Doctor of change

Meet Claire Pomeroy, UC Davis Health System’s CEO, a one-time rebel who went from caring for patients to changing systems

As chief executive officer of the UC Davis Health System, the scope of Dr. Claire Pomeroy’s job includes acting as dean for the university’s school of medicine and overseeing a staff of nearly 12,000 employees.

As chief executive officer of the UC Davis Health System, the scope of Dr. Claire Pomeroy’s job includes acting as dean for the university’s school of medicine and overseeing a staff of nearly 12,000 employees.

Photo By louise mitchell

It’s barely two ticks past 7 a.m. on a drizzly October morning, but Dr. Claire Pomeroy is already in full swing, leading a breakfast meeting on the third floor of the Education building that’s tucked away in the heart of the UC Davis School of Medicine campus on a stretch of Stockton Boulevard located between East Sacramento and Oak Park.

Outside the window, it’s still dark and, as headlights loop through the streets below, Pomeroy meets with a group of junior faculty members who are part of the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health program.

Pomeroy stayed on campus until well past 9 p.m. the night before to give the opening remarks for a presentation, but this morning she’s bright-eyed, sipping a caffeine-free Diet Coke and nibbling a chocolate muffin.

On the agenda: A roundtable discussion during which selected members of the school’s junior faculty talk about their research, findings and projects.

When an attendee arrives, two minutes after the scheduled start time, Pomeroy acknowledges her with a nod but doesn’t stop the flow of conversation. There is, after all, a strict schedule to which to adhere—no time for stragglers, little room for chitchat, no straying from the plan.

This dedication to the clock is not particularly surprising—after all, Pomeroy is many things: chief executive officer of the UC Davis Health System, UC Davis vice chancellor for human health sciences and dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine.

It’s a big job with a scope of responsibilities that includes overseeing the school’s physician programs, as well as the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing and the MIND Institute, an international research hub for the study of neurodevelopmental disorders. Every day, Pomeroy, who earns $664,275 annually, directs a staff of 11,675 with 1,173 of those being faculty and academic employees.

Still, it’s admirable—awe-inspiring, actually—how the 56-year-old New York native with silvery blond hair and a wide, toothy smile, remains precisely on schedule as the sun rises over the Stockton Boulevard campus.

And it’s just one telling element of Pomeroy’s style—a minor yet important detail that provides a glimpse into the career trajectory of a woman who ran away from home when she was 14; put herself through medical school in the ’70s, fought to open an HIV/AIDS clinic in Michigan in the ’80s and, more recently in her time at UC Davis, has pushed, among other causes and projects, cancer treatments, stem-cell research and telemedicine.

Colleagues see her as a voice and advocate; her husband calls her a champion for the underdog, a one-time rebel (“she was a real ass-biter”) who, over the years has matured into a natural leader. Pomeroy simply thinks of herself as a means to an end—the person who helps others get things done.

Today, the culmination of Pomeroy’s experiences and the melding of those perceptions is a subtle but significant force as she guides the discussion, which covers, among other topics, information on the effects of gender on HIV infection and treatments and the relationship between obesity in women and domestic violence.

At five minutes to 8 a.m., Pomeroy finally reaches the last person at the table and asks for details on her recent studies.

“Is there even time for me to talk?” the young researcher asks, glancing at the clock.

“Yes, we’re good,” Pomeroy assures her. “Go ahead, take your time.”

But time here is relative; Pomeroy lets the woman speak for a handful of minutes before speaking up during a nanosecond pause for breath.

“Thank you so much,” Pomeroy says, signaling the meeting’s adjournment. “Next time we’ll start with you, because I want to learn more about your actual findings.”

It’s exactly 8 a.m.—the scheduled closing point.

Time for the next item on the calendar, time to move on, no time to linger.

