The following material has been edited for clarity and brevity.
On this episode of the Carlsbad People, Purpose, and Impact Podcast, Bret Schanzenbach spoke with his good friend, Aaron Byzak, the chief external affairs officer for Tri-City Medical Center.
Aaron’s Beginnings In The Medical Field
Aaron began his medical career in high school when he worked as a delivery driver at a Mom-and-Pop pharmacy in Downtown Carlsbad called McDonald Village Pharmacy. This experience was vital to his career as an EMT and helped inform his view of medical policy:
“I kinda got to see the plight of the small business owner and the challenges of being an independent pharmacy going up against the big chains… It was interesting because it really led into my early career in emergency medical services… I was very used to speaking with elderly patients… Primarily what I did was deliver medication to elderly patients in their homes, and so when I started working on an ambulance at 20 years old, I already knew what all the medications were for, which kind of gave me a little bit of a head start.”
The desire to serve and help others is part of Aaron’s identity, as he pursued being a firefighter-paramedic. However, after a heart surgery for a congenital heart defect, he would not serve others in the capacity he expected.
“My experience as a patient really changed the way I looked at healthcare and I became extremely interested in the preventive side of healthcare, and, in particular, in health care policy… My thought was healthcare policy has the potential to impact people on such a larger, broader level that I'd be focused on that.”
This led him to change his career path from emergency medical services to healthcare policy. In order to pursue this path, Aaron and his grandfather put together a plan. He followed through and interned at State Senator Bill Morrow’s office. He eventually worked his way up through the County Board of Supervisors and got his MBA in Healthcare Management. Combining his experience and his passion, he began his work on government affairs for hospitals.
Close To The Heart: How Family Affects Focus
One of Aaron’s primary areas of focus when he worked in emergency medical services, and now one of his focuses in policy, is how seniors are treated in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities.
“My grandparents were very influential in my development, because those who know me know that my childhood was a little rough with my parents because of drugs and alcohol… My grandparents were really the rock of the family, and so I became very interested working on an ambulance [in] how we treat seniors. And that was my first policy focus: How do you make assisted living and skilled nursing better?”
Making large-scale changes for senior medical care was a challenging process. However, in 2013, when his grandmother, Hazel, died at an assisted living facility “due to negligence and neglect,” he returned to the issue with renewed vigor. He created the group, Hazel’s Army, and teamed up with advocates and politicians to change state-wide policy. In 2014, they passed “the most comprehensive assisted living reform in generations in California.”
Furthermore, due to what he saw and personally experienced with his parents’ use of drugs and alcohol, Aaron is also passionate about preventing substance abuse. At 11 years old, he chose to stay away from drugs and alcohol, which was a decision that he mentored his younger brother in, as well.
The very first event he attended when he worked for Senator Morrow was the 10th anniversary of the North Coastal Prevention Coalition, a group that works on drug and alcohol prevention for youth. Aaron joined them in their efforts to create an environment where kids are not inundated with pro-drug and pro-alcohol messaging. He has been on the board for 18 years and has been the president for 8 of those 18 years.
The Journey To Tri-City Medical Center
After Aaron left the political sphere, he worked for UC San Diego Health as their head of government and community affairs. In 2017, a week after he was laid off from the position, he received a call from a friend who worked at UC San Diego Health. She asked where he wanted to work if he could get back to working in hospitals.
“I said, ‘Tri-City.’ It's the hospital I was born at. I delivered patients to the emergency department every day for many years. I [know] the place like the back of my hand and it's where I live. I live in Vista. I grew up in Carlsbad, Oceanside, and now I live in Vista… I thought, ‘What could be more important than serving the community hospital that is serving your community and really getting involved?’”
A year later, a position opened at Tri-City Medical. Aaron got the job and he hit the ground running. Then, just a few years later, COVID hit. Although no one was prepared for a pandemic, the staff at Tri-City Medical have a lot of experience, which allowed them to rally together and make things happen, despite being a smaller community hospital and having limited resources.
It was difficult for the staff, who worked 16-17 hours, seven days a week, and was made even more difficult due to financial pressure. When the state shut down elective surgeries, which are what most surgeries are, revenue dried up. Furthermore, Aaron explained that hospitals receive payment by a case rate. The case rate has a breakeven point for how long a patient stays in the hospital. Any time beyond that breakeven point causes the hospital to lose money. For COVID patients, the breakeven point might be three or four days, but the average stay was 12-15 days. Even with federal relief, the hospital did not receive enough to cover the expenses they incurred due to COVID.
In response to the financial strain, the entire executive staff quietly took a 50% pay cut. This sacrifice speaks not only to the leadership at Tri-City Medical, but to their heart for their staff and their community, as well.
However, finances were not the only obstacle during COVID. It was also more difficult to serve the community’s health needs, because patients would often not come into the hospital for treatment.
“Many people are staying away from the hospital, even if they're people that truly need it… Heart attack patients just trying to ride it out. Stroke patients trying to ride it out… Initially there wasn't a massive influx of COVID patients… We had a little surge, so to speak, in July of 2020, and then when winter hit, it went through the roof. Every hospital in San Diego is dramatically impacted by it. At one point—at our highest point—we had a hundred COVID positive patients in the medical center in beds, which I think we only had 200 people in the hospital that day.”
When people stay away from the hospital and delay care, it compounds the problem and makes people sicker. There may be fewer patients, but they are sicker patients. However, things are looking up at Tri-City Medical, as two days before Bret’s interview with Aaron, the hospital had four COVID patients, and the next day they only had two, which means they are on their way to having zero COVID patients.
Furthermore, Tri-City Medical has a vaccination center at the hospital, which has provided over 30,000 doses. In order to better serve their community, they deployed vaccination response teams at California State San Marcos, and have launched a vaccination program for home-bound seniors in coastal North County.
The 60th Anniversary: Remembering The Past & Looking Ahead
Tri-City Medical Center is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary on July 12th. To celebrate, they are making significant investments into their staff and their facilities. They are renaming the towers, refreshing their brand with coastal colors, refurbishing a large portion of the ER, and hanging photographs from Aaron Chang throughout the hospital. They will be creating a history wall in the hospital, so that people can understand the story of how Tri-City Medical Center was originally established by the city council and business leaders, and also see the future vision for the hospital. Not only will refurbishing take place, but they are in the process of developing a psychiatric health facility on-campus with San Diego County. Alongside this, they are also rolling out their “Healthcare Heroes” poster campaign to celebrate their staff members at all levels. In Aaron’s words, the hospital will be filled with “pockets of awesome.”
They plan to hold various events this year for Carlsbad, including a Home Run Derby Fundraiser in August and the Diamond Ball on October 23rd, which will feature SEAL.
Connect with Aaron on LinkedIn.
Check out Tri-City Medical’s website.
Watch Tri-City’s Youtube Channel.
Follow Tri-City on Twitter.
Friend Tri-City on Facebook.
Find Tri-City on Instagram.
Did you like what you heard? This show is produced by Imagine Podcasting dba Heard Not Seen Media, Inc.