Kathy Cook was only a couple years into her nursing career when a devastating F-5 tornado struck areas of Trumbull County killing 12 people and injuring many others.
Cook, who described herself as a "very young charge nurse at the time" in the surgical intensive care unit, said she ended up working 16 hours that day in 1985.
"We had people coming from all over," Cook recalled during an interview at St. Joseph Health Center last week.
It was that experience, and likely the way she handled herself, that led supervisors to ask her soon afterwards if she had ever considered health care management.
Apparently they were spot on.
Cook last month was named president of St. Joseph Health Center, the first time ever an RN has held the post, at least as far as hospital historians can find.
Kathy Cook last month was named president of St. Joseph Health Center, the first time ever an RN has held the post.
Soon after the tornado Cook began moving through the ranks starting as an assistant head nurse, moving to a head nurse, then a director, senior director and executive director of nursing, always with Humility of Mary Health Partners System where she started as a nursing student at St. Elizabeth's School of Nursing. Most recently she was chief nursing officer at St. Elizabeth Health Center.
Despite the progressive leadership roles, Cook said it wasn't until she was working at St. Elizabeth in Boardman in 2007 that she started to realize what she was really capable of. That's when she was working as director of nursing and the hospital president went on maternity leave.
"I do think she afforded me a lot of opportunities to be very connected with her and I think at that point I started to think, 'I can do this,' " Cook said. She added that Bob Shroder, HMHP president and CEO, also has taken her under his wing, as well. "I have always liked the business. I have always been very business minded," Cook said.
Shroder described Cook as "a great asset to HMHP."
"She has been in the role of president on an interim basis since June and has done an excellent job during this time," Shroder said. "We look forward to her future at St. Joseph."
As president, Cook is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the 219-bed St. Joseph Health Center and all of its off-site locations, including St. Joseph Emergency and Diagnostic Center in Andover; St. Joseph Minor Emergency and Diagnostic Center, Tod Avenue, Warren; St. Joseph Urgent Care Center in Howland; St. Joseph Outpatient Surgery Center, also in Howland; and HMHP Oncology Services. She replaces John Finizio who announced his retirement earlier this year.
Despite her changing roles through the years, Cook says they one thing that has remained constant is her love for health care.
"You have to love it. It's very service-oriented. You have to come here everyday knowing you have to give 100 percent and know that we are here for the right reasons," she said. "Good people, the great staff here can accomplish anything. There is a good sense of family, a sense of ownership. People really want to take care of people and do a good job, and I love that about this hospital.
"I am all about respect. Show respect, get respect. No matter what your job is, we all need each other. We are all equally important."
It was perhaps that philosophy that helped Cook to lead the hospital system in developing programs like a hospital home infusion company, palliative care and a hospice company, among other things.
"The system has been good to me and I have been able to be a part of a lot of good suggestions," she said.
But one of the things that is perhaps most noteworthy is her role as a nurse.
"I am very proud of that. There are very few nurses that become presidents of hospitals. It's usually more often people with MBAs or business background," Cook said. "This brings a more clinical background."
She is well aware of how medical advances have changed health care since the days she spent on the floor as a nurse.
"Today the surgical intensive care is completely different from what it was like then," she said. "We save people today that we never would have saved then."
And now, anticipating continued growth at St. Joseph, she says the hospital also will continue to grow its acuity level.
"We would like to add additional services to expand surgical services with just an overall general surgery expansion," she said. "Hopefully we should have a new surgeon starting in July."
In addition, she said the hospital likely will expand its bariatric program.
"Our oncology service also is growing. As the population is aging, more patients are diagnosed (with cancer), and as technology and treatment develops, more patients are successfully being treated," she said. "We do have a new oncologist, Dr. (Jawad) Francis that joined St. Joe's last year."
In addition to her nursing diploma, Cook holds a Bachelor of Science in nursing from Youngstown State University and a Master's in Nursing Administration from Gannon University. She is also a graduate of the Catholic Health Partners Leadership Academy.
Cook, who resides in Kinsman with her husband, Gary, said she has received a warm welcome to her new position by fellow residents of Trumbull County.
"People really like the fact that I am from the area," she said.
She and her husband have three adult children, Tatiana of Kinsman; Anna, a student at The Ohio State University; and Alex, a member of the United States Air Force.