Pomeroy, pictured here in 1983 when she worked as the chief resident at the University of Minnesota, says that role instilled in her an affinity for hands-on administrative work.

photo courtesy of dr. claire pomeroy

Two paths, one journey

Claire Pomeroy always wanted to be a doctor, mesmerized by on-screen, fictional images of kind and helpful practitioners such as Dr. Kildare and motivated by the thought of nurturing someone through injury and disease.

“I felt there was something special about the role of doctors and the way society places trust in them,” she says. “People go to doctors and tell them personal things about their life, the things they’re feeling and the things we hold dearest to ourselves.”

She still remembers the first time she sat bedside with a patient. Enrolled in a new, experimental six-year medical-school program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Pomeroy was only 18 when she received an assignment to walk through a hospital ward. The purpose was to allow students to witness the social and emotional aspects of disease, to understand how a patient lives with pain and illness.

“The first person I talked to was this young man with diabetes—he’d gone blind and was in early renal failure—he wasn’t very older than me, just in his mid-20s,” Pomeroy says. “He fantasized about being able to eat what he wanted, about not being blind, about not being on dialysis—all those things I took for granted.”

Pomeroy found the experience humbling.

“I was honored that [this patient] would take the time to talk to me, that they were so open and trusting,” she says. “I felt such a sense of gratitude … and a sense of privilege to be a part of this profession. It was very powerful.”

Years later, Pomeroy doesn’t treat patients anymore. An average day goes like this: Awake shortly after 5 a.m., in the office by 6 a.m. and, if she’s lucky, home before 9 p.m. The hours in between follow a rigidly scheduled calendar of events that is, largely, overseen by a cadre of assistants.

“I just go where they tell me to go,” Pomeroy says with a laugh.

Well, yes and no.

While Pomeroy may rely heavily on the direction and organization of others, she got here solely on her own volition.

In 2003 she was appointed executive associate dean of the School of Medicine. Pomeroy, who was promoted to the roles of dean and vice chancellor in 2005, relocated here from University of Kentucky, Lexington, where as a faculty member, she still carried a full patient load.

In deciding to move, Pomeroy knew she was making a major choice: It’d be too difficult to take on this new position and still treat patients, let alone have that one-on-one time with them.

And so Pomeroy became an administrator, trading in a white lab coat and comfortable walking shoes for a suit and heels.

The decision didn’t come easy, she says, but perhaps it was inevitable—a choice set in motion decades ago while, still in her internal-medicine residency at the University of Minnesota in Twin Cities, she was appointed to serve as chief resident—a position that links young resident doctors with faculty. There, she oversaw other residents and also acted as a mentor.

The experience, which took her partly out of daily practice and into administration duties, Pomeroy says, was eye-opening. The ability to care and heal and nurture, she realized, came in many different forms, with different levels of power.

“It was the start of my belief that you could have a really important impact by looking at how you could arrange the building blocks in a system,” she says.

“I love one-on-one patient care, but I also love changing systems—and maybe improving the system in a way that could impact everyone.”

Although it would be years before she left patient care, the next two decades followed this dual path as Pomeroy honed in on both a specialty in infectious disease and a desire to create some semblance of order amid all the cases of injustice and inequity she witnessed daily—a chance to find calm amid the chaos that once defined her life, the opportunity to work as an insider, instead of the outsider she felt like.

The oldest of five children, Pomeroy says her upbringing was tumultuous and often physically abusive. She ran away from home at 14 and lived with four foster families before becoming an emancipated adult at 17.

photos courtesy of dr. claire pomeroy

On the outside, looking in

It’s a bright, brisk afternoon outside of Macy’s at the Downtown Plaza, and Claire Pomeroy is already digging into chunks of the salted caramel chocolate cake that, for some reason, shows up on the table long before lunch is ever served.

“I’m cheating,” she says, going in for another bite. “I think everyone should do the same.”

