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Insight: Wouter Rietsema

By Michelle St. Onge | Photos Supplied

Hometown: Avon, Connecticut Family: Spouse, Loretta; three grown children, Annelieke, Gus and Gerrit; two dogs, Loki and Cooper Education: B.A., Spanish, Middlebury College, M.D., University of Connecticut Occupation: Senior Administrator, University of Vermont Health Network – CVPH Community Involvement: Chairperson of the Board for HIXNY (a Public Health Information Exchange), Board member for the Adirondack Health Institute, Board member for the Adirondacks Accountable Care Organization, and longtime board member/past Chair at Pine Harbor Assisted Living in Plattsburgh

It was almost 30 years ago that Dr. Wouter Rietsema moved his young family to Plattsburgh and began his career at CVPH Medical Center. He had grown up in Connecticut, the son of Dutch immigrants who came to the United States from Holland after WWII. His first taste of the beauty of the North Country came when he was an undergraduate studying at Middlebury College in Vermont. After graduation Rietsema chose to pursue the U.S. Navy as a path to medical school. “One of the reasons I chose the Navy was because they had the most interesting duty stations,” he recalled, “But I ended up getting stationed right near my home town.” During that time, Rietsema rekindled a college romance and eventually married his wife, Loretta.

Dr. Rietsema interned at the U.S. Navy hospital in San Diego and then chose infectious diseases for his residency in Portland, Oregon. (At the time, he never dreamed how relevant that choice would become in early 2020.) When he and Loretta wanted to start their family, the frequent moves required by the military caused the couple to think about alternatives. A position in Plattsburgh caught Dr. Rietsema’s eye, and the rest is history. The family moved to Plattsburgh in 1994 and, within four years Rietsema made his way to the senior leadership level. He has held a variety of positions at the hospital during his 30-year career and is now excited to retire at the end of 2023. With his first grandchild on the way, Rietsema is already busy planning his next chapter as a leadership and life coach. He recently sat down to share some of his insights with Strictly Business.

SB: What was the best piece of advice you have ever received? WR: The piece of advice that has worked its way through my life the most is that a three-minute commute is too short. When I first started working, I worked long hours. I needed to do something to draw a barrier between work and home. About 15 years ago I turned to exercise for that. To this day I exercise every night when I get home.

SB: Tell us about your approach to management and leadership? WR: As a senior leader, your number one goal is to work yourself out of a job. What that means is that you always have to be focused on planning your succession. This happens by developing the people that work for you so that they can execute the work of the organization in the direction that you set for them, even in your eventual absence. My important job is to develop the people that work for me and increase their leadership skills.

SB: What is one of the highlights of your professional career? WR: I had the opportunity to lead the COVID-19 vaccination effort across our seven-county region. I met so many people from hospitals, pharmacies and health departments around the region as part of a huge team that did amazing work. That opportunity was fabulous for me and I am proud of the work that everybody did.

SB: If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you offer him? WR: I would have two pieces of advice. The first is to stop worrying so much, particularly about the small things. The second is that you never know as much as you think you know. The older I get, the less I know. A lot of times the things we think we know are actually things we believe, not things we know. That is an important distinction to understand.

SB: What is your favorite quote and how does it speak to you in your life? WR: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.” This was written by Florida Scott-Maxwell in her book, The Measure of My Days. So often we think of life as something that happens to us, and we do not acknowledge our role in our own life. When you fully acknowledge your role, your life begins to be something that you own, as opposed to something that happens to you.

SB: You are retiring at the end of this year. What is next for you? WR: I started thinking about what I might do in retirement about five years ago. I have been doing a lot of coaching in my current career, and I have personally worked with a coach during a difficult time in my own career. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good fit for me in retirement. When you have a coaching practice, you can manage how many hours you work, and with technology you can do it from anywhere. I set out to learn how to be a coach, and I am certified and practicing now.

SB: What inspires you? WR: Watching people succeed. It goes way back to my Little League coaching days when my kids were little. Watching a kid make a great play in a game who couldn’t catch or throw a ball when they started really inspires me.

SB: What is something no one would guess about you? WR: I like to know as much as I can possibly know about things that really interest me. About five years ago I started baking sourdough, and I took it ‘down the rabbit hole,’ to use the words of my wife. I approached it like a scientist that studies it, including the microbiology of how a sourdough starter works. Now I even have my own mill at home. I haven’t taken it as far as growing my own grain, but the thought has crossed my mind. This strikes me as funny because from a leadership perspective, I’m a big picture person. I don’t enjoy delving too much into details.

SB: What do you do in your free time? WR: I cook a lot. In addition to the sourdough, I like to cook Indian and Mexican dishes. I love to read, walk the dogs and I spend a lot of time exercising. My wife and I are sports junkies. We love to watch athletes perform feats that seem impossible, even to them.

SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future? WR: Everybody has ideas about this, but it seems like nobody actually wants to change. If we want to be more prosperous, we have to do things differently. We need to be open to becoming something other than the identical city that we have been for the last 20 years. If we want a livelier downtown, we have to be willing to make changes. It’s that simple. If you want change, you have to accept changes. It’s similar to my approach to coaching. If you’re not happy with where you are, you need to start by doing things differently.

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