Life goes one way, down what appears to be the certain path ahead. In the blink of an eye, it goes another.
Chanda Chacon, a sixth-grader in Plano, Texas, was the kind of energetic kid who had plans for middle school. She would try out to be a cheerleader. She was going to dedicate time to running track. Her activities were going to match her seemingly boundless energy.
That all changed when Chacon was involved in a serious car wreck. The pain was present for Chacon after the wreck but the damage to the young girl wasn’t obvious. There weren’t any broken bones to set.
“I was in a wheelchair at school right around the time,” Chacon says.”In middle school being different was not what any kid would choose. I was often homeschooled and lost many of my friends.”
The problem led to months of going to doctors who were telling Chacon and her family that her pain couldn’t be eliminated and just had to be tolerated. A different doctor and the end result — a successful but life-threatening spinal fusion surgery — made an indelible impression on Chacon.
Today, Chacon is spending her third year as the chief operating officer of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. She draws a direct line between her traumatic times after the wreck to her current occupation. The zeal she holds for children caught up in a cycle of doctor’s appointments and surgeries and for families navigating the maze of financial decisions and treatment options hasn’t dimmed in the intervening decades.
“I want to give children what I wished I had as a child in the health care system,” Chacon says. “I want to give them access to a world-class, child-focused, statewide health system with people trained to care for children and their families.”
Chacon’s colleagues can’t help but notice her passion.
“Chanda brings an endless amount of enthusiasm to what she does,” says Matt Schaefer, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans. “She has a personal commitment that is unparalleled. Her personal history ties her in a unique way to the mission of the hospitals she has worked for.”
Chacon and Schaefer worked together at Houston’s Texas Children’s Hospital.
“Personally, she was an amazing mentor to me,” Schaefer says. “She has a way of empowering the people around her. She gets people to buy into her vision. She does this with people that are very different. We were opposites. She is an extrovert with endless energy. I am more introverted. I worked for her, and she was so inspirational in what she sees a hospital can do.”
DINNER WITH FAMILY
Chacon paints a vivid picture of her relationship with her brother who is two years older than she.
“He is very tall, and I am short,” Chacon says. “You wouldn’t think we come from the same family. He was sort of the boss when I was young. I looked up to him but did want to get out from his shadow.”
Chacon says her early days in her neighborhood were spent “outside, playing with friends.” Her family was close. Her father was an “entrepreneur in various businesses.”
“My dad was always at dinner,” Chacon says. “You know the saying that you never work hard when you are working for yourself. He worked very hard but our family was together.”
Chacon realizes now that her mother, a schoolteacher, would steer the family to “free activities that we would do together. She would be the one that would plan these outings. I look back on it now and realize we were doing these things to not spend money but still have something to do.”
However, the dark cloud that was the aftermath of the wreck hovered over Chacon and her family for two years.
“After my car wreck, my parents took me to over 20 physicians to help see why I hurt so bad and couldn’t sit or stand for longer than two hours,” Chacon says.
The disruption in Chacon’s schooling was significant.
“I was told by the school system that I should drop out of my honors and AP classes. Education had always been important to my parents and to me and with their support I stayed in my honors classes. It was the one thing I didn’t want to give up because I thought that it may be the only thing I had left.”
Chacon says the pain was turning her “into a child my parents didn’t recognize — introverted, angry and frustrated.”
“I had lost my spark,” Chacon says. “My parents were smart and dedicated, and even they couldn’t figure out the complicated and complex health care system to help me. They knew something was wrong but no one was listening.”
Chacon’s parents were growing increasingly desperate. A recommendation to see a doctor working with a small, little-known hospital in Dallas was accepted even as hope was running out.
“I remember like it was yesterday the first visit to his office,” Chacon says. “I was with my parents and I was sitting on the exam table. The door opened and two Sheltie dogs ran in and sat under the exam table. This was years before therapy dogs had been introduced into health care, and I thought ‘this guy is going to be an odd one.'”
Dr. David K. Selby turned out to be a different doctor altogether, especially as he treated the 13-year-old Chacon as someone to talk to instead of talking around.
“Dr. Selby was the first physician who looked me in the eyes and talked to me. He said he thought he knew what was wrong with me but that it would require a very painful test that was very risky. If the test proved that I had cracked discs, he would do a spinal fusion that would help get rid of my pain. I said, ‘Yes, when can we start?’ while my parents were freaking out in the corner.”
The surgery Chacon faced was risky and would have effects long after the procedure was over.
“This would change my life,” Chacon says. “No high impact sports, no cheerleading, no dance team, no more of the track running that I loved, no twisting or carrying heavy items, and I would need to stay small to preserve the spinal fusion so likely no carrying a baby in my future. I just wanted the pain to go away.
“So on Christmas vacation from school, I had an L4 and L5 spinal fusion with donor bone and bone from my hip. I was the youngest person in that hospital and the only child.”
