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The new CEO is a former nurse. Sharon Hayes predicts a turnaround at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.

The city’s largest hospital has suffered setbacks under a corporate owner, but a new leader says it’s time for an infusion of “love and attention.”

ST. PETERSBURG — Sharon Hayes has worked as a hospital executive for nearly 15 years, but she still finds herself writing “registered nurse” in the occupation box on all her paperwork.

That’s because being a nurse is still at the heart of everything she does, she says. Especially now, in her new role as chief executive of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, the long-treasured hospital that lately finds itself in need of critical care.

Hayes, 63, started the job in July, leaving behind her post at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson, even though she knew the St. Petersburg hospital was struggling. Abrupt leadership changes, layoffs, reports of deteriorating care, and ongoing tensions with city leaders are just some of the issues she inherits.

RELATED STORY: Bayfront Health St. Petersburg dogged by questions about finances, patient care

But Hayes says she’s hopeful, and will call on her experience to navigate through what she calls a “transition period” for the hospital. Her first order of business is to instill trust in the Bayfront name again.

“It’s in no one’s best interest if Bayfront fails,” she said in her first interview since taking the post.

Hayes grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., and always had big dreams of going to college. Her parents never finished high school. She worked at a Sears department store hawking hardware tools while putting herself through the nursing program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Within a year of graduating, Hayes landed a job as an emergency room trauma nurse.

“That was unheard of back then, to get in a specialty department so soon,” she said. “I was very proud to get to the ER.”

Her first foray into leadership came during a one-month stint treating National Guard members in Saudi Arabia. She oversaw a team of 115 medical professionals in a large emergency room equipped with two operating rooms.

“I loved being a nurse, so I never thought I’d be a leader,” she said. “I was in my 20s at the time, and I just fell into it.”

Her career led her to Florida, where she worked as a registered nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center in West Palm Beach. After a promotion to chief nursing officer, she helped the hospital transition from a nonprofit institution to for-profit ownership.

“It’s a very similar feel when you look at where Bayfront is now,” Hayes said.

"The feeling I got when I looked at Bayfront was, this place needed someone to wrap their arms around everyone in the building,” says Sharon Hayes, the hospital's new leader. "Bayfront needed love and attention." [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

In 2001, Tenet Healthcare Corp., the nation’s second-largest for-profit hospital chain at the time, purchased St. Mary’s and another struggling South Florida medical center. Founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegheny, St. Mary’s provided about half of all charity care in the county. With 460 beds, the hospital was designated a trauma center and operated the county’s largest emergency room.

“We were losing staff and physicians," Hayes recalled. “St. Mary’s was once a place that everyone drove to to get their health care needs. It became a place where the community didn’t want to go to.”

Now, she said, it’s one of the best-performing hospitals in the Tenet system.

Community Health Systems bought Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, once known as Bayfront Medical Center, in 2013 from another hospital chain, Health Management Associates. Bayfront is the city’s oldest and largest hospital, and the only level 2 trauma center in Pinellas County.

It also has a long history of serving the city’s most vulnerable residents, though some have questioned whether it still fills that role. The hospital has reported varying financial numbers in recent years, with some suggesting that its commitment to charity care has waned under corporate ownership.

Hayes said she expects the hospital to make a turnaround like the one she was part of at St. Mary’s. She described its recent struggles as hiccups related to the rapid change in owners.

She recounted her recent meeting in Franklin, Tenn., with Tim Hingtgen, president and chief operating officer of Community Health Systems, saying “he had a great vision and great strategy.” The company, she said, “offers great support” for its St. Petersburg hospital.

“I’m very culture-oriented, and the feeling I got when I looked at Bayfront was, this place needed someone to wrap their arms around everyone in the building,” Hayes said. "Bayfront needed love and attention. CHS felt I had the traits to do that.”

RELATED: St. Anthony’s Hospital to build $152 million 90-bed patient tower

Hayes’ arrival comes as Bayfront’s main competitor in town, St. Anthony’s Hospital, is expanding. The hospital’s operator, BayCare, recently announced a $152 million renovation that will add a 90-bed patient tower featuring all private rooms. That infusion will bring St. Anthony’s to 448 beds, coming closer than ever to Bayfront’s 480 beds.

Asked about the pressure coming from St. Anthony’s, Hayes reiterated the strengths that she contends differentiate Bayfront from its cross-town competitor. Those include Bayfront’s trauma center, its reputation for cardiovascular care and its stroke and epilepsy programs, among others, Hayes said.

She acknowledged that Bayfront’s overall reputation has slipped in comparison to St. Anthony’s, but said she plans on Bayfront once again becoming “the hospital of choice” in the city.

Despite the nearly two years she spent working in Pasco County, Hayes never sold her St. Petersburg home. After spending weekdays in Hudson, she drove home on the weekends.

“I always knew I wanted to retire in St. Pete,” she said.

Looking ahead, Hayes said she plans to create new relationships for Bayfront Health. She said she’s reached out to the leadership at St. Anthony’s, including the hospital’s president Scott Smith, and is booking appointments with local leaders, like St. Petersburg City Council members.

Council member Amy Foster met Hayes when she was running for office in 2013. At the time, Hayes was CEO of the now-shuttered Edward White Hospital.

“She was very involved in the community and an active part of my district,” Foster said. “I’m hopeful that having a previous relationship with Sharon, we’ll be able to re-establish communication and have a more collaborative working relationship.”

Foster said she always heard “wonderful things” about Hayes from hospital staff.

“She was a hands-on CEO and really understood the challenges that her staff faced,” Foster said. “I know there’s some unease with the nurses and staff at Bayfront right now, and I hope she can help with that.”

Hayes said she also wants to identify groups in St. Petersburg where Bayfront can become a leader in helping. While at Edward White, she launched a partnership with Metro Wellness to treat the LGBTQ populations in and around St. Petersburg. Under her leadership, the hospital changed its registration forms to be more inclusive of patients with different backgrounds.

And when Hayes was CEO at Palms of Pasadena hospital, she launched an acute care unit for seniors, to meet their more individualized needs.

She said she believes that drawing on her roots in the business, as a nurse, will help her find a path forward.

“I’ll always be a nurse,” she said. ”If you take good care of patients, everything else will come.”