By Susan Maas
Alison Page (M.S. ’96, M.H.A. ’96) is a CEO who’s comfortable getting her hands dirty. Literally. Page, who leads Baldwin Area Medical Center (BAMC), an independent hospital and clinic in western Wisconsin, recently found herself in suit and high heels wielding a shovel near the facility’s entrance. She was responding to a patient’s complaint about milkweed that had been removed from the medical center grounds. The patient was on her way into the clinic, and noticed that the milkweed had been pulled and was laying there like a pile of weeds. “She was very concerned: ‘Don’t people know? The migrating monarchs need the milkweed!’”
So two days later, Page personally planted new milkweed that another employee harvested from her lake property. Signs reading “Please protect me,” with a picture of milkweed and a monarch butterfly, are now posted in the area. “I’m very involved in this organization, from top to bottom and left to right—as is everyone who works here,” Page says with a smile.
Page, who is the chair of the Alumni Association board of directors, first stepped on campus nearly 25 years ago as a 35-year-old mom of five young kids. The River Falls native—she lives there today with her husband David—wanted to earn an advanced degree that would help further her goal: making the world a better place for children and families.
“You’re really, really lucky in this life if you can align your [paid] job with your life’s work. I get to do that.” And, she adds, “I want to help everybody here align their job with their life’s work.” Page takes immense pleasure in encouraging employees to grow and contribute in new ways. That’s one of the delights of working in a small, independent health care system, explains the youthful grandmother of seven.
BAMC’s size and independence allow it to be responsive to the community and to promote a culture where “no one’s sphere of influence is limited,” Page says. “If one of our nurses or doctors or [other staffers] has an idea, we get a small group of people together in a room, and we do it. There are no barriers. That makes for a fun workplace.” Case in point: several years ago, BAMC’s social worker suggested the center needed a transport van, since the community does not have a taxi or bus. So BAMC raised the money through grants and donations to buy one.
Daughter of “the old town doctor” in River Falls, Page—whose first job, at age 12, was candy striper at the hospital—was destined for a career in health care. Just not the kind she originally envisioned. In nursing school at Marquette, she found that while she admired and valued good patient care, she felt drawn more to big-picture questions.
“I discovered pretty quickly that while I loved health care, I wasn’t necessarily cut out to be a nurse. I was always thinking about, why did they build that this way, and why aren’t we doing this that way? I discovered I really wanted to run the hospital.”
After raising her children to school age, Page decided to apply for graduate school. Personal tragedy at age 26—she lost a baby in pregnancy, and, because of a medical error, nearly lost her own life as well—shaped how she viewed her life. “I’m not here forever. I’m here for a finite period of time. And it develops a sense of urgency, that there’s stuff I want to get done, there’s a difference I want to make. That hits everybody, maybe at different points; I feel fortunate that it came to me at a young age.”
Giving back to the U has been a no-brainer for Page from the start. In her first role after finishing her degree, as an administrative fellow with Fairview Health Services’ chief operating officer, she brought postgrad students from the School of Public Health’s masters in healthcare administration (MHA) program to Fairview and served as their onsite preceptor.
She frequently lectures in Academic Health Center classes. “I loved graduate school, and I love graduate students. They’re a blast; they’re very energizing,” Page says. “Grad school is like being at the airport: Everyone’s on their way somewhere. They’ve got ideas, they’ve got plans, and being a part of shaping their perspective and how they approach things is fun—really fun.”
The benefits of mentorship flow in both directions, she says. At BAMC, Page has worked with MHA students from the U on key endeavors like finding an ideal new location for the medical center’s new 106,000-acre health and wellness campus, slated to open this summer. Similarly, years ago MHA students helped Page develop a strategic plan for the BAMC, which is still in use.
“I tell them, yes I love to help the University of Minnesota—and I love the help I get from the University of Minnesota,” she continues. “I could’ve paid a consulting firm $100,000 to come out here and select a site, but the students did a stellar job. If you give students an opportunity to do great work, that always comes back to you.”
When Page joined the Alumni Association board nine years ago, the lifelong Wisconsinite had some brushing up to do on Gopher culture. “I had five young kids at home when I was in grad school. I didn’t go to football games, I didn’t go to the bars; I was taking care of little kids. I didn’t know Ski-U-Mah. So when I first joined the Alumni Association, I was so puzzled; I asked, ‘Why are all your Ws upside down?’”
Page’s optimistic approach to work and to life is summed up in a three-part mantra: Assume goodness, choose joy, and proceed with grace. That philosophy is taking root across the medical center, with staffers putting it on signs around the building and on email signatures.
In 2008, Page, who has always been interested in public policy, ran for the Wisconsin state senate seat in her district. Although she lost to the incumbent, she doesn’t rule out a future run for political office. “I love what I do now. I don’t know what’s next. I think you go where life takes you, and you always scan the horizon for an opportunity to make a difference in the world.”