Dr. Ronald Grifka focused on studying organic chemistry after he was the last player cut from the University of Michigan hockey team. Courtesy Metro Health - University of Michigan Health
Dr. Ronald Grifka keeps every letter and gift he receives from his pediatric cardiology patients. He has a folder full of letters he’s received from patients over the years, and the wall in his office is covered with framed mementos.
Sometimes, looking through them just helps get him through a rough day, he said.
Perhaps the patients’ gratitude stems in part from Grifka’s idea that as medicine becomes more technical, it’s important to maintain relationships with patients.
“I think it's important for them to be comfortable with me. When you really get down to it, we're here for them; we're here to take care of the patients,” Grifka said.
“These poor kids, they don't deserve the illnesses they've gotten. They've done nothing to have these things bestowed upon them.”
So, he said it’s important to make sure they have the best experience possible, and sometimes, that goes beyond medical care.
“If it means staying a little later to blow bubbles with this kid and get a smile on their face, sometimes that may be the best thing to do for a kid today,” he said.
Even with his recent appointment as chief medical officer for Metro Health – University of Michigan Health, Grifka still sees patients during clinic hours on Thursdays, often the patients with more complicated issues.
Some of his patients have new complications, and some he works with for more than a decade. One of his patients has been driving from North Carolina for the past six years.
DR. RONALD GRIFKA
One patient needed operations immediately after he was born and again shortly after. The baby’s mother sent Grifka a quilt after her son graduated high school last year.
“He gave me a few of these gray hairs, I suspect,” Grifka said.
Grifka said he has been invited to many high school graduation parties over the years. A few of his patients’ families even call him directly when they have a question.
“You're not just treating the patient; you’re treating the whole family,” he said.
“They're trusting me with the most important resource they have in the world: their kids. And you can never really be prepared enough or be focused enough or give them enough time or attention to really earn their trust.”
Grifka was born in the Detroit area, one of six children. Neither of his parents attended college.
He said he thinks part of what inspired him to enter the medical field comes from witnessing the struggles his brother, who has Down syndrome, and their parents had to face.
Grifka was “supposed to be a hockey player” but was the last player cut from the University of Michigan's hockey team. So, when that didn’t work out, he focused his energy on studying organic chemistry, though he still plays hockey and runs as a hobby.
During undergrad, he noticed that professors were synthesizing antitumor compounds, not necessarily with the intent of treating cancer, but because they were able to win research grants. He preferred working with people over designing compounds, he said.
“I thought I'd like to dedicate myself to the care for people as opposed to care for compounds,” he said.
He understands research and education is important for the future of the medial industry, however. He has worked with residents and medical students since 1991.
He gives a talk to fellows each year, called “What These Gray Hairs Have Taught Me,” on experiences he has gained over the years in the field.
Grifka said one of the presentation’s slides tells the students: “Before you go home today, go back and check on your sickest two patients,” because they may discover something they can treat before it gets worse.
When he began practicing pediatric cardiology at Texas Children’s Hospital at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, he said it was the third best in the country. It’s since consistently been ranked at the very top by the U.S. News & World Report.
“They weren't comfortable being number three,” Grifka said. “After a few months and weeks and years, that kind of gets ingrained in you.”
He said he had an epiphany when his daughter tore her ACL and needed an operation. He said the lead surgeon for the Houston Oilers football team, who was set to complete the operation, was sharing stories of athletes he had worked with. But Grifka only cared about his daughter’s operation that day, and he knows his patients feel the same way.
“They don’t care that I’ve done 8,000 heart catheterizations or that I published 80 papers. They want me to do a really good job for their kid today,” Grifka said.
He has been helping young heart patients in the Grand Rapids area since 2006 when he became chief of cardiology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Grifka joined the University of Michigan as professor and attending cardiologist in 2012. He held roles there as director of the cardiology outreach program and director of the pulmonary hypertension program.
Since the affiliation with Metro Health about 2½ years ago, he was associate medical director for strategic planning and business development for the University of Michigan Health System, focused on West Michigan.
He said he spoke once to three times per day with Dr. Peter Hahn, who was Metro Health’s CMO, now the president and CEO. Grifka said he thinks both of them being physicians put Metro Health in a good position because they “both understand what patients need.”
“We really can't be evolutionary. In many ways, you have to be revolutionary,” Grifka said. “As people are changing, we need to change the way we administer medicine.”
Grifka said he tries to visit the emergency room and each floor about three times a week to get to know nurses, technicians, physicians and other workers. He said he’s happy when they feel comfortable enough to share ideas and issues with him as he is walking through.
“I think having a good working relationship is part of really being successful,” he said.
Grifka said he was drawn to Metro Health by the opportunity he sees to advance care and choice for patients.
He said there has been a “dramatic change” in the level of patient-centered care since what he saw with his brother during their childhood, and that’s something he likes to emphasize at Metro.
He said Metro was a great community hospital, but now, leadership is increasing secondary and tertiary level care from what was previously provided. That’s where the affiliation with the University of Michigan comes in, he said.
The health system has added several programs over the past couple years and plans to add more in the next couple of years.
Some of those riskier procedures require greater expertise, so doctors come from the University of Michigan to get those programs started, while Metro recruits new physicians to live in the community.
And, if Metro is dealing with a complicated case, doctors in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor can exchange ideas quickly, sometimes even while patients wait in the office.
It’s a “tremendous resource for the community,” he said.
Grifka said he thinks Metro could grow into a “mini-hub” for care in West Michigan. As much as the health system grows, though, he said it’s important to remember why.
“At the end of the day, all you have is your integrity,” Grifka said. “It may take you decades to build it, and you can lose it in a heartbeat, but you’ve got to make sure you never lose it.”