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Chris Wood

Guardian Angel Transplant Program at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Inspires Operations Director Chris Wood

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Shaping future medical professionals through a very personal experience with transplant patients is important to Chris Wood, MBA, Director of Operations, Transplantation Services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). He does that by managing the Transplant Guardian Angel program at UPMC Presbyterian which hires college students to guide transplant patients and their care partners through the transplant process after they arrive at the hospital.

“They’re here to help our patients, but I want to help shape them,” says Wood. “The fact that our Guardian Angels get to be part of the clinical team while experiencing what the patients are going through at the same time gives them a unique view. The Oakland campus of UPMC is huge; you can go about 4 to 6 blocks without going outside because there are tunnels and bridges connecting five buildings. Having a Guardian Angel to direct you and be your companion through the process can relieve a lot of stress. The program is my baby.”

Wood serves as chair-elect of the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance (The Alliance) National Transplant Leadership Council, a group of 16 transplant experts who work to identify issues and develop programs and resources relevant to transplant center performance and advancement. “The huge opportunity with The Alliance is we have a platform to share knowledge among transplant centers,” says Wood. “If you hear another transplant center share how they’re handling a mutual challenge, a light bulb might go off. The power of The Alliance is in working together to solve the common problems we share.”

In 2010, he began working at UPMC in transplant. Since then, he has helped plan and implement multiple satellite clinics for UPMC’s flagship transplant program at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside Hospital. One of the initial satellite clinics was so successful that it turned into what is now the kidney transplant program at UPMC Hamot in Erie, PA, where he now splits him time. “It was providing a much-needed service in an area where if you think about patients that need a kidney transplant, they either had to travel to Cleveland or Buffalo or drive to Pittsburgh. You don’t want to get a call at 1 AM in the winter that says, ‘We have a kidney available for you,’ and have to worry about driving that far.”

Wood has an aunt and a cousin who have received organ transplants. But he says it’s been through working at UPMC that he’s fallen in love with transplantation. “Once you see the fantastic work that the surgeons do here, it’s amazing. On the donation side, families are going through the pain of losing a loved one. But in that loss, we can offer hope to someone else through transplant. I can’t honestly think of anywhere else in healthcare that you can do something like that.”

“UPMC takes great pride in their transplant program,” continues Wood. “We have a very rich history. The Starzl Transplantation Institute is 43 years old and when you talk to people in healthcare, they know Starzl and UPMC are synonymous with transplantation.” The Starzl Transplantation Institute is named in honor of the late Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD, whose is often referred to as the modern-day father of organ transplantation. In 2004, Dr. Starzl received the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.

Transplant Financials

Wood leads the financial aspects of UPMC’s transplant programs in western Pennsylvania. “Ultimately our goal is to transplant patients. I do a lot of deep dives into the finances of our organ acquisitions. It’s my job to point the expenses in the right way on our general ledger, financial statements and system for the corporate reimbursement department to have an easier job of gathering those expenses.”

Wood’s fascination with healthcare lies in the fact that it’s a constantly changing environment. “Between new clinical developments that cost money, my job is to minimize the money we spend while maximizing the benefit for our patients. I couldn’t think of another business that has such a unique way of doing finance than healthcare.”

Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh

Wood grew up in Philadelphia with his mother and younger brother and attended Holy Ghost Preparatory School, the only Spiritan high school in the U.S. run by Holy Ghost Fathers who are priests in the religious order of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. His mother worked in IT with the U.S. Navy and then became a paralegal and worked until she passed away a couple of years ago. “My mom sacrificed a ton to get both of us through prep school,” says Wood. “She had a strong work ethic and really believed in me.”

After high school, he enrolled at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which was founded by members of the Holy Spirit order. Wood originally studied physical therapy but changed direction to study health management systems his junior year. “Health management systems mixes business and healthcare operations and computers which was funny because when I showed up at Duquesne in 1993, I had never used a computer,” he says.

He interned with UPMC’s EPIC team in 1997 where he was involved with the first EPIC electronic health records implementation in physician practices. He also interned in the training and development department where he worked on implementing electronic tracking of mandatory trainings. He then went on to work in the decision support department for various health systems in NJ and PA for the first 10 years of his career, performing cost accounting and financial analysis.

Travel and Music Interests

Wood lives with his wife Lisa in Plum Borough, PA, an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh. On weekends, they enjoy taking their beagle basset mix dog for walks in parks and going out to eat. They share a love of music which took them to Niagara Falls with a stop in Buffalo on the way back to see Garth Brooks. After his mom passed away, he inherited her records.

Brooklyn Halloween
Brooklyn the “Wonder Dog” on Halloween

“In going through my mom’s records, she had a big mix of musicians––like Billy Joel, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and Simon and Garfunkel. I was digging through the records to find one specific Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger record. I remember her playing this one song from it that we thought was so goofy and funny. Sitting there and playing it in my basement brought back those memories and it was emotional. Music connects you to people and times in your life.”

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Wood and wife Lisa made a detour to Buffalo to catch a Garth Brooks stadium concert.

Travel Epiphany

He and his brother have continued the family tradition that their mother began with taking a family vacation to the shore in Ocean City, NJ each summer. “I love going to the shore,” says Wood. “I’m known for being able to sleep anywhere and that week of vacation is definitely where I catch up on a lot of sleep.”

OCNJ Shore Photo
A photo of Wood and wife Lisa at the Jersey shore, taken by Wood’s mother before her passing.

Wood had a work-life balance epiphany last summer during a two-week vacation to the U.K. “It was my first time ever out of the United States, and it was the first time in my 14 years at UPMC that I was actually completely disconnected from work,” says Wood.  “We were riding the train from London to Edinburgh and going through these small towns along the east coast of the U.K. You’re looking out over these small towns with these old stone houses, then you see a small farm, and then you see the water in the background, and then a 1,000-year-old stone church up on a hill and it’s beautiful.  That’s when I realized that maybe we’re going about things all wrong. We’re racing to get these bigger houses and to make more money, and these people are working and living in these small towns and are going about life. Now I’m trying to take work-life balance more into account.”

As part of achieving that balance, Wood and his wife are planning a trip to Iceland in 2024.

UK Photo
Wood and wife Lisa enjoy vacation time “unplugged” from work in London.
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