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VIProfile: Chris Thorn

Story by Emily Robertson

If you walk into Graves Gilbert Clinic at 201 Park Street on any given day of the week, you are likely to be greeted by Chris Thorn. He may be wearing a suit and a Graves Gilbert baseball hat, and even though he will be wearing a mask, it can’t hide the smile he has as he greets patients coming into the building. As CEO of Graves Gilbert, Thorn loves to walk the halls of the clinic as it fills with hundreds of people each day and see just a small snapshot of the one million people that receive care from Graves Gilbert each year. “This clinic is built on family,” Thorn says. “That transcends what we do here.”

Thorn, who has served as CEO of Graves Gilbert since 2007, grew up in Boston and loves the beaches and history of the northeast. He graduated from Boston University where he played football and wrestled, even trying out for the 1976 Olympics in wrestling. After college, he married his wife, Deborah, his high school sweetheart.

“Our first date was my senior high school prom,” Thorn says. “She was younger than me and was captain of the gymnastics team and I was captain of the wrestling team. We would always run into each other. I asked her to the prom and her response was ‘Well, I could do worse.’ I’ve spent the last 45 years proving to her she made a good choice.”

After their wedding, the Thorns moved to Connecticut for job opportunities. After many years with a Big 8 CPA firm and doing merges and acquisitions for a company in Europe, Thorn had a new opportunity in a small town. “A company contacted me and said they needed help and wanted to hire me to help fix the company. Part of the package included paying for my master’s degree,” Thorn says. “It was a little town in northwestern Massachusetts with one traffic light. But while I was there, I literally fell in love with small town America.”

When Thorn graduated Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with his MBA, for the first time, he realized he wanted to work in healthcare. “My graduate school program changed the trajectory of my life,” Thorn says. “I was in an executive MBA program, so everyone in the program had accomplished certain things in their lives, and half the class was in healthcare.

At that point, I saw how healthcare workers were genuinely good people. I realized they needed someone to watch their back and that’s the role I wanted. Working with doctors is extremely rewarding. Being a physician is still the most noble profession.”

After his master’s program, Thorn and his wife moved to Baltimore so she could attend school for a Doctorate of Pharmacy. By this time, the couple had two children, one boy and one girl. It was while living in Baltimore, a recruiter called Thorn for a potential job at Lexington Clinic in Kentucky.

“I flew out to Lexington and it was beautiful,” Thorn says. “We ended up living in Lexington for seven years. I worked with Lexington Clinic for two years helping to fix their financial foundation. The work was extremely difficult, yet equally rewarding. After Lexington Clinic, I worked with a small hospital in eastern Kentucky. It was during this period I realized the important impact good physicians have on a hospital and a community. In 2007, we moved to Bowling Green to work for Graves Gilbert Clinic.”

Thorn quickly fell in love with his new hometown and his only regret was that he hadn’t found it sooner. “Bowling Green and Warren County are truly wonderful places to live, work and raise a family,” Thorn says. “I am concerned that people who have lived here a long time might take its bounty for granted. I believe the secret to our community’s success is the ability to work together for the greater good. As a Chamber Board member and past chair, I have seen countless situation where individuals and organizations have come together for the betterment of the community and its people. This creates an environment where both industries and citizens want to be. You see this in the growth and development that happens. If I could turn back time and move here sooner, I would.”

Thorn understands the significant impact great physicians have on their communities and hospitals. “Good healthcare begins and ends with compassionate, quality physicians,” Thorn says. He sees his primary roles as a physician recruiter for Graves Gilbert Clinic and the community. He speaks with doctors from all over the country and even the world. Thorn’s goal is to provide the very best healthcare that this region deserves and expects.

“When I first got here, I was shocked at how much healthcare was leaving this community to either the north or the south,” Thorn says. “Now, we can pretty much provide everything needed here. We now have the different specialties our community needs. I recently had a physician candidate come down to visit Bowling Green and she was shocked! Bowling Green was so much more than what she expected. I told her she hadn’t even scratched the surface.”

Graves Gilbert Clinic has tripled in size in just the last six years. Thorn takes extremely seriously the role the clinic plays in the community, as well as the responsibility he has for his employees. “The growth we’ve seen demands a significant amount of time from everyone,” Thorn says. “We have a great team, and we are able to do things that no one thought possible. When we first hit 1,000 employees, it got a bit harder to sleep at night. I realized that with our employees’ family members there are around 3,200 people who depend on us and never was that more apparent than during COVID.”

The pandemic was a trying time for all of healthcare, and Thorn says that the emotional stress has taken a toll on employees. The clinic had to evolve and pivot as employees were stretched in many different directions from patients being severely ill to trouble with employees’ childcare. “We had to do a lot more from home,” Thorn says. “Telemedicine and telework were things we had talked about for years, but then the pandemic hit and we had to make it happen quickly. We’ve evolved and become better through it, but it was difficult.”

Throughout the pandemic, the clinic never cut back on recruiting, and Thorn believes that has helped to continue to provide the best care possible to the region. “It takes about two new doctors coming out of school to replace one doctor who is retiring,” Thorn says. “People want more work/life balance and we understand that. We are built on family. And, I tell doctors all the time, ‘Come here, have a great practice and retire, but I want your kids to want to come back here and practice medicine.’ So, that is the long-term goal.”

In 2021, Thorn served as chairman of the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce, a role he was proud do with the men and women of the chamber, as they brought more industry to the area. “The chamber is fantastic,” Thorn says. “They recruit businesses and I recruit doctors. We have a similar mission. Theirs is brick and mortar and mine is stethoscopes and passion. Sometimes getting a doctor to come here from California, New York or Bangladesh is a challenge, but once they get here, they are blown away.”

Graves Gilbert Clinic is celebrating 85 years of service to the community this year. The clinic, which has 200 providers and serves eight counties, has three core values: a patient promise of uncompromising quality care from physicians and staff; a community commitment to the people, culture and medical needs of the community; and a physician philosophy to be committed to being a multi-specialty group model that works as a team and supports one another. Thorn and his team work hard to ensure that each of these three core values is met. The clinic quickly donated $100,000 in the early days following the December storms and regularly invests in local initiatives that serve the community. Clinic investments in the community typically focus on children and families, including the Leader in Me program in local schools.

When Thorn is not spending 12-14 hours per day at the clinic and his wife is not busy working in the healthcare industry, they both enjoy spending time with family, including two grandchildren and spending time at their farm with their horses. Farm life is something that Thorn never predicted for himself. “I picked up horseback riding when I was approaching 50. Hard to imagine a kid from Boston living the ranch life,” Thorn says. “For the first few years, I was more adept at falling off than horseback riding, but I learned and discovered horses are wonderful. If you’ve had a tough day, you can go home, grab a curry brush and spend 15 minutes caring for a horse and suddenly the world is better.”

As Thorn begins to think about his future, one thing that he knows will continue is the idea of helping those around him. From his early days as a teenage lifeguard, to his time helping failing companies to his work in healthcare, it is the one thing that has remained constant. “My passion is helping people,” Thorn says. “Throughout all of this, I found my identity in that. I have a mission statement: I occupy nine square feet—three feet by three feet. I want to leave that space and areas around it better than when I found it. Helping people is what floats my boat. What better place to help people than Graves Gilbert Clinic?”

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