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Neurologist’s role close to Sherlock Holmes’

As a kid, Mary Dombovy M.D. sneaked down the darkened stairs as her parents watched “Ben Casey,” a medical drama that aired in the 1960s. She watched from afar, usually wearing green surgical scrubs with “Ben Casey” printed on them. She knew she wanted to be a doctor.

Years later, Dombovy’s father suffered a stroke and her aunt was thrown from a car, suffering serious brain trauma. Watching them recover, Dombovy decided she wanted to enter the field of neurology.

“Being a neurologist is like playing Sherlock Holmes,” she said. “A patient comes to you and doesn’t say, ‘I have Parkinson’s disease.’ … It’s your job to figure out what (the disorder) is and where it is.”

Today Dombovy is vice president and chair of the Department of Rehabilitation and Neurology in the Rochester Regional Health System and the medical director of Unity Hospital’s Stroke and Spine centers.

In 1989, fresh out of her second residency and with no business experience, Dombovy and three colleagues were recruited to build a regional program for brain injury rehabilitation. It was to serve the entire Rochester area, which up to that point had no program specializing in brain injuries. Dombovy approached the task with the same spirit that attracted her to the field in the first place: a heart for patients and their care.

Today, that center has expanded into a full neurosciences service line that includes neurology, neurosurgery and spine care.

“It’s really built around how patients access services,” she said. “We try to pull things together in a service line and business unit in a way that makes sense from a patient care standpoint.”

That means neurosurgery, rehabilitation and everything in between are literally and figuratively housed under one roof. Physicians and specialists from these interconnected fields speak to each other on a daily basis about the needs of individual patients.

This focus on patient care takes Dombovy beyond her role as administrator and brings her in front of patients.

“I think sometimes physicians move into administrative roles because they’re tired of the patient grind. I’ve never felt that way,” she said. “I’m a doctor first.”

On Christmas Eve in 1989, the year the center opened, a 20-year-old man was rushed through the doors after being run over by a car. He was in a coma with extensive injuries. Dombovy and her colleagues doubted his survival. “It’s one of those things you’ll never forget,” Dombovy said.

As he gained consciousness and the days pressed on, he was unwilling to give up. Today, 26 years later, he works at Wegmans Food Markets Inc. and has a family. He comes back every year for center reunions.

Another young man volunteers at the center two or three times a week helping patients with dinner and rehab sessions and playing games with them. When he was 15, he also arrived in a coma after a car accident. He will graduate from high school this year.

The return of former patients to the scene of their intense and challenging pain is likely due to the patient-centered care they received there; data show that patient success and satisfaction are common at the center.

In a 2014 study, 98 percent of patients at Golisano Restorative Neurology and Rehabilitation Center either met or surpassed their predicted outcomes. What’s more, surveys conducted by Unity Hospital indicate that 100 percent of patients served would recommend its care to others.

This sense of satisfaction extends beyond the patients to employees. The service line led by Dombovy had the highest retention and employee engagement across the entire Unity Health System before it merged with Rochester General last year.

Nancy Stuhlmiller has been Dombovy’s executive assistant for 22 years. She said there is a reason employees stick around.

“I would say personally it is mostly due to Dr. Dombovy’s leadership,” she said. “I don’t think a day goes by that doesn’t make me feel that way.”

Stuhlmiller said that during two massive administrative transitions—first in 1997 as St. Mary’s Hospital merged with Park Ridge Hospital and recently during Unity’s merger with Rochester General—the staff looked to Dombovy to keep the ship on course.

“There are times she just appears on the scene and everyone lets out a sigh of relief, like, ‘Our fearless leader is here,’” she said.

Dombovy’s care for her coworkers doesn’t end at 5 p.m. either. Stuhlmiller knows this personally. One winter night when her mother was in the hospital, she called Dombovy to let her know it was unlikely her mother would live until morning.

“Forty-five minutes later, she was there, in the hospital room,” Stuhlmiller said. Dombovy was herself recuperating from a surgical procedure at the time. “If anyone should be cloned, it should be her,” Stuhlmiller said.

Amid her work with patients and colleagues and managing the service line, Dombovy shows no signs of slowing down. She knows she is working for more than just today.

“To me,” she said, “success is more leaving something behind that continues long after you’re gone.”

Pete Wayner is a Rochester area freelance writer.

3/20/15 (c) 2015 RBJ Health Care Achievement Awards. Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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