'Through good times and hard times': During the chaotic COVID era, and for years before that, Christy Brinkman has shown 'excellent leadership' at Essentia Health Oak Crossing
“There are so many things that Christy does every day that exude excellent leadership,” says Tonya Clem of Essentia Health St. Mary's. “She starts each day with her incredible work ethic and tirelessly works to ensure that all of the people she serves are well taken care of.”
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Christy Brinkman was raised to have a good work ethic, and it's a good thing she did. These days, she really needs it.
Brinkman is the Operations Administrator of Essentia Health's Oak Crossing long-term care center in Detroit Lakes, and is also part of the COVID-19 response team for all six of Essentia’s nursing homes. That’s kept her very busy lately.
“Christy is an extremely talented health care executive and is committed to high-quality care for our patients and residents,” says Tanner Goodrich, senior vice president of operations at Essentia Health St. Mary’s. “She has been successful in developing relationships within Essentia, as well as externally, and has been able to leverage those relationships to improve our organization. She works extremely hard. Her skill set, communication style and approach to leadership command the respect of Essentia’s senior leaders, her peers and those that report directly to her.”
Brinkman, 44, credits her talents to the lessons she learned in childhood, growing up on a dairy farm near Wadena.
“I learned the strong work ethic from my parents — daily chores, haying, summer field work,” she says.
Her parents are officially retired, but her 81-year-old dad is still involved in crop farming, and her grandpa worked on the farm until he was 95. She has always set a high bar for herself.
“In high school I was named, ‘Most likely to become a principal,’” she says with a laugh. “So it’s probably not a surprise I’m doing what I’m doing."
Her job involves “balancing the priorities of families, residents and teams providing the care.”
Brinkman is focused, efficient and driven by a strong desire to do right by residents and staff at Oak Crossing, says Tonya Clem, residency manager at Essentia Health St. Mary’s.
“There are so many things that Christy does every day that exude excellent leadership,” Clem says. “She starts each day with her incredible work ethic and tirelessly works to ensure that all of the people she serves are well taken care of.”
Brinkman, who was born Christy Bendix, married Bob Brinkman in 2004. He is a regional supervisor for Strata Corp. Their son, Ryan, is a freshman at Detroit Lakes High School and is "big into football and basketball and band," according to Brinkman. Their daughter, Emma, is a fifth-grader at Rossman Elementary School.
Brinkman herself is a graduate of Wadena-Deer Creek High School. She discovered her fondness and compassion for older people as a youth volunteer at a local nursing home.
“It was just visiting with local residents and playing the piano for them,” she recalls of that experience. She played everything from Christmas carols to church hymns, sticking purely to the instrumentals: “I’m not a singer,” she laughs.
Later on, while earning her bachelor’s degree in health care administration at Concordia College in Moorhead, she worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home.
“That sparked my passion to go into long-term care administration — the positive difference you can make, not only on staff but on residents on a day-to-day basis, to improve their quality of life," she says.
When she first came to St. Mary's Hospital in Detroit Lakes, it was as a college intern. Then, after graduating from Concordia, she moved to Detroit Lakes in 1999 and was hired as administrator of the Winchester apartments on Washington Avenue, an independent-living unit owned by Essentia Health.
During that time, she was deeply involved in the construction of Lincoln Park, a 60-unit complex on the Essentia campus that opened in 2001; it offers both independent and assisted living. She was in charge of the construction process, working closely with the general contractor and St. Mary’s maintenance staff.
“You learn a lot,” overseeing a major project like that, she says.
In 2004, she became administrator of Oak Crossing, then called St. Mary’s Nursing Center.
“Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of different programs and services at the hospital and clinic, and home care, as well,” she says.
Oak Crossing underwent major renovations in 2008, and Brinkman served as construction manager of the project. She recalls that, “The neighborhood concept was a big part of that, making the environment as much like home as possible, and less hospital-like.”
Clem says Brinkman leads her teams “through good times and hard times" and calls her "a hands-on leader who is not afraid to do anything she is asking of any staff member that works for her.”
Over the years, Brinkman has been recognized for her work with a number of awards. In 2019, she and her leadership team were honored by the American College of Health Care Administrators' Eli Pick Facility Leadership Award. And in 2014, Brinkman won the Kal Michaels Outstanding Leadership Award from Aging Services of Minnesota.
But she is most proud of the high ratings that Oak Crossing has received in U.S. News & World Report's annual national rankings of nursing homes. Most recently, in 2020-2021, Oak Crossing was again named a Best Nursing Home — ranking highly in both long-term care and short-term rehab metrics. Oak Crossing was one of only 708 nursing homes in the nation that received this highest-level designation for both types of care.
When full, Oak Crossing has 94 residents and 225 full- and part-time employees.
Brinkman is also proud of the consistent five-star rating that Oak Crossing has received for the past several years from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
She has compassion for people, “and is able to understand and relate to each person she interacts with, right where they are at,” Clem says. “She is able to see the fine details in the whole picture, and uses her collaboration skills to put those pieces together to provide care like nowhere else in our community.”
When it comes to community service, Brinkman has served as president of the local Women of Today organization, as a member of the local United Way board of directors and with Minnesota Health and Housing Alliance.
"In recent years, my efforts have been given to LeadingAge Minnesota,” she says, “in terms of helping to shape public policy and the long-term care industry’s efforts to improve safety and quality.”
She has also been involved with Concordia College, helping to train future nursing home administrators and serving as a mentor for students.
“It’s a wonderful experience to be able to contribute to the growth of future health care leaders,” she says. “I’m also looking forward to re-energizing with community organizations again (after the pandemic). We have such strong community organizations here, it’s phenomenal.”
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the shortage of personal protective equipment like masks and gowns created some fear of working in health care, she says: "Now, we have ample PPE."
Still, “COVID has brought out a lot of staffing challenges in long-term care in Minnesota, Detroit Lakes included, for local facilities."
At the time of this writing in mid-November, more than half of Oak Crossing workers were students in college and high school scholarship programs.
“Professionally, COVID has made things very busy for me for the past year and a half,” she says.
When things slow down, she plans to work on her Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives certification, a professional goal she hopes to complete in the next two years.
As she advances through the ranks, there is one thing Brinkman never forgets: “I love working with people going through the aging process."
Her colleague, Goodrich, says she's also serious about aligning her actions with the mission, vision and values of Essentia Health.
“Christy is a patient-resident advocate,” he says. “She is able to center her decision-making around what is best for patient care.”
In meetings and one-on-one discussions with others at Essentia, Goodrich says Brinkman, “often ties our accountabilities back to Essentia Health’s value system. It’s critical for successful leaders to be aligned with the organization, and Christy embodies the values of our health system as much as any leader I’ve encountered in my time with Essentia.”