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Vital Signs

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Mar 1st, 2022
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KRISTIN WOLKART’S JOURNEY TO BECOMING THE PRESIDENT OF ST. FRANCIS MEDICAL CENTER BEGAN WITH A LOVE FOR NURSING. SHE TAKES PRIDE IN THE PIVOTAL ROLE ST. FRANCIS PLAYS IN THE NORTHEAST LOUISIANA COMMUNITY.

ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS

PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRAD ARENDER AND RHYAN EMERY

Not many people who know Kristin Wolkart, RN, MHA, NEA-BC, FACHE would ever guess that her earliest career aspirations didn’t include medicine. Now the Market President of St. Francis Medical Center, Kristin once had dreams of becoming a writer or a fine artist. She loved reading and drawing, and thought that she would find a career through those. The daughter of educators, she also considered a career in teaching. Her secret passions, however, were sports cars and driving fast – so she even dreamed of becoming a professional race car driver. 

By the time she was a high school upperclassman, however, she knew that nursing was her destiny. During a summer spent with her Aunt Jane who was a nursing student at the time, Kristin was inspired by her aunt’s excitement over her studies. When she toured the LSU School of Nursing as a senior and saw the students, classes, and simulation labs, the dye was cast. 

That decision – to become a nurse – turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life. Our community is blessed to have her here with us now, charting a course for long-term success for our region’s largest acute care hospital. Because of the vital role she is playing in our healthcare community, Kristin Wolkart is our Bayou Icon for March.

ristin Gardiner Wolkart’s parents understood both the value of education and the importance of quality healthcare. Her father, James Gardiner, was born in Washington D.C. and earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. Afterward, he served as Professor and Dean at the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry. 

In 1959, Kristin’s father’s family moved to New Orleans when his father William Gardiner was named basketball coach and athletic director for Loyola. Kristin’s father graduated from Jesuit High School. 

Kristin’s parents met while in high school at the Country Club Homes swimming pool. They both lived in the same neighborhood where the club and pool were located. Her mother, Patricia Stagno, had been born in New Orleans and attended East Jefferson High School. She graduated with a Bachelor of Education from the University of New Orleans. They married in 1966 and had their first child, Scott Gardiner, in March of 1967. Two years later in February 1969 Kristin was born.

Childhood Adventures

Kristin was born in New Orleans, but when she was 6 months old, the family moved to Laurel, Maryland while her father was in the Army and attended Johns Hopkins University. The family lived in Maryland until Kristin was four years old. They then moved to Gainesville, Florida, while her father worked at University of Florida where they lived until Kristin was 5 years old. At that point they returned to Metairie, Louisiana, when her father joined the faculty at the LSU School of Dentistry. When Kristin was 8, her mother began teaching 5th and 6th grade English at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church and School.

Kristin’s childhood was a very happy one, partly because of the stable home her parents provided, partly because of her older brother, and partly because of a large extended family. Her mother’s family lived nearby, so Kristin and her brother, Scott, were able to be with them often. 

Her father’s family lived in a variety of locations across the United States, so an annual family vacation provided “together time” with that side. “My fondest memories as a child are the family vacations that we took. Every year we would meet up with my dad’s brothers and their children at some destination.  Often times we would take road trips to theme parks, but my favorite was visiting the World’s Fair.  Getting to spend time with my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were some of the most special times I can remember from my childhood,” Kristin says.  

Kristin and Scott enjoyed many adventures often centered around spending a lot of time with their Italian grandparents. Their mom came from a large Italian family which loved getting together. Almost every Sunday, the group would gather at their maternal grandparents’ home for a large Sunday dinner. “I was a typical young girl in a traditional southern American family, although I was a bit of an introvert and shy,” Kristin explains. By contrast, Kristin describes her brother as being very athletic and an extrovert. “Throughout our childhood, my brother was my best friend, my protector, and my confidant.” 

There were even larger gatherings during the holidays when multiple generations joined together to celebrate. “It was always a joy to have the Stagno and Dalio families joined together during the holidays,” Kristin remembers with a smile. “There was great food, loud talk and laughter, and the joy of family.”

Of these, Kristin loved the Christmas holidays the best. She especially cherished those times when the extended family was together and reminiscing. “Listening to the stories that were only told when the extended family was together was always amazing to me,” she says.