Not that there’s much time to devote to the dessert; every other minute Pomeroy leaps from her seat to greet a friend or colleague. There’s a representative from the United Way, the host of today’s charity luncheon, who comes by to squeeze Pomeroy’s hand and thank her for her time. There’s Assemblyman Dr. Richard Pan, currently on leave from UC Davis, who stops by to give Pomeroy a hug. Later, a woman Pomeroy met, many charity luncheons ago, comes by to chat.

But today’s event isn’t social. Pomeroy is here to speak about her support for the Guardian Scholars Program, a national organization that provides resources and funds to college students who’ve aged out of the foster system.

Pomeroy is a passionate advocate for the program and the way it helps former foster kids navigate the system with a better set of tools than she ever had.

The idea is to create a network, Pomeroy says, because family is what you make it, not where you came from.

A young woman takes the podium and talks about her experiences—first as an abused child and, later, struggling through a system that often left her feeling isolated.

Pomeroy listens intently and then when it’s time, takes her place behind the microphone.

“I was lucky, but it wasn’t easy,” she tells the crowd. “And it often wasn’t fair, [but] I had the opportunity to pursue my dreams.”

Pomeroy grew up the oldest daughter to a geophysicist professor father and a stay-at-home mother who leaned on a teenage Claire to care for her four younger siblings—two sisters and two brothers. Eventually, her mother went back to school to become a nursery-school teacher but, mostly, Pomeroy remembers her as a woman “overwhelmed” by duty and unable to stand up to a husband who relied on violence to make a point.

So, Pomeroy was only 14 years old when she fled her parents’ Ann Arbor home in the middle of the night. She and her father were arguing again, and she remembers the fight got ugly as he dragged her up the stairs.

It wasn’t the first time one of their arguments turned physical, but it would be the last.

She didn’t pack a bag and she didn’t stop to figure out a plan. Instead, she ended up at a house belonging to a friend of a friend. She stayed a few nights before seeking help at a teen-counseling center. There, workers placed her in the foster-care system.

Pomeroy’s first home was an emergency placement; Pomeroy remembers the family as nice but the situation overwhelming.

“I couldn’t trust them, I couldn’t do anything—I withdrew,” Pomeroy explains later that afternoon on the drive back to campus. Pomeroy’s schedule requires her to return by 2 p.m.; she’ll make it with just minutes to spare.

“And then, just when I did think I could trust them a little,” she says, navigating her Toyota Prius through Midtown, “it was over. It was time for me to go.”

And so the cycle continued; Pomeroy lived with four families in all. The last one, she says, felt like the closest thing to a real home. She’d been working at City Hall when a co-worker befriended her. The woman, along with her husband, became foster parents just to give the teenager a home.

But, eventually, the couple needed to move out of state for a job, and Pomeroy was alone again.

“They were good people,” she says now. “But it was time to move on.”

She was 17 and just starting her senior year in high school, and so she placed out of the foster-care system, moving into an apartment with her boyfriend. For the next year she balanced school—taking three buses from home to class and back again, daily—with a part-time job.

It was, she says, a time when she felt vulnerable.

“There were a lot of things I didn’t know—I didn’t know how you pay electricity bills and cook for yourself and do laundry,” she says. “But you just do what you have to do to make it through.”

The entire situation—from foster care to becoming emancipated—instilled in Pomeroy a sense of exile.

“I was fortunate to have high-school teachers and counselors who advised me and supported me … [but] I applied to college on my own, I went off to my college on my own—it was lonely,” she says.

“Most kids know when something goes wrong, they can go home and someone will take care of them,” she says. “They can always go home to their parents’ spare bedroom, and there’s not this [fear] that when the money runs out there’s no food.”

There were plenty of times during college when, Pomeroy says, she didn’t have enough money for food or other necessities. There were plenty of times when, she believed she had no one.

Once, a college roommate invited her home for Christmas. The family was friendly, warm even, but still, she felt out of place.

“I was an outsider,” she says.

Now, it’s been more than 40 years since Pomeroy left home, in the decades since she’s had no contact with her family. Not her parents, not even her siblings.

