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Health & Science

Med Center CEO Reflects On 27 Years Of Growth

Richard Wainerdi will retire next year as president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center. Wainerdi reflects on the history — and future — of houston's medical sector.


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Richard Wainerdi started his career as a petroleum engineer, rising to become head of global research at Gulf Oil. But he also collaborated on research projects with doctors and academics.

When Chevron took over Gulf Oil, Wainerdi became president of the Texas Medical Center. He describes the job as running the municipal government of a private city.

“We’re up to 43 million square feet which would make us the 11th largest downtown in the United States. We’ve just had to redo our 12 miles of private streets, we’ve had to do all of our utilities over again.”

The Texas Medical Center also leases land, manages parking and works with Metro on light rail and bus routes. It also coordinates security:

“Because we are the third destination of foreign heads of state after the United Nations and Washington. So we have about one a week of foreign heads of state and so we have a lot of interaction with the federal security agencies.”

Wainerdi says he’ll never forget when the Queen of England visited the DeBakey veterans hospital. Or when the queen’s cousin, a Duchess, came in the 1980s.

“We had the Duchess of Kent came to visit us.  And this was a time when everybody thought that AIDS was terribly contagious and you could get it just by touching somebody or being around. And she insisted on carrying around babies with AIDS, kissing them and hugging them and showing that she was not afraid.”

Wainerdi says the biggest crisis during his 28 years in charge was probably Hurricane Allison in 2001.

“We took $1.5 billion dollars worth of damage. Many of our institutions had two or three or four hundred million each in flooding. We had 6,800 people in bed without electricity. It was June, we needed air conditioning. We got through that without losing a single person to the disaster. No one died in the next four or five days who would not have otherwise expired.”

Afterwards, he helped coordinate as hospitals rebuilt floodwalls and moved damaged equipment to higher floors.

After he retires, Wainerdi plans to write and speak about health policy.

One thing he learned at the med center, he says, is that medicine doesn’t just mean stopping illness. It also means preventing illness, understanding disease, and educating the next generation of healers. He calls this approach the Aescalepian model of medicine.

Asclepius was the fellow who carries around the staff with the snake on it. And the idea that the Greeks had in those days — it was really before scientific medicine –  but the Greeks had the idea that the physicians’ job was to really carry you from this life into the next life in as smooth a way as possible. Now that has changed because now we do have curative medicine and now we can cure disease.”

But Wainerdi says that at the Texas Medical Center, the focus on comfort and caretaking continues.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

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