Neither Scott nor Kristin knew growing up that careers in medicine were in their futures. Scott graduated from the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans and completed training as an anesthesiologist at Ochsner Medical Center there. Like Kristin, Scott’s career path would lead him away from a purely practitioner’s role to a healthcare management and strategic planning one. Today, as Chief Medical Officer for Diversified Professionals, Inc., Scott plays a key role in leading the overall clinical vision for the group and provides medical oversight.

Education for the Future

Kristin graduated from Grace King High School in Metairie in 1987. While a student, she worked and learned some valuable lessons. Her first job was at Shoe Town in Metairie. For a 15-year-old, dealing with the public in a retail sales role in a store that catered to inexpensive shoes was very stressful. She then tried working at a snowball stand during the summer. She loved that job, had great hours, and made good money in a very low stress job. However, by the end of the summer she never wanted to eat another snowball again!

After her high school graduation, Kristin enrolled at the University of New Orleans to earn pre-requisites for nursing school. She began working afternoons at a daycare center. “Working with one- to three-year-old children taught me great patience, and helped me realize that I preferred to work with adults,” Kristin admits. “Children are wonderful, but it is very hard to manage that many children running around at the same time! I believe that every job teaches you something. Even the jobs that you don’t like very much teach you how to be different or better when you move on.”

After completing the required courses, Kristin was accepted into the LSU School of Nursing in New Orleans and graduated with her B.S.N. in Nursing in 1991. “My favorite subjects in college were microbiology and art,” Kristin says. “I loved the science of discovering and identifying items under a microscope!”

Love for a Lifetime

When Kristin was a high school junior, she met Ross Wolkart, a senior who was to change her life. “We met on the night of my future husband’s 17th birthday at a local hangout, Spaghetti Eddie’s,” Kristin says. “We dated through high school and college, got engaged on my 19th birthday, and were married 6 months after I graduated from nursing school.”

The match was “right” from the very beginning. Both Kristin and Ross agree that when they first met, each thought the other was “the one.” They were married in St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Metairie and had a very large wedding reception afterward. “Growing up in the 1980’s, I had a dream of having a huge wedding gown just like Princess Diana,” Kristin says. “I didn’t quite have one that big, but I did have a huge train and veil.” This year the couple will celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary.

The Wolkarts have one child, a son named Taylor. Taylor also chose a career in medicine. He is an optometrist and lives with his wife, Tiffany, and their first child Addison in Spanish Fort, Alabama. “Our son works with Southern Eye Group, a group that respects him and is helping him grow in his chosen career,” Kristin says. “He is able to grow that career while he is also providing the kind of care to patients that makes him feel like he is making a difference. It’s all you can ask for children to have.”

Charting a Career

By her own admission, Kristin’s career path has been an “interesting one.” The position she holds now was not one to which she had aspired early on. Still, every choice she has made and every opportunity that she has been given have prepared her for this time in her career.

Kristin, a registered nurse, worked early in her career as a nurse at the bedside and grew to take over the role of a charge nurse from 1991 – 1995 at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.  Beginning in 1995, Kristin started working within the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System (FMOLHS). The system has hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical service lines across Louisiana and Mississippi.  Over the course of the past 27 years, Kristin held many different roles across the ministry.  The first 12 years within FMOLHS, Kristin worked at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales, Louisiana, with roles as Administrator of the home health agency, Director of Nursing for several inpatient units of the hospital, and Chief Nursing Officer. While working at St. Elizabeth, Kristin went back to school to complete her Master’s in Healthcare Administration from Kennedy-Western University in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 2007, Kristin moved to the Health System Corporate office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she became the Chief Nursing Information Officer and Director of Clinical Information Services. In 2013, Kristin was given the opportunity to work in a career development and mentorship role with the former CEO of FMOLHS, John J. Finan. This role exposed Kristin to the overall operations of the health system, and gave her special projects and assignments to complete to help determine the future direction of her career. Then in the spring of  2014 Kristin relocated to Monroe to become the St. Francis Medical Center Chief Operating Officer, and in January 2015 she became the President and CEO. In 2017 her title changed to Market President in Northeast Louisiana with responsibility of all healthcare operations for St. Francis Medical Center.

While Kristin readily cites Ross and her classmates as her best cheerleaders during college, there have been others who have been instrumental in helping her to achieve her successes once she began working in the field. Michelle Neyrey, her best friend in nursing school, was Kristin’s study partner. Together they challenged each other to do their very best. Edna Wolan was the first department director that Kristin worked for. Kristin says Wolan gave her opportunities to grow in leadership early in her career. Then later, Dee LeJeune, Chief Nursing Officer and later CEO at St. Elizabeth Hospital taught Kristin “. . . the power of team member engagement and culture of an organization.” It was LeJeune who convinced Kristin to get the Master’s degree. John Finan, former FMOLHS CEO, provided invaluable guidance and leadership that enabled her to grow and move to Monroe to work at St. Francis Medical Center.

