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Christopher Gessner tapped to lead Akron Children’s Hospital

Christopher A. Gessner

08-05-2021 (Akron, Mahoning Valley, Ohio)

Christopher A. Gessner will succeed the retiring Grace Wakulchik as president and CEO of Akron Children’s, effective October 18. Gessner has been president and CEO of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital since 2019 and spent nearly two decades in administrative roles at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, part of the UPMC Health System, including serving as president from 2008 to 2019.

Wakulchik, president and CEO of Akron Children’s since 2018, had earlier shared her plans to retire at the end of 2021, following a 40-year career in health care.

The Akron Children’s Board of Directors convened a search committee in April, and enlisted the services of an executive search firm to assist in the identification and evaluation of internal and external candidates.

“The Board of Directors of Akron Children’s is grateful for the strong and steady leadership Grace Wakulchik has provided during her tenure, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most challenging times any hospital executive could face,” said John C. Orr, chairman of the Akron Children’s Board of Directors. “Even in the midst of those challenges, she continued to advance the hospital forward in exciting new ways.”

Orr said Gessner, age 54, is both an accomplished and visionary leader who understands the complexities of the world of health care today and shares the board’s commitment to keeping Akron Children’s an independent, free-standing and locally-governed children’s hospital system.

“During his years at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, he led the regionalization of pediatric health care in Western Pennsylvania by building a large pediatric primary and specialty care network – much like we have at Akron Children’s – and those networks are critical to growth, financial stability and improving access to more families in need of high quality pediatric health care,” said Orr.

In his current position, Gessner is the executive in charge of four hospitals, as well as additional surgery centers, clinics and free-standing ERs in the metro Denver area. He oversees 11,000 employees, 2,684 providers, 877 total hospital beds, and a $2.7 billion operating budget.

A native of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, Gessner earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the College of William and Mary and his MBA and a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Pittsburgh.

“I’m honored to join the Akron Children’s team and work alongside the talented staff, physicians and advanced practice providers to deliver world class care to the children of Northeast Ohio and beyond. The hospital is clearly part of the fabric of the many communities it serves, and I look forward to building on that strong sense of community engagement,” said Gessner. “My dad is a long-time, community pediatrician, so improving child health is in my blood and my soul. It’s very exciting for me to return to the Midwest and have the opportunity to lead this wonderful, innovative organization.”

Capping a 40-year career

Wakulchik, 64, began her career as a registered nurse and, during her nearly 30 years at Akron Children’s, rose through the ranks to become chief nursing officer, chief operating officer, president and, finally, president and CEO in October 2018, following the retirement of Bill Considine, who had been at the helm of the hospital for nearly 40 years.

During her tenure, Wakulchik has expanded Akron Children’s service area south to Marietta and northwest into Lorain County. Akron Children’s Mahoning Valley campus has expanded its behavioral health services and plans are underway to expand its emergency department. She also launched a Centers of Excellence initiative to highlight hospital programs with potential regional or national impact

She put a high priority on the hospital’s digital transformation, investing time and talent into the hospital’s electronic medical record system, telehealth services and, most recently, creating and hiring a new executive level position overseeing data analytics.  

“The teamwork and collaboration at Akron Children’s– from our medical, nursing and executive staffs and employees in every department - is second to none,” said Wakulchik. “It’s been an honor to lead Akron Children’s because of the special culture that has preceded me and will continue on because it’s in the DNA of our organization. Every employee here daily makes a difference in the lives of children and families.”

Working closely with her crisis response team, Wakulchik successfully helped lead Akron Children’s out of the devastating financial blow of having to essentially close the hospital for seven weeks to all but emergency services during the spring of 2020 pandemic response. She also helped lead the regional Northeast Central Ohio Region (NECO) response to the pandemic, having regular meetings with her fellow hospital executives in anticipation of patient surges and supply and staffing shortages.  

This past year, to honor her background as a nurse and all those who serve as nurses, Wakulchik made a substantial donation to create the Grace Wakulchik Endowed Chair in Nursing, currently held by Christine Young. The endowed chair recognizes outstanding nursing administrators and provides a source of income to support nursing projects and programs that advance quality health care for children.

Wakulchik is the chair of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association, and has also chaired the Akron Regional Hospital Association, the Greater Akron Chamber, and the Development Finance Authority of Summit County.

Orr said Gessner will be taking the reins of Akron Children’s while the coronavirus continues to shape day-to-day operations but also at a time when the hospital has many opportunities to both broaden and deepen its service lines and tap innovative ways of delivering pediatric health care.

“Akron Children’s is a community treasure, a place where parents throughout northeast Ohio place their trust when seeking the highest quality care for their children,” said Orr. “The board was committed to finding the best candidate for this critical role, respecting Akron Children’s past and century-old promises while charting its bright future. I am confident we found that person in Christopher Gessner.”

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