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For someone with one of the most important mover-and-shaker positions in Fairbanks, Shelley Ebenel certainly looks relaxed as she arrives early for a meeting with the Daily News-Miner in a fifth-floor conference room.

She opined that she rather likes the weather and city of Fairbanks. “Of course, I have a jaded view because I grew up here,” Ebenel said, chuckling.

The CEO for Foundation Health Partners, and the executive director and general counsel for the Greater Fairbanks Community Hospital Foundation, has reason to look pleased no matter what the winter weather. As she recently told a packed room at a Fairbanks Rotary Club meeting during a presentation, she’s been welcoming a plethora of new providers to her clinical team in 2023.

The list of 11 newly added providers certainly is impressive, and many of their specialties fill a void Ebenal’s recruiting team worked long and hard to fill, including two OB/GYN specialists, and accomplished physicians and nurse practitioners in behavioral health, palliative medicine, orthopedic and spine surgery, family medicine, osteopathic manipulative medicine, vascular surgery, cardiology, and pediatrics.

Senior Director of Internal and External Affairs Kari Burrell joined the meeting on time and sat beside Ebenal at the conference table. She handed the Daily News-Miner interviewer a list of the new servers with their impressive credentials.

Not that Ebenal is finished recruiting internationally and nationally for the largest private employer in Fairbanks. “We need more nurses,” she said, taking almost all applicants available from the University of Alaska system and elsewhere. The shortage amounts to a potential state and national crisis as baby-boomer nurses retire in droves and the salaries of university professors educating nurses lag way behind the salaries of nurse practitioners.

Ebenal also stressed that with limited medical practitioners available to Alaska’s rural citizens living inside and outside a 50-mile radius, she passionately believed that it was essential patients find medical services right here in Fairbanks rather than local and rural patients incur the costs and hardships of flying for care to Anchorage or Seattle.

Operating a community hospital here is far different from medical facilities in Anchorage or the Lower 48, because her hospital occupies a unique niche. “We’re too big to be small and too small to be big,” Ebenal said.

She said her gratitude knows no bounds when it comes to getting community support and material and financial aid from corporate and individual donors, particularly during the dark days of the pandemic when medical supplies, masks, gowns, and more supplemented the facility’s challenged resources.

“We also have an amazing, supportive hospital board,” she stressed.

Being a native Fairbanks citizen, she said she appreciates the independent nature of her hospital’s local patients, although the pushback from anti-vaccine and anti-mask patients did take a toll on her overworked staff in 2021 when it looked like every bed in the facility might hold a patient. She said they and the business staff worked overtime night and day and became her heroes. “We had no playbook for covid,” she said. “Our team worked together to design protocols.”

Things became dicey, Ebenal and Burrell agreed, when desperately sick patients and their families became angry and frustrated and scared, sometimes lashing out at the very professionals trying to help them.

“Still, we respect opposing views,” Ebenal said. “If you’re a patient, we don’t care if you have those views and treat you just the same. Here, we admit patients with different philosophies and beliefs and embrace them all.”

Ebenal’s philosophy, however, has never changed in 16 years since she herself came on board. “We put the patient first in every decision,” she said, saying that “streamlining” and “integrity” and “seamless operations” were a must.

One of the goals she has for her team is to get more efficient with time, personnel and resources “here in Fairbanks at the end of the road.” She believes in “Project Unity,” governing one system as opposed to many silos operating independently.

Ebenal and Burrell switched gears to discuss the institute’s long-term planning goals. They said developments in medicine because of technology and medical advances have her team planning for the next five or 10 years, not 30 years. No one can envision exactly what a hospital’s patients might need three decades down the road, they agreed.

Not surprisingly, one of her crusades is to improve the mental health of children and young adults in Fairbanks and the Interior. The mental health crises seem to be on the upswing has today’s youth appear to have less insulation on their metaphorical wiring. Young people come into the hospital being bullied, taunted on social media, addicted to substances, alcohol and vaping, and at a loss if their parents, too, are dysfunctional.

“Still, we have to start somewhere” if the tide is to turn, she said, saying that her belief is that the Legislature, Department of Health, governor and various family services must work in sync to fight the current mental crises. She adds that she sees mental issues with youth to be an unsolved national issue as well as an Alaskan problem. Reports have surfaced of students in grade school regularly vaping, for example.

“We’re raising awareness,” Ebenal said. “It’s somewhat a hidden crisis.”

Burrell chimes in that there is a ray of hope in the successes the hospital has had in lowering significantly its opioid dispensing rate and in seeing the opioid-related overdose death rate drop to the lowest level in Alaska.

Finally, as Ebenal drains her coffee cup, she concludes by saying that her team next will be developing a bigger and better playbook to serve Alaska’s giant populace of aging citizens.

What good news does Ebenal care to share with Daily News-Miner readers?

“U.S. News and World Report just named us one of 14 top regional hospitals,” she said, sharing a satisfied grin with Burrell. “We’re the only one cited in Alaska.”