Lessons on Persistence and Passion (Heather Dexter at Town Hall)

Patientco has been known to bring in some movers and shakers from the healthcare industry to speak at our monthly Town Halls, and this speaker was no exception. Heather Dexter, CEO of Emory St. Joseph’s, not only brought her stories from the trenches, but also a history lesson for the books, and what it means to be dedicated to a mission bigger than yourself.

From being the first hospital in Georgia, in the 1800s, with a modest 10-bed capacity, to today’s 410 bed, 1800 employee, and 950 medical staff facility accompanied by forward-thinking technology, St. Joseph’s Hospital has had an interesting history that all stemmed from four, persistent, and forward-thinking nuns.

These nuns, committed by the archdioceses of Savannah post-Civil War to start the first hospital in Atlanta,  were always pushing the hospital to be progressive, which led to more firsts, such as  the opening of the first nursing school and the historical mile-marker of being the first facility to perform a successful open-heart surgery.

Fast-forward to modern times, with dense competition, mounting revenue cycle issues, and St. Joseph’s fell into hard times with finances and company culture.

Enter Heather Dexter, who’s held almost every position in her career at St. Joseph’s, starting in clinical services, and working her way all the way to CEO where she serves today.

When St. Joseph’s was sitting at a negative $5 million in operating costs, employee satisfaction hovering between 7-9% and an acquisition to complete, Heather saw only opportunity for improvement.

She and the rest of her team recognized the need for St. Joseph’s to find a partner partner to secure more funding and better relationships with vendors, which led to some serious peaks and valley in the signing years, but eventually led to a partnership with Emory Healthcare

Most people wouldn’t stay through all of that uncertainty and high tension, but Heather did.

“We were in a lot of financial trouble and there were a lot of leadership lessons I learned; but one critical one was having passion for your mission,” said Heather. During that time many of our C-Suite executives left. Leadership changed completely. People asked me why I stayed. I told them, because I have a passion for the mission and the people and the culture. I felt I could make a difference and make things better.”

Being in the C-Suite in any industry could make the faint of heart sweat at just the thought of it, dealing with tough decisions and incoming questions from every angle. Especially navigating the particulars of a  newfound partnership.

Through Heather’s passion and clear dedication to St. Josephs mission: to provide compassionate, clinically excellent health care in the spirit of loving service to those in need, with special attention to the poor and vulnerable, she, along with its dedicated  partners and staff, helped get Emory St. Joseph’s back in the black.

“I can’t predict the future so I focus on preserving extending mission culture and legacy and keep our population happy,” Heather said.

Heather and her team exemplify what it means to have grit, according to Angela Duckworth, by “having a special blend of passion and persistence.” That grit shows through in Heather’s beliefs on leadership.

Heather’s leadership beliefs include:

  •      Deep sense of personal mission connection
  •      Engage with transparency honesty and courage
  •      Ask questions: you can’t be an expert in all things
  •      Build great teams
  •      Establish direction with the big goals- and admit you can’t do everything yourself
  •      Fail fast, recover quicker and find the value in the failure so you can move forward smarter in the future


Heather enjoys her story to tell