Robin DeLaVergne doesn’t really like award-winning recognition. • Fortunately, no one told Leadership Tampa Alumni. Or the Junior League of Tampa. Or the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Or the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida. • In recent years, all of those organizations have recognized DeLaVergne, executive director of the Tampa General Hospital Foundation and a TGH senior vice president, as one of the area’s top leaders. Leadership Tampa Alumni became the latest group to bestow honors on DeLaVergne, naming her the 2017 recipient of the Parke Wright III Award on Jan. 23.
Yet DeLaVergne humbly says the feel-good vibe that comes from helping others means more than trophies and plaques. While she accepts the acknowledgement with pride, some of her biggest rewards come from helping lead the hospital.
"Everybody would have to admit no job is perfect. Some days, things go bad," DeLaVergne explained. "But when I’m not having a great day, I can go talk to a patient who just had a heart transplant, or someone who’s waiting for a heart transplant, and then I say, ‘Okay, my day is not so bad.’"
DeLaVergne recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about growing up on Davis Islands with a life intertwined with Tampa General, being one of only a handful of women who have chaired the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce (2014), and what the future holds for the city and the hospital.
You’ve won so many awards. What’s the emotion when peers and colleagues recognize you?
My father was a physician, but he chaired the United Way. He was president of the medical association and worked real hard with Dick Greco and some others, and he would sit me in the room to watch what he was doing. My mother volunteered at Tampa General every week. She was a Girl Scout leader. It’s the way I was brought up. To me, especially since both of my parents are no longer with us, I feel like I did what my dad wanted me to do. And I’ve watched what my children do, and I’ve been an example to them. My older son used to do river clean ups in North Carolina, and my younger son is now on the board of the Salvation Army and he’s very involved in a lot of homeless projects, and I think it’s from what he saw me and his dad do to give back to the community. The fact that people recognize that I’m doing what my parents raised me to do means a lot to me.
Tell me about your job. Why does Tampa’s largest hospital need a foundation?
Tampa General is a tertiary, quaternary, academic medical center, we’re a safety net hospital for this area. If you think about it, there are about 300 hospitals in Florida. Ten percent are safety net hospitals, but those 10 percent provide over 50 percent of uncompensated care.
So we’re taking care of a lot of patients that don’t have any money. It costs just as much to take care of that patient as somebody with insurance. There’s a lot of money that goes to operations and running the hospital, and with technology the way it is today and new equipment needs, that’s really what we raise the money for, the things that aren’t covered by someone paying to have surgery.
There’s also start-up programs that don’t have a lot of revenue. We raise money for our integrative arts in medicine program which is something patients aren’t charged for. So there are a lot of things we’re able to provide to patients that they don’t get charged for.
What’s the biggest challenge of your position?
I think that Tampa General is a jewel in our city but it’s still something a lot of people don’t know about. I would say, especially as new people move into town, it’s just making sure people know who we are and what we do; that they know we’re one of the busiest transplant hospitals in the country, that we’re in the top 50 according to U.S. News & World Report in six different specialties. And we’ve got great physician partners both in the community and through the university.
We’re more than just a hospital. We really are taking care of patients even when they’re not in the hospital. It’s more about coordinating care and helping them understand how we can do that.
You chaired the chamber in 2014, becoming one of only a handful of women to even hold that prestigious position. What did it mean to you?
For me, when I was in the meetings, I didn’t necessarily see the difference between the men and women. They treated me like an equal. But I’ve also been very involved in Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay’s mentor/protege program because if you’ve been given responsibility, it’s important to pay it back and help bring up the future leaders.
You’ve been one of the people in a leadership role. What do you think has been among the city’s most significant accomplishments?
I go back to (Congressman) Sam Gibbons and when they brought the university (USF) to Tampa. That really began to change the fabric. There wasn’t an interstate out to USF when USF was built. The people who have moved here because of the university, and all the work being done to keep USF graduates here — I think it’s become a magnet. I would say the university and now the revitalization of downtown, especially if you look at the medical school moving downtown and what that’s doing.
The obvious follow-up is has Tampa fulfilled its potential
No. I don’t think anyone ever fulfills their potential, but if you look at what’s going on not just with Water Street Tampa, but the revitalization of West Tampa and Julian B. Lane Park, it’s great. But affordable housing is not very affordable in Tampa. That’s a potential we need to work on. With transportation — I can remember growing up on Davis Islands, we rode the public bus downtown to go to the movies — we have to make it easier for kids to get around and for young people who don’t want to own a car. I think we have some real opportunities. I look at the tech companies that are moving here — the incubators and the startups — the work being done by Linda Olsen at Tampa Bay Wave, and the innovation hub Jeff Vinik is launching at Channelside — and there are a lot of synergies.
Do you think we’ll get there?
I do. I’m confident we’ll get there.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at [email protected] Follow him @hoop4you.