TMC Veep Scales Mountains – and Not Just at Work

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Consider, for a moment, precariously picking your way up thousands of feet through ice and snow, in minus-degree weather, buffeted by screaming wind and lugging 150 pounds of gear and supplies.

Throw into the mix the fact that while you might burn 8,000 calories of day, high altitudes ratchet down the appetite to such a degree you might be lucky to choke down 600 calories.

Add in sleep deprivation, brought on by the altitude, the fact that it can take up to four hours just to set up camp, and the inconvenient reality you must travel at night when the ice is colder and more stable.

Oh. And this goes on for some 19 consecutive days or so.

 For Frank Marini, the chief information officer for Tucson Medical Center, this is what counts as a hobby.

Last year, Marini climbed Mount McKinley, considered in climbing circles to be one of the pinnacle climbs. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I felt that I’d really tested myself,” said Marini, who trained for 11 months to get into condition for the trip. “I know it doesn’t make sense to some people, but I want to know what I can do. Doing a mountain climb tests you physically and mentally and in all other ways, and I like to know whether I can or can’t do it.”

Marini did his first climb in the mid-1990s, ascending the icy slopes of Mount Shasta in Northern California after a three-day mountaineering class. “I described the day of summit afterward like being on a Stairmaster on high for seven straight hours.”

He’s been hooked ever since, completing the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro in east Africa, in 2005. He ascended the tallest point in South America, Argentina’s Aconcagua, about 18 months later.

So far, he’s made it to the summits of three of the seven summits, which are the highest peaks on each continent. A fourth, Mount Elbrus in Russia, is tentatively on the calendar for 2013.

There’s no question that he faces death on these trips. Last year, in the weeks before his McKinley trip, the year’s death toll on the mountain rested at seven. It gave him pause, he acknowledges, before quipping that he then came to his senses and decided to go for it.

“There are no guarantees in anything,” Marini said. “I could be driving home and some bozo will decide to drive poorly and take me out.”

The key is managing the risk, he said.

He spent a week on Washington’s Mount Rainier learning crevasse rescue, learning to react to avalanches, and developing other high-altitude skills. He joined a team of other climbers, who were prepared for the arduous adventure ahead. He had the appropriate gear. He had spent months working out in the morning and night and spending weekends hiking local mountains carrying 50-pound packs.

While it might not be evident at first glance, there are strong parallels with the approach he takes to projects at TMC, where he leads technology efforts.

Marini, who has been at TMC for 22 years, went through a grueling overhaul of the procurement operation in 2007, at a time when TMC was going through a turnaround with new leadership. He and his team spent two years rebuilding the purchasing function, to ensure not only that the hopital has everything from bandages and implants and pens and Styrofoam cups it needs to operate on a daily basis, but that proper controls were in place to control costs.

Then came the transition to electronic medical records – what Marini calls the nerve system of the hospital, since it represents the universe of what treatment staff knows about the patient and what needs to happen with that patient. It touches a complex mix of folks in a wide array of disciplines – all of whom had to be trained on the new system – from doctors to nurses to lab techs, to pharmacists and radiology technicians.

It’s beyond challenging. “An EMR for many organizations is a terrifying ride because it brings a degree of change to an organization that will stress it beyond measure,” Marini said. “There are many, many EMR implementations that go south.” When the project went live in 2010, it was a flip-the-switch, big-bang implementation. “You have to realize there are a lot of things that will come up that you won’t know anything about unless you do EMR implementations for a living – and we don’t. So you plan, you train, you develop skills, you evaluate your team, you make sure you have the right gear. You prepare the organization.”

A believer in teamwork, both at work and on a mountain, he knows firsthand how important it is to be able to rely on others. On his first climb at Shasta, he lost his footing and plummeted headfirst downhill, with team members arresting his fall.

 There were other close calls at McKinley, where climbers can literally get swallowed up by crevasses and pull their teams down with them. He describes it as picking one’s way through a mine field, never knowing if the ground below you will just implode. The climber in front of him crashed through the ice, with Marini reacting quickly to halt his fall beyond the 10 feet he’d dropped below the surface. It took an hour to get him back. Marini himself slipped and fell and broke through an ice wall serving as a bridge over a crevasse. His head and arm fell through. “I couldn’t see the bottom, it was that deep.” The biggest risk is that the snowbridge would continue crumbling. “It was pretty nerve-wracking. And it made every step after that even more unnerving because now you knew not only was it theoretically possible to fall into a crevasse, but it was very real.”

Aside from the danger comes the mental and physical challenge. Going down a particularly steep slope on McKinley, the heavy sleds he was roped to ahead of him generated so much stress on his lower body that he felt like he might just physically snap in two or pull every muscle in his body. “I didn’t think I could last four minutes, let alone four hours. That’s when you’re really testing yourself.”

“But at the end of the day, and this is where there’s another parallel to completing a project here, if you know there is really no other option, you can’t turn back. You can’t fall down and cry. You just have to suck it up and take a step at a time and muscle through it.”

There are times in a project implementation that staffing and vendor and training issues all coalesce to form one ugly barrier. That’s when you take a breath and refocus. There was no question he had to get down the mountain – just like there was no question that the hospital needed the transition to electronic medical records, despite the pain.

”All you can take solace in is that you need to rally everybody, improvise and find a way. Doesn’t everybody work that way? If you put yourself in a situation where you can’t give up, you’ll find a way to do it.”

He’ll start training around Thanksgiving for Elbrus.



  1. Samantha Marini says:

    That’s my dad!!

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