Fortunately for the Wolkarts, Kristin’s husband works mostly from home and can work just about anywhere that has strong internet and cell connections. He is National Sales Manager for Mechanical Advantage Corporation, a company that sells Sambo Gears through a national distribution program that Ross helped to establish. While Kristin’s hours are often unpredictable and inflexible, his flexibility takes away some of the stress associated with those. “What makes Ross even more special is how he takes care of me,” Kristin explains. “He is a great cook, and most days I come home after a long day to find a wonderful home-cooked dinner and a nice glass of wine waiting.”

Eight Years and Counting

Battle-hardened by experiences including Hurricane Katrina and COVID, Kristin has the work experiences necessary to succeed. Although she is no longer a “hands on” nurse, she still works every day to find new and innovative models of care to help her staff succeed. “I am flexible and supportive of our team,” Kristin says. “I am open to new ideas or new ways of doing things – all with the idea of improving both patient care and team efficiencies.”

Kristin has worked at St. Francis Medical Center for 8 years now, and during that time some of the most difficult challenges to face that institution during its 109 years have occurred. Significant financial difficulties, horrific weather (floods, tornados, and ice/snow), and then a pandemic — but nothing stopped the St. Francis team. “With each crisis, the team at St. Francis used creativity, ingenuity, and a complete dedication to caring for those in need to ensure our staff, patients, and community were cared for,” Kristin says. “I continue to be amazed and proud of the entire organization for everything they do.”

During her tenure, Kristin has overseen the development of a strong strategic plan and tactics that have brought the organization to a much stronger position. The decision to remain in downtown Monroe at the main campus, and then developing a master facility plan that would help St. Francis to grow there, were critical moves. “Having a goal for the future allows you to create the roadmap of how to get there,” Kristin says. “Seeing all of the small and large successes over the past 8 years gets me excited about what the future holds. The leadership team at St. Francis is incredible, and I know that they are committed to seeing all of our plans come to fruition.”

When Kristin moved to Monroe, she was immediately impressed with the love the community has for St. Francis. People were eager to share their personal experiences with the hospital with her. Many had been born there, had their children there, and some had worked there. “People love the organization and want to see it succeed. It is a part of the fabric of Monroe and Northeast Louisiana,” Kristin says. “It is amazing that we have team members with up to 50 years of service in our organization. That is unheard of. To have people that have committed their entire careers to St. Francis – again I am amazed.”

Herself an active community volunteer (she serves on the VCOM School of Medicine and NOVA Workforce Solutions boards of directors), Kristin especially appreciates the essential role that St. Francis Auxiliary volunteers play. Their St. Francis Gift Shop (owned and operated by the auxiliary) raises money that is donated back to the hospital for key strategic initiatives including helping fund lobby renovations, purchasing new beds for Intensive Care, and buying bilirubin treatment systems for the NICU.

Future Plans

Kristin has worked very hard nearly all of her life, but retirement is not on her radar – yet. Both Wolkarts love the outdoors and travel. Recently they bought property in Cimarron, Colorado, on which they plan to build a cabin for winter and summer fun in the mountains. Ross loves to hunt big game, while Kristin’s passions are fishing and just enjoying the wonders of nature and wildlife.

When there is finally time, Kristin would love to see a German castle, go to Australia and see kangaroos in their natural habitat, and go on an African safari to see the wild animals roaming free that are only seen in a zoo by most of us. Previous travels to Italy and Alaska have only served to make her want to travel more. The rich history and culture in the Italian cities helped her to understand just how young the U.S.A. is. Alaska was impressive in an entirely different way. “There are few places left that give you that sense of awe when you see them, but Alaska is one of the states that truly gives you that sense of pure nature.”

Even though her travel dreams are real, nothing will ever replace Kristin’s love for her family. Both in the near-term and long-term, Kristin will continue to cherish family time. With their first grandchild Addison (Addie) having just arrived, there is no doubt that Ross and Kristin will find that family will mean even more!

Many years have passed since Kristin worked as a “Candy Striper” youth volunteer at East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie. Still, it was that earliest experience in healthcare that taught her how incredibly busy a hospital is, and how important the role nurses play in caring for patients. Both of those two lessons have served her well.