Retiring Akron Children’s VP Led Its Growth

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Sharon Hrina’s impending retirement from Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley will conclude a half-century-plus career in health care, a field she was inspired to enter at age 11.

It started, she recalls, with a broken hip – hers. Slipping on bleachers at a football game, she ended up in a spica cast at what is now St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. Though she was a patient, she served as “sort of a caretaker” for her roommate, a girl who was recovering from issues after suffering from polio.

“I watched the nurses and then I realized that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she says.

On Oct. 2, Hrina will retire as vice president of ACH’s Mahoning Valley operations, which has 12 sites in three counties, including the former Beeghly Medical Park campus in Boardman. In 2005, she was the first hire of ACH Mahoning Valley, which now employs more than 800.

A native of Youngstown’s west side, Hrina worked her way through the nursing program at Youngstown State University as a clerk and later saleswoman for Lustig’s shoe store. After graduation, she worked 18 years as a nurse before transitioning into administration. Hrina holds a master’s degree in nursing administration from the University of Pittsburgh.

“As I watched things change in the hospitals and I saw that there were opportunities for nurses to have better education and better support, I decided if they had a leader who worked in the field and better understood their needs, I would be able to help them more,” she says.

Following stints at Cleveland Clinic and a hospital in Florida, she was part of the downsizing at Forum Health. Health care was seeing a lot of layoffs at the time, and having gone through that for 15 years, “I wanted to do something that was new and exciting,” she says. At the same time, ACH looked to expand its local presence.

“I would have never thought about pediatrics, to be honest with you, but the opportunity came up,” Hrina says. “They were coming to the community and they wanted to grow.”

Leadership at ACH quickly recognized her commitment to health care and the community. Grace Wakulchik, ACH’s president and CEO, says Hrina has “an unbridled passion for caring for kids and delivering outstanding, high-quality health care.”

Throughout her career, Hrina was recognized as “a trusted person to help Akron Children’s establish itself” in the Mahoning Valley, recalls Lisa Aurilio, chief operating officer.

“If there’s a person in the Mahoning Valley that she doesn’t know, I don’t know who that would be,” Wakulchik agrees.

After Hrina’s hiring, ACH added two more area offices and began a collaboration with St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital. It subsequently acquired  the former Beeghly Medical Park campus from Forum in 2007, and established its local campus.

“There was a lot of renovation to that and it happened very quickly because we opened in December of 2008,” Hrina says. “It was unbelievable the progress that was made in one year.”

During her time there, the system added more primary care offices and specialties that “many of the acute care or adult hospitals could not afford to do,” she says. “That’s how we first started to branch out.” The system now offers 28 specialties, including orthopedics, sports medicine and therapy, cardiology, pulmonology, allergy testing and pediatric surgery.

Caring for children is “not taking care of a mini-adult,” Hrina notes. “It’s how you treat these children and how you build their trust. It’s a whole different approach,” she emphasizes.

“Sharon was very determined to make sure that the Valley was represented in every business decision and every strategic decision that was made,” Wakulchik says.

“Everything that we’ve done in the Valley to expand, Sharon has led,” Aurilio adds. “Her fingerprints are on every aspect of how we’ve grown.”

The emergency department has seen the greatest growth. In 2009, its first full year of operations, the department saw 18,806 patients. Over the next decade, that figure more than doubled to 38,953. Last year, subspecialty outpatient visits increased to 36,476, up from 15,894 in 2009.

“When we started, we were seeing 30 to 40 patients per day, and on the average we now see 120 to 130 patients a day,” Hrina says.

During peak season, which can run from November though February, the volume can rise to about 200 patients daily. That prompted plans for an expansion that will begin in mid-2021.

However, the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on emergency visits, which are down 27.6% year-to-date as of July. Traffic for the majority of the subspecialties at the campus is down by nearly 6% to more than 40% in some cases.   

“In mid-March, we plummeted. We were almost down to hardly anything,” Hrina says.

Overall patient visits rebounded in April with the implementation of telehealth services, and continued to grow in May and June when in-person visits resumed. “We’re well on the road to getting our primary care numbers back up and we’re well on the road to getting our hospital numbers back up,” she says.

But emergency care continues to lag at both ACH campuses, a trend among hospitals. St. Elizabeth and other acute care centers report patients are hesitant to come to emergency departments because they fear contracting COVID-19.       

During the pandemic, the campus expanded its testing capacity for the virus. ACH conducts up to 150 tests daily, up from 40 initially. The hospital hopes a new machine will increase that to 500 tests daily.

“We are also waiting for an additional $1 million purchase that we’ve made so that hopefully by 2021 we can go up to 1,000 tests a day,” she continues.  

Another result of the pandemic is that children are depressed, confused and acting out more, according to Hrina. And while the area had behavioral health services for kids, “There weren’t enough, and now with COVID, things are escalating even more.”

Last year, Hrina realized a passion she’s had for the past decade when ACH opened an outpatient behavioral health therapy center in the former Youngstown Hearing & Speech Center.

And ACH ensures residents have access to its services. Today, nearly 70% of the pediatric population is on Medicaid, up from 62% when Hrina started working at ACH. That would have been the biggest barrier to a health-care provider that lacked Akron Children’s resources and philanthropy, she says.

“We do a very nice job. Nobody gets turned away because of the inability to pay,” Hrina says.

Another challenge is that many children don’t have primary care specialists. They don’t receive the right injections at the right time and don’t see a physician regularly, so troubling conditions can go undiagnosed. They also don’t have regular dental care.

Also concerning are conditions such as childhood diabetes and obesity, stemming from poor diets with lots of fast food and lack of exercise opportunities.

“We used to have a lot of playgrounds and we used to have a lot of swimming pools in our community,” she says. “We don’t have them any longer and it’s expensive for children to be involved in some of the organized baseball teams and football teams that are in the communities, so many of the poorer children miss out on that.”

ACH’s Active Healthy Living program addresses these issues by serving children who are obese and identifying those who are pre-diabetic, encouraging exercise and teaching the importance of a healthful diet, she says. She also participates in countywide health assessments, and ACH actively ensures families have access to fresh produce.

Hrina “brought children’s health care in full force to the Mahoning Valley” following Forum Health’s decision to close Tod Children’s Hospital in 2007, Wakulchik says. Akron Children’s local market share grew from around 2% when it entered the market to upwards of 80% today, she reports.

“She really ensured that that level of care needed continued to be provided to those kids and she did it through perseverance and hard work,” Wakulchik says. “Sharon’s greatest achievement is ensuring that the children of the Mahoning Valley have access to high-quality health care, period.”  

Pictured: Sharon Hrina, vice president of Akron Children’s Hospital of the Mahoning Valley, overlooks the hospital’s Beeghly Campus in Boardman. Her retirement concludes more than half a century in the health care field.