There was a time when Danielle Gathje thought she’d be a doctor, a nurse practitioner, or perhaps a physician assistant. As a biology major at the University of Wisconsin–Steven’s Point, Gathje was on a pre-med track and minored in safety and health protection. Upon graduation, that minor caught the attention of the leaders at Allina Health. They put Gathje to work on the health system’s environment of care, and in less than a year, she was promoted three times. Instead of providing direct patient care, Gathje ended up helping create the spaces where others deliver that care.
Today, Gathje is director of plant operations at M Health Fairview, where she manages all aspects of three acute care hospitals and their related structures. While she once expected to serve on the provider side of the industry, she’s found a career in healthcare facilities management extremely rewarding. “Healthcare is a fast-moving field full of constant innovation, and facilities leaders have the chance to make a real impact by influencing the environment for patients, their families, and their caregivers,” she explains.
M Health Fairview is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Physicians, and Fairview Health Services. The nonprofit health system operates 10 hospitals, 48 primary care clinics, and several specialty clinics in the Twin Cities area. Gathje is responsible for maintenance, engineering, and project support at St. Joseph’s, St. John’s, and Woodwinds hospitals. She also leads an Environment of Care committee and ensures that the hospitals she oversees remain compliant in areas like quality and operational excellence.
It’s a time of change and innovation at M Health Fairview as Gathje and her counterparts complete various projects. Crews will transform St. Joseph’s Hospital’s existing campus in downtown St. Paul into a health and wellness hub designed to better meet its community needs by providing long-term healthcare solutions.
While system leaders survey residents and community partners to develop an exact plan for the renovation, Gathje is helping M Health Fairview prepare for the change by relocating St. Joseph’s heart care services to campuses at St. John’s and Woodwinds hospitals. The existing 6-story structure of St. John’s will grow vertically and take on an additional 20,000-square-feet expansion without alterations to ground-level design or landscaping. Advanced catheterization labs and other custom rooms for complex heart procedures will fill the new space.
The vertical expansion project brings some challenges that require creative solutions. Crews encounter heavy traffic and must navigate with limited staging space. They’re also building on top of maternity wards and a newborn intensive care unit—two of the most sensitive areas on campus. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing delays in shipping, production, and procurement.
The secret to managing these challenges lies in strong communication with designers, GCs, architects, project managers, and other key partners. “People may be tempted to find creative ways to cut costs or help solve other problems, but I’m the one who has to operate the building once it’s complete,” Gathje says. “I have to make our needs and expectations clear because you can’t take any risks or shortcuts when it comes to the heavily regulated world of patient care.”
Gathje refers to herself as “the boots on the ground.” She walks the halls interviewing patients and care providers about their problems and needs. She spends a lot of time building relationships on job sites. But she also stays active in several national professional organizations, including the American Society for Healthcare Engineering, and local groups such as the Minnesota Healthcare Engineers Association. These professional memberships help Gathje stay abreast of her complex industry’s best practices and ultimately improve outcomes at Fairview Health Services.
Life in healthcare facilities management is always hectic as health systems respond to the ever-changing needs around them. Currently, Gathje is helping renovate sterile processing labs, adding an operating room, and expanding support space at Woodwinds Hospital. These and other projects demonstrate Fairview’s commitment to improving the lives of the patients and communities it serves.
In 2020, the system remade Bethesda Hospital into its state’s first dedicated COVID treatment facility. The hospital, founded in 1883, recently underwent another major transformation when it became a shelter for up to 100 people who are experiencing homelessness due to the global pandemic. Residents at the new shelter have access to private rooms, meals, shows, mental health services, substance abuse treatments, and employment assistance programs.
These are the things that make Gathje proud to be a part of M Health Fairview. “Everyone in healthcare facilities, from leaders to brand-new employees, can see the results of the work they do,” she says. Sometimes the results are big new buildings. Other times they’re smaller and less obvious. For Gathje, the most rewarding part of her job is often the smile on a patient’s face or a simple thank-you from their family members.