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Hospital executive Lynch helping lead New Orleans back

Dr. Robert Lynch has been CEO of Tulane Medical Center since 2007.
Dr. Robert Lynch has been CEO of Tulane Medical Center since 2007.

There were those who questioned whether New Orleans would ever fully recover from the horrific devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The monster storm, which hammered the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, killed at least 1,400 of its residents and caused catastrophic damage to the city's infrastructure, including its medical facilities. Many feared the disaster was so severe that the city might never come all the way back from it.

UT Arlington alumnus Dr. Robert Lynch wasn't among them.

When Katrina struck, Lynch was director of the South Central Veterans Affairs Health Care Network, leading the Veterans Administration's second largest health care network, which covers all or part of eight states in the southern United States. The network serves a veteran population of 1.8 million and has an annual budget of over $2 billion. When Katrina inundated New Orleans, it caused catastrophic failure in the city's inadequate levee system and resulted in widespread flooding and destruction of thousands of homes and buildings. Lynch oversaw the evacuation of over 600 patients and employees from the VA hospital, which like most of the city's medical facilities suffered extensive damage. "Nobody was prepared for a disaster of that magnitude," he said. "Nobody was prepared for the levees to fail or for the entire city to be evacuated. It took a lot of heroic efforts by a whole lot of people to get everyone out safely. The devastation was tremendous. It was a very chaotic time, but people rose to the challenge."

Damage to the VA hospital was so severe that it was decided not to reopen the facility for anything other than limited clinic operations. New Orleans' Charity Hospital likewise was inoperable and was deemed damaged beyond repair. The VA contracted with nearby Tulane Medical Center to provide hospital care for the area's veterans. Tulane had also been damaged by Katrina but was the first of the city's hospitals to reopen, in February 2006.

Compounding problems was Hurricane Rita, another massive storm, which made landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border on September 23, 2005 and caused catastrophic damage to the gulf regions of those states, including another of the VA hospitals of which Lynch was in charge. He spent much of his time in the months following the storms in Washington, D.C., testifying about the extent of the damage and seeking federal funding.

In November 2005, he was among those appearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs on Capitol Hill, along with Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson. In his opening remarks, Nicholson singled out Lynch for his work at the VA hospital during and after Katrina's devastation of New Orleans.

'...Dr. Lynch provided the leadership there," Nicholson said. "And I know at one period of time, he was up for 40 consecutive hours because I would go to our crisis response center in the building, and I went there at different random times throughout that period, and Bob Lynch was always on duty, moving people, planning. He just did a heroic job."

In August 2007, with the future of the New Orleans VA facility in doubt due to the extensive damage, Lynch accepted an offer to become chief executive officer of Tulane University Hospital & Clinic, located near the VA hospital downtown.

New Orleans has made huge progress in coming back from the disaster, and under Lynch's leadership, Tulane Medical Center has played a key role. The hospital, in addition to training healthcare professionals, advancing the science of medicine and providing outstanding care to its patients, made healing the city and its residents one of its core commitments following Katrina.

"We have a lot of outstanding people doing incredible work," Lynch said. "The city needed hope following what happened, and that's one thing we've tried to provide."

While helping Tulane Medical Center and New Orleans come back from the devastation of Katrina has been the biggest challenge of his career, Lynch has spent three decades providing leadership and mentoring young doctors, preparing them to be difference-makers in the health care field. But while he has a long track record as a difference-maker himself, he had no idea growing up that health care would be the field in which he would make his mark. Lynch was born in Worcester, Mass., and lived all over the East Coast and Midwest growing up because of his father's frequent work relocations. He went to high school in Mount Prospect, Ill., outside Chicago, and then enlisted in the Air Force at a time when the Vietnam War was raging overseas. It was during his four years in the Air Force that his future plans took a decisive turn.

"I never thought I would go to medical school," he says. "I grew up in the era of Sputnik and the space race, and figured I would go into engineering. But in the Air Force, I was trained as a med tech, and I realized that I could do this stuff and that I enjoyed it."

When Lynch left the Air Force, his family was living in Fort Worth. Armed with financial help from the GI Bill, he enrolled at UT Arlington - which he said proved to be a great choice.

"UTA was right there, it was a good educational value, and it had a pre-med program," he said. "It was much smaller then of course, but the academics were solid. I was taking a full course load and also working full-time at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. By the time I got to med school, it was almost a relief in terms of workload compared to what I'd been doing at UTA."

Lynch graduated from UT Arlington in 1978 with a B.S. in Biology, and then enrolled in med school at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he spent the next four years. He also met his future wife, Cynthia, also a med student, there. After completing his residency in internal medicine at Parkland Memorial Hospital and the VA Hospital in Dallas, he was hired by the VA facility as associate dean for Veterans Affairs, becoming chief of staff there before moving to Jackson, Miss., to head its VA facility and serve as chief of staff for all VA hospitals in the region.

At Tulane Medical Center, Lynch oversees a work force of 1,800 people, a talented and dedicated group who "are like family," he says, and who have worked tirelessly to rebuild their city. With so many other hospitals in the city crippled or shuttered, Tulane has become the main medical training facility in the area. Those trained at Tulane are sent out into the community to alleviate the drastic shortage of medical professionals caused by Katrina. Lynch is a big advocate of education, and says it is crucial that the United States rededicate itself to properly preparing young students in the fields of science and mathematics, so that it can continue to be the world leader in medical innovation.

"We've got to start focusing on the schools, and what kids are learning," he said. "People with backgrounds in math and science are employed; that's where the jobs are going to be in the years ahead. I'm a big fan of math and science. We just have to put more of an emphasis on it, and that has to start early."

Lynch, who has three grown children with his wife, Cynthia, is optimistic about the future of education, and he says it is playing a major role in New Orleans' recovery. The city's school system, which was among the worst in the U.S. prior to Katrina, has benefitted immensely from a complete restructuring. Over half of New Orleans' public school students now attend charter schools, which are managed independently and are held accountable for improved academic results.

Lynch says this, plus the fact that young, educated people are relocating to New Orleans in increasing numbers, are the driving forces behind the city's comeback. Another positive sign is the resurgence of the medical community. A new VA hospital is under construction, as is a replacement for Charity Hospital. The entertainment industry has come back strong as well, Lynch notes.

"Today, New Orleans has 70 percent of the population it had before Katrina, and lots of abandoned buildings, but the city's central core has come back," Lynch said. "At Tulane, we're trying to help heal the city, and we think we're leading the way. The people who are here now are people who want to be here, and they're making a difference.

"I think the future for New Orleans is bright."

Dr. Lynch will return to UT Arlington on Monday, October 31 as part of the College of Science's 2011-12 Science Week. He will deliver a talk, "Saving New Orleans", from 12-1 p.m. in Nedderman Hall Room 100. Tickets are not required and the event is open to all.