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SHELBYVILLE — Cummins Inc. played a significant role in Paula Gustafson’s life for 10 years. It’s where she had a successful career as a mechanical engineer and met her husband.
But at age 36, she made a dramatic change. She left her job to enroll in medical school.
The Columbus resident had four small children and was pregnant with her fifth but wanted to pursue a passion that she dreamed about for years.
She and husband, Rick, also a Cummins engineer, agreed to tackle together the challenges that would come with the career switch and keeping up with parenting duties, classes and study time.
“She can be pretty intense,” Rick Gustafson said about Paula. “When she makes up her mind to do something, she does it all out.”
Twenty-two years later, Paula Gustafson has achieved her dream and then some.
She founded and operates a pediatrics practice in Shelbyville.
In January, Gustafson was elected medical chief of staff by her peers at Major Health Partners in Shelbyville. She is the first woman physician named to the leadership role for the organization that encompasses the $120 million health care network of hospital facilities in Shelby County, serving patients in southeastern Indiana.
Paula Gustafson, 58, said the desire to be a physician came on multiple levels. She wanted to help people, to face a new challenge, to learn about medicine and to focus on improving people’s health.
“Change is good,” she said. “Challenges bring opportunities.”
In her new role, Gustafson leads the medical staff of Major Health Partners, including Major Hospital. She represents physicians at administrative meetings, such as the board of trustees.
Gustafson also helps determine new policies and procedures for the hospital, directs peer reviews, helps write bylaws and handles other duties involved in managing the medical staff.
She also is contemplating ways the hospital can take advantage of the national Affordable Care Act to help patients. Gustafson sees opportunities, for example, for doctors to increase their use of electronic record keeping to have information at their fingertips to improve quality of care.
“We have to view the Affordable Care Act as an opportunity to improve customer delivery,” she said. “And I want to be part of it.”
Gustafson’s engineering background will be useful as hospital officials embark on plans to build a new main hospital facility in Shelbyville within the next five to seven years, said Jack Horner, Major Health Partners president and chief executive officer.
“She will be involved in the leadership of that and heavily involved in that process,” Horner said.
Gustafson is eager to help the hospital play a bigger role in the community, especially with schools as she promotes the Major Easy 3 obesity prevention initiative. Its purpose is to stem the tide of overweight children by encouraging more active lifestyles and healthier eating.
The job of medical chief of staff will have an increased workload for Gustafson. She will continue working with Major Pediatrics.
The Shelbyville-based pediatrics practice, which she founded in 1997, has 23 medical professionals serving patients in a six-county region, including Bartholomew.
Gustafson also will retain her role as a pediatric hospitalist, which involves treating children who receive inpatient care at the hospital.
Colleagues say Gustafson is up to the challenges she faces as the medical chief of staff because she refuses to accept that she cannot find solutions to difficult problems or achieve rigorous personal goals.
Dr. Lloyd Lewis, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said Gustafson’s election as medical chief of staff is a reflection of how well respected she is by her peers. Lewis thinks her former role as an engineer has been beneficial because she has a meticulous nature and is passionate about work.
“I think the world of her,” Lewis said. “To start off being the sole pediatrician here took a lot of energy, and she did that all while raising five children and never batted an eye or complained.”
Lewis said he remembers times when he would deliver a baby in the middle of the night, and Gustafson would be needed for the infant. She would arrive without hesitation.
“She has never wavered in her willingness to bend over backwards to help someone,” Lewis said.
Gustafson’s dedication to her work is obvious, Lewis said, and her friendly demeanor shows in how many at the hospital simply refer to her as “Dr. Paula.”
From past experiences, Gustafson said she’s learned to embrace challenges, even if they require drastic changes.
During her time at Cummins, the government was pushing engine makers to meet stringent clean-air emission standards. Cummins rose to the challenge, she said, and became an industry leader.
Friends and co-workers say she leads by example.
“Dr. Gustafson has consistently demonstrated a high capacity for leadership in health care excellence,” Horner said. “(She) is certainly well-known as a tireless champion for her patients.”
Her one-year position as medical chief of staff is open for re-election in subsequent years.
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