“It’s too hard,” she says, her voice quiet. Leaving her two brothers and sisters behind, she says, was especially difficult.

“I do harbor some guilt around that, but if I’d stayed, I wouldn’t have survived, and I wouldn’t have done them any good.”

Today, Pomeroy says, she tries to hold onto those memories—however painful.

“I don’t want that feeling to go away completely, because I always want to have empathy for people who are treated as an outsider or marginalized. I never want to lose that insight,” she says.

“I think people who have overcome adversity, it gives them insights other people don’t have. I view it as something to build on, something that can guide me, something that inspires me to makes changes.”

Pomeroy, pictured here with Assemblyman Dr. Richard Pan, says the overall health of a community is defined not just by medical conditions but also socio-economic status, preventative measures and access to healthy resources and transportation.

Photo By louise mitchell

The mind-body connection

Those childhood and adolescent experiences are an integral part of what’s shaped what Pomeroy sees as her core values of seeking social justice for society’s most vulnerable.

She fought for those core values as a young doctor when, with a fellowship from the University of Michigan, she helped launch a clinic at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center to treat patients with HIV/AIDS.

It was the mid-’80s, and the disease still came with a terrible stigma, Pomeroy remembers. Even doctors and nurses were afraid of coming in contact with infected patients.

“I was part of the first wave of doctors who grew up with the AIDS epidemic—my mentors didn’t have that,” she remembers. “They were used to infectious diseases that were either acute illnesses for which you gave antibiotics and [the patient] got better, or you died.”

At the clinic, Pomeroy says she saw patients neglected by the system, by society, by their own family members.

“Workers didn’t even want to take lunch trays into the rooms—they thought they’d catch the disease just by being in the same room with [the patient],” she says. “I had to go out and find a special group of people willing and passionate about sharing the same vision I had.”

This neglect, she says, pushed her to fight for better care and treatment—an endeavor that redefined her role as doctor.

“The quest for health is a mind-body connection; back then, there were no HIV, drugs so what we could give was caring [and] pain relief.”

They could give, also, a sense of family and community that, in the case of a terminal disease, often went far beyond the hospital.

Pomeroy went to a lot of funerals during that time.

“Sometimes we were the only people they had at those funerals, and that was really important for them to know, that someone would be there for them,” she says.

Pomeroy remembers one patient in particular, a young man close to death.

All he wanted, she says, was the chance to take a bath.

“He told me, ‘I just want to feel clean’ … but [some of the] the nurses didn’t want him to take a bath, for fear it would contaminate the tub,” she says. “But he was too weak to take a shower, so I went in and wrote an order for a bath.”

It was just a small moment, but, Pomeroy says, when he died a few days later, it affirmed the importance of the clinic.

This ethos also underscores her guiding philosophy, says Pomeroy, who currently sits on a committee for the Center for AIDS Research, Education & Services in Sacramento.

“The health of a community is only defined, 10-15 percent, by the health care we deliver,” she says. “The strongest indicator of [a person’s] health is socioeconomic status.”

Health care is so much more than pills and surgeries and treatments, Pomeroy says. It is preventative measures and access to healthy resources and transportation. It is, sometimes, just as simple as having the means to get to a pharmacist and money to pay for the prescription.

“If people don’t have access to a healthy environment, to healthy foods, then they don’t have a stable environment, and their outcome isn’t as good,” Pomeroy says.

So even as Pomeroy puts her weight behind high-profile causes such as stem-cell and cancer research, she says she’s equally devoted to programs such as Rural-PRIME, a training program that places physicians in smaller, underserved communities, such as a small mountain town surrounding Lake Tahoe.

It’s tough enough being the only doctor for 100 miles, Pomeroy says. Factor in an emergency situation, and the job can become overwhelming. Rural-PRIME links student doctors with professors via online classes and support.

“We want to prepare future doctors to have those skills to work in these communities,” she says. “[With Rural-PRIME] it means you can get lectures delivered over the computer or call back to a specialist and learn the clinical care you need.”

