Earl Strotman – Salinas Valley Health
“Now the union won’t let me touch anything,” the good-natured Strotman says with a chuckle. “I’ve got to wear a suit and tie these days and be the face of my department.”
But Strotman is never far from the team he directs as it upgrades this 263-bed hospital that’s celebrating its 70th anniversary as the main provider to the Salinas Valley and its large agricultural community. Director of facilities and construction since October 2020, initially on an interim basis, Strotman tries to walk every floor of the hospital at least once a week and is all ears to anyone with a concern. Got to do everything according to code, he reminds, but he’ll look for creative fixes here and at the healthcare system’s mobile unit and 20-plus satellites throughout Monterey County.
Among his present concerns: the replacement of the flagship hospital’s eight operating rooms and construction of a suite of recovery and sterile rooms in the wing. Nothing’s simple in hospital construction in California, he emphasizes, and operating rooms are the most expensive and technological facilities, each one costing around $10 million.
At least the design is generally standard, he explains, an operating room being a rectangular number of square feet and spacious enough to allow easy movement of personnel, stretchers, portable X-ray machines and what-not. Then there are the indoor air quality requirements, air changes per hour, temperature and humidity controls. It’s always a challenge maintaining a contaminant-free zone, further complicated by new equipment making its way into the suite when he’s not looking.
“Space in any hospital is always a serious constraint,” he tells Blueprint in February. “You’ve just got to make the most of every square foot, and that’s a challenge in a 70-year-old facility.”
Another spatial challenge is being satisfied outside as work proceeds on a four-story addition to the existing parking garage. With the city’s blessing, 166 additional off-street spaces are being added along with a 20,000-square-foot basement addition for administration, reconstruction of an Americans with Disabilities walkway, bioretention and stormwater systems, and waste facilities.
The state being a stickler for structural safety, Strotman ensures the build complies with earthquake precautions. The threat isn’t as high here as in Los Angeles to the south and San Francisco to the north, he says, but hospitals must adhere to state codes for remaining structurally fit even after a severe tremor. Come 2030, a more stringent law will require all hospital buildings to be more fully functional post-quake.
However, the past few years have had Strotman and colleagues dealing with another natural disaster—the COVID-19 pandemic. Last May, they finally took down some of the tents assembled outside the hospital to treat COVID-19 patients.
Assembling those tents was among the most consequential projects he oversaw, the structures necessitating negative air pressure, sanitary facilities and general HVAC. The hospital preparing for a worst-case scenario, the largest tent would have accommodated an overflow of patients, but it never reached that point. Some tents will remain for flu season.
The hospital also hasn’t waited for COVID-19 patients to arrive. Its clientele including migratory farm workers and their families, SVH has a mobile clinic reaching out with preemptive care and vaccinations far from hospital grounds.
“We’ll go to places where a lot of people don’t have access,” he says. “We’ll go to a grocery store parking lot or to a farm. We’ll reach people by word of mouth to the growers or by advertising. ‘Don’t worry about insurance coverage or where you’re from. We’ll treat you.’”
Staff safety first
Then there was protecting his own employees, many of whom had understandable concerns about working in such a high-risk environment. Leading by example, Strotman donned personal protective equipment, entered rooms, prioritized projects and, above all, listened to what was on everybody’s mind.
“Collaboration, teamwork and communication serve you well,” he says. “My people couldn’t just go home and collect an Economic Impact check. There were facilities to manage, healthcare staff to support. I’m a fan of vaccinations and will get every shot they offer, but I manage 70 people who have their own thoughts. We still made do.”
It’s a unique and challenging locale too, Strotman goes onto say. No matter the season, it’s always harvest time for some crop in the Salinas Valley. The well-being of farm workers, many of whom are in the U.S. on H-2A visas for temporary work, weighs on SVMH.
“Being transient or migratory, they remain part of our community,” Strotman reminds.
It’s all part of his responsibility at this community hospital built with local funding when the Salinas Valley was growing post-World War II. Though Strotman wasn’t around during the early 1950s, he marvels at how a small farming community came together to build a 200-bed hospital. Modern outreach programs help fulfill the original mission, he says.
And the 64-year-old Strotman, he’s not thinking retirement, this being what he calls the most satisfying role in his decades of hospital facilities management. Some of his early positions having been in Southern California, he wanted relief from, among other annoyances, the traffic congestion and the concrete jungle that is L.A. The temperate climate and slower pace of Steinbeck Country are to his liking, as is the home he shares with his wife over an art gallery in Carmel-By-The-Sea.
But that’s not to say Strotman has abandoned all his interests in Greater LaLa Land where he grew up and earned an MBA from California State University Dominguez Hills.
“Will the Dodgers finally get their act together?” he asks about his favorite team that’s come up short in the last two National League division series. “I’m a typical frustrated Dodger fan”.
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. III 2023 Edition here.
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