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Deborah Armstrong
USE-THIS- -Deborah-Armstron
Deborah Armstrong - photo by Bryan Fazio/The News

Deborah Armstrong’s initial career plans didn’t include her current position as Chief Executive Officer of Rockdale Medical Center, one of the region’s largest employers. Her professional odyssey began 27 years ago in physical therapy. “I didn’t aspire to this position. I’m a comfortable introvert,” she said, laughing, “and a CEO needs to be a bit of an extrovert.”

The ever elusive work/life balance was another reason the top job wasn’t on her radar. “My family always have and will be my top priority,” she said. So it was perfect timing when the job opening coincided with empty nest syndrome last year. Though no success story is ever that simple, it belies Armstrong’s incredible passion and dedication to the hospital.

After five years as a physical therapist, the Oak Ridge, Tn. native decided to pursue the management track enrolling in Mercer University’s Master’s in Health Administration program. Along the way, she married and had two children while working full-time at Georgia Baptist Hospital (now Atlanta Medical Center).

Armstrong credits her “extremely supportive” family, particularly husband Breck, for helping to pull off this feat. “When I was in school, which seemed forever, he took on all the afterschool and evening responsibilities with very small children,” she said, “We have always shared in whatever there was to do.” Breck’s job as a process engineer for Solo Cup landed the family in Rockdale 20 years ago. It would be almost another decade before they both would enjoy a seven-mile commute.

While at Georgia Baptist, Armstrong connected with mentor Carol Danielson, now Gwinnet Health System’s Chief Nursing Officer. “She put me in positions where I was constantly learning new things and expanding my horizons.” Benefitting from several mentors who exposed her to different challenges, Armstrong is keen on developing employee talents so they’re positioned to rise in the ranks.

“We try to do that here ...find people who want new experiences,” she said, “If they have the right aptitude and knowledge, but their resume doesn’t have certain credentials, we give them opportunities for growth.” Her RMC trajectory bears it out. After working at several larger Atlanta hospitals, she came to RMC as director of rehabilitative services and to be closer to home. She took on more responsibilities and spent five years as the Chief Operating Officer.

During her 11-year tenure, Armstrong witnessed a significant phase of RMC’s history – the transition from a community-owned not-for-profit to an investor-owned hospital. Though there was the expected bit of turmoil and political hiccups inherent with a big change, she understood “people’s perspectives and roots and where their passions were coming from” as part of the community.

She’s confident at least 90 percent of employees, patients and physicians would agree LifePoint’s acquisition brought “stability, resources, healthcare intelligence…it’s hard to run a community-owned, stand alone hospital in a very complicated industry changing every minute of every day.”

One would be hard-pressed to argue with the progress. Among many capital and technological improvements is a neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) - which will double in size this year; a state-of-the-art women’s center with the latest breast imaging technology; and a da Vinci Surgical System – the only hospital east of the perimeter to have a robotic system for minimally invasive procedures.

Physician recruitment is another area Armstrong is focused on this year. Topping her list is both a dedicated breast surgeon - general surgeons now handle the procedures performed daily – and a thoracic surgeon for lung work.

Also on the horizon is establishing a physician-level residency program as another piece of RMC’s educational initiative. Currently, programs are in place in nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy. The hospital was recently recognized as the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce’s Education Partner of the Year for hosting eight healthcare apprenticeships with Rockdale Career Academy.

Delivering the best healthcare services possible, locally or otherwise, is Armstrong’s top priority. “If people choose to leave the community to receive services for whatever reason, it does have an impact.” The hospital employs over 1,200 people and paid more than $3 million in city, county and state taxes last year alone. “It’s all intertwined,” she said, “The health of the community is much bigger than the health we provide at RMC, but we’re part of it.”

Armstrong’s influence reaches beyond the RMC campus. Her role as a founding board member of Mercy Heart, a charitable clinic providing preventative health and dental care for Rockdale’s low-income and uninsured citizens, addresses a passion for preventative care of chronic diseases.

In this phase of life, she revels in the workload. “Work is life now, and that’s okay because I know we’re doing great things for our community,” Armstrong said, “It’s not like work and no life when you’re fulfilled.”

In his spare time, her husband plays guitar and is content if she makes it home with a “few non-sleeping hours to spare.” She divulges one last secret to a good marriage. “I don’t make him go to too many events because they sometimes conflict with his gigs.”