practices, thus better meeting the needs of families.
She also shifted the mindset of how they did business. “We took down all the ‘No’ signs,” she says. The hospital lifted visiting hours so that families could stay with sick children around the clock. They created more staff liaisons in family counselors and child specialists to keep a finger on the pulse of a family’s emotional well-being.
“It was a whole philosophical shift to see parents as partners,” says Armour — a shift that has led to a higher degree of customer satisfaction. “We get letters every day from parents saying, ‘We’re part of the family. We feel included.’”
Gradually, it led to their improved ranking nationally. Le Bonheur is now routinely included by U.S. News & World Report as among the Best Children’s Hospitals nationwide, thanks to the growth of meaningful research in the Heart Institute, Neuroscience Institute, orthopedics, vision disorders, trauma, and other specialties.
Armour also said “Yes” to humanitarian efforts. In 2010, Le Bonheur was the first children’s hospital nationally to answer a call to send a team of doctors to Haiti after the devastating earthquake left thousands of children injured. The leadership Armour provided created a ripple effect across the city, prompting St. Jude, FedEx, Smith & Nephew, and other businesses to participate in the project. Fred Smith even offered his private jet and pilot to fly the medical team to Port-au-Prince.
“The greatest effectiveness in doing good is that you can use your name and prowess to get other people involved,” says Armour.
More recently, she used that prowess to bring together a team of doctors to separate a pair of conjoined twins from Nigeria after receiving a call from Nigerian-based Linking Hands Foundation. Surgeons prepared for five months before undergoing the 18-hour surgery, successfully separating the two girls. “We received no payment for that effort,” says Armour. “But it was so terrific to be part of something so great.”
“Le Bonheur’s medical team is like no other I have worked with throughout my medical career,” says Max Langham, MD, surgical team leader for the Ayeni twins. “To flawlessly execute an 18-hour surgery with this level of coordination proves we have some of the best physicians and surgeons in the world.”
The year 2019 will mark 12 years that Armour has been at the helm of Le Bonheur. She will retire later this year, but leaves this respected institution on a firmer foundation, with millions still coming in to enrich the hospital’s endowment. Armour’s job has required many skills over the years. Yet what she values most in herself are qualities she learned as a young person.
“I am passionate and I am honest,” she says. “I care about kids and I care about Le Bonheur. I’m honest about the fact that it’s not about me.”