A hospital administrator stopped by Chacon’s room to give her a small statue. It was a small gesture that Chacon remembers to this day.
“Of course, we expected to have great health care, but I learned from this administrator that the care hospitals provide is so much deeper than that. Today, I do something similar. My parents always deliver balloons to me on my birthday and at important occasions, and I take those balloons and deliver them around the hospital. The look of thanks from parents and spark of energy in the kids’ eyes is the care part that we deliver every day. The little moments that add up to help make a great experience.”
NEW JOB, NEW STATE
Chacon felt quite comfortable at the Texas Children’s Hospital. She found her way back to her home state after earning a master’s of public health from Yale University School of Public Health and Yale School of Management. She spent more than 14 years at Texas Children’s in various roles in the hospital culminating in being president of West Campus, a community hospital in west Houston.
A new job in a new state wasn’t on Chacon’s radar.
“I never thought I would leave Texas,” Chacon says. “I worked at a great children’s hospital and had my dream job. However, I answered a call from a recruiter about the search that was on at Arkansas Children’s, and I frankly told him that I wasn’t interested.”
Chacon didn’t dismiss the job out of hand. Her research on the Children’s Hospital leads to a different conclusion than what she had at first.
“When I looked more closely at Arkansas, I knew that the challenge would be difficult,” Chacon says. “If I believed my own PR about making an impact on child health, this is where I needed to be to help change the trajectory over the long term for an entire state through the improved health of the children. To reach all four corners of the state and give children what I wished I had as a child in the health care system, access to a world-class, child-focused, statewide health system with people trained to care for children and their families.”
“When I talked to my husband, Carlo, he said I needed to look at this opportunity and he wouldn’t be nervous [that I would take the job] until I had met the team and the people. He knew when I came back from that first interview that we had to move to Arkansas. I had to be a part of a team that I met at my time there.”
The thread of taking care of children runs through Chacon’s life. She attributes that to the fact that her spinal fusion surgery threatened her ability to have children.
“One of the ways my life changed was learning that while I could possibly carry a child, but because I was so young when I had the fusion, it just wasn’t recommended,” Chacon says. “When you hear this at 13, you just readjust your reality. I grew up knowing I would need to be creative with my path if I wanted children. It helped me see that biology doesn’t determine if a child is part of your family or if you love them.”
Chacon began as a volunteer for the most vulnerable children.
“I started volunteering with Child Advocates in Houston as a court-appointed child advocate and did that for 10 years there,” she says.
She became very close to two girls who were adopted by a family that Chacon helped the girls select.
“For their first Christmas in their new home, my husband and I flew in to surprise them. In the years that have followed, I have stayed in touch and watched them grow into amazing women. I even got to help with one for her wedding and fund the limo that took the bride and groom to and from the wedding.”
Chacon is still helping children here in Little Rock but her role has shifted.
“I work now with the entire family with an organization that helps support the foster families so that kids have a great support and soft landing place while their long-term placements are determined,” Chacon says. “It takes a village to raise kids and this program allows us to help support that village.”
How is Chacon able to do this with more than enough on her plate?
“My dad says it is like when you are full from a big dinner and you think that you cannot fit in any dessert,” Chacon says. “He says ice cream will always fit in the little open spaces, I see volunteering like this, if it is important, it will fit in the little open places of time that you didn’t know you had. It actually makes me feel like I have more time, and I am more grounded to the profound impact we can have on the trajectory of our children’s lives if we just invest. They didn’t ask for these situations, and they should not have to ask for our help. We should just give it.”
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Nov. 7, 1977, Peoria, Ill.
• IF I DIDN’T WORK AT A HOSPITAL, I WOULD: Be an interior decorator. I love refinishing furniture and I help my friends decorate their homes now as a hobby.
• WHEN I AM NOT AT WORK, I REALLY ENJOY: Reading, floating in the pool with my Kindle and having people over for dinner parties.
• IF I COULD HOP ON A PLANE RIGHT NOW, I WOULD GO TO: Cabo San Lucas — or any beach for that matter.
• A HOSPITAL IS ONLY AS GOOD AS ITS: People — absolutely people. A health system is just buildings and programs without amazing people providing the care and driving the culture.
• MY FOUR GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Both sets of my grandparents. As an adult, I have so many questions now about their past and history that I would like to learn about from them.
• IF I COULD SNAP MY FINGERS AND CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT THE WORLD, IT WOULD BE: I would make sure that all children had loving families and that no child was ever neglected or abused.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Driven
Photo by Cary Jenkins
“I had lost my spark. My parents were smart and dedicated, and even they couldn’t figure out the complicated and complex health care system to help me. They knew something was wrong but no one was listening.” – Chanda Cashen Chacon
High Profile on 12/29/2019