Pomeroy is excited as she talks about the program—“I’m so proud of it”—but then again, she’s excited when any one of a number of subjects is brought up, including a conversation on the school’s student-run clinics, building new facilities for students and news that the TV show 60 Minutes is visiting the campus to shoot a segment on collaborative research conducted by faculty from the UC Davis School of Medicine and School of Veterinary Medicine, detailing health effects of consuming high-fructose corn syrup.

And will Pomeroy be interviewed for the show?

“Oh, no,” she says quickly. “They’ll talk to the people who’ve done all the work.”

Even as Pomeroy deflects attention from herself, the reality is, of course, that it’s her job to push, advocate and find resources.

Frederick Meyers, M.D., executive associate dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, says Pomeroy’s contributions are key part of the school’s success.

“She’s been a voice … talking about the good things that happen to the UC Davis Medical Center,” Meyers says. “She’s engendered an enormous amount of support.”

It’s not all talk. During her time at the school, Pomeroy’s brought big dollar investments to the school’s research, programs and services.

Several years ago for example, Meyers says, Pomeroy called on her staff to lobby for more research dollars.

“We were at $40 million. We were trying to get to $50 million, and she told us we needed to be at $150 million,” Meyers says. “We thought it was [an unreachable] number, but not only did we get to $150 million, we’re now at $201 million.”

The result, he adds, is “high-impact research.”

“We’re not just getting research dollars from the National Institutes of Health, we’re doing research that [goes] the distance in community-based health, cancer research, the mind.”

Thomas Nesbitt, associate vice chancellor for strategic technologies and alliances, says that during her tenure at UC Davis, Pomeroy’s had a substantial impact on the school’s growth.

In addition to securing big money to fund a new nursing program, Nesbitt says she was also instrumental in securing UC Davis as one of the country’s first 12 institutions to receive a prestigious Clinical and Translational Science Award in 2006.

“If you look at [the other schools that got the award], they’re all major,” Nesbitt says. “They’re all the names you would expect: Hopkins University, Harvard [University]. She said we can be one of those first 12.”

Last month, the school announced a new partnership with BGI, a Chinese research firm. The deal will bring a 10,000-square-foot DNA sequencing facility designed for genomic studies on human, animal and environmental health to the campus, as well as numerous jobs and, likely, global renown.

And, even as Pomeroy brings money and recognition to the campus, she also brings vitality.

“She’s energetic … but it’s not a free-flowing energy; it’s very focused,” Meyers says.

And, he adds, it’s personal.

“Her energy is focused on people who are underserved and underrepresented,” he says. “She cares about people who don’t have a chance.”

Hippie, rebel, mentor

With her brisk efficiency and that near-religious devotion to schedule, Pomeroy sometimes exudes a demeanor that’s more business than doctor. Indeed, Pomeroy earned an MBA from the University of Kentucky, Lexington in 2001, but in that day-to-day schedule—amid the breakfasts, lunches, dinner, presentations and endless meetings, she still sees the infirm, talks to families and listens to stories.

At a recent presentation on stem-cell research, Pomeroy’s job is to deliver opening remarks before turning the stage over to her colleagues. She’s there, however, long before the event starts, moving through the rows of seats to talk with visitors. Nearby there are numerous display tables that trumpet recent findings and outside, two miniature ponies and a dog—recipients of experimental stem-cell treatments—command attention. But, even as Pomeroy jokes that she “can’t compete with the ponies,” she’s clearly in her element, talking to patients and family members who reach out to grasp her hand and greet her by name.

The next morning, she’s still thinking about a conversation she had with a man who told her he’d watched his father die from Huntington’s disease. Years after the father’s death, he’d said, his sister was diagnosed with the same affliction.

“He told me about his whole family, what it meant that someone is working on finding a cure,” Pomeroy says.

“That motivates you—and I mean, me, all of us—in a really powerful way.”

These stories, she adds, reminds her how important it is to balance both sides of the job.

“It gives you a sense of urgency. This isn’t an intellectual mission. This is people’s lives.”

Over the years Bill Robertson has watched Pomeroy act on that sense of urgency even as she developed and refined her leadership style. The pair met in the ’80s, and Robertson remembers his then-girlfriend as a passionate young doctor—one filled with “righteous indignation.”

Robertson’s cousin, a doctor who worked with Pomeroy, fixed them up on a blind date.

“She’s an old hippie, you’ll really love her,” the cousin told him.

Indeed, Robertson, a filmmaker and author, found himself immediately taken with Pomeroy, and despite what he describes as a night filled with “miscues and confusion” (his ATM card wouldn’t work, so Pomeroy had to pull money from her account; his car was coughing up gas fumes, so they drove her Honda CRX instead), she liked him, too.

The couple married in 1990, and over the years, Robertson says, he’s watched Pomeroy grow—personally and professionally. When they first met, Pomeroy was trying to set up the HIV clinic—a process rife with politics. It was a time, he says, when he’d listen to his future wife on the phone, arguing with hospital staff or pleading with a patient’s family member.

“I heard her calling up mothers, telling them, ‘Your son is dying. He wants to see you.’”

Her methods, he adds, often annoyed other faculty.

“There were [colleagues] who were reluctant to take up the mantle with her … she was bucking the system,” Robertson says.

“She was a rebel who’d shake up the status quo and piss off the older, senior doctors, [but] she had this clarity of vision about what was right and she was always working on that from the outside.”

These days, Pomeroy may have softened some of those edges but colleagues say she’s as dogged and fervent as ever, with a bright, charismatic nature that draws in supporters and builds up faculty and staff.

Nesbitt, who works closely with Pomeroy on the school of medicine’s rural health and teleheath programs, says her approach is collaborative and open.

“She’s positive and fair and ethical,” Nesbitt says. “She doesn’t just say you have to do it my way, she listens well and she supports people’s ideas. … She wants to hear what people want to do [and] is supportive in mentoring them in the best way to get there.”

Pomeroy says she values her role as a mentor.

“When I was at [the junior-faculty] stage, it was sink or swim and figure out the rules,” Pomeroy says. “I don’t see a need for that. Why not give people advice, support and opportunities?”

Work and other adventures

It’s been two weeks since Claire Pomeroy has had the luxury of enjoying a dinner at home. Tonight, she says happily, the evening is free, and her husband has promised to cook.

It’ll be nice, she says, but she’s a little concerned about Rufus, a 3-year-old border collie/golden retriever mix the couple adopted in February.

“You kind of hope the dog doesn’t forget your face,” she says, perhaps only half-joking.

It’s a rare occasion, but when Pomeroy is off the clock, she enjoys walking Rufus through the streets near her Midtown home. Twice a year she and her husband go on vacation—one trip is dedicated to relaxing (“someplace warm and beachy”), while the other is an adventure that, more often than not, gives Pomeroy insight into her everyday endeavors. A vacation to Bali during a rabies outbreak on the Indonesian island, for example, got her thinking about health care back in the states.

“Just think about all the systems that went into our public-health system,” she says. “I look at what’s happening to that infrastructure—it’s just being dismantled with the explanation that there needs to be budget cuts. It’s amazing what we take for granted.”

It’s difficult not to let the conversation veer toward the political, but in the capacity of her job, Pomeroy must walk the neutral line. Still, her goals are clearly defined: Provide health care and find answers.

“We have an obligation to advocate for changes in the health-care system, and the facts are that we have disparities in this country,” she says. “The facts are that we spend more money on health care and have worse outcomes than anyone else.”

It’s troubling, but Claire Pomeroy brims with optimism.

“That’s what’s great about a place like [UC Davis],” she says, her arms sweeping out to indicate the entirety of the campus around her. “My job is just to listen to the brain power and to actualize the ideas that they have.”