July 11, 2011

Long-time Vallejo physician leader leaves rich legacy

Dr. Paul Stange riding a tractor during construction of Vallejo Medical Center completed in 1973. Stange family photo.

Contributed by Tom Debley, Former Heritage Archives director

If Dr. Paul E. Stange had not attended medical school, he probably would have been a  football coach, said his son, Paul V. Stange, who works as a policy analyst for the Centers for Disease Control.

Instead of coaching, though, Dr. Stange served as the physician-in-chief (PIC) at Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center for 22 years, one of the longest-term PICs in Kaiser Permanente history. But, his son added, those two career paths were not far off. That’s basically what he became: a head coach. He was a great leader (to the doctors). Firm, but fair.”

Dr. Stange passed away earlier this year on April 28. He was 90 years old.

At his retirement in 1991, his portrait was displayed in the lobby of the original Vallejo Medical Center, which was replaced with a new facility in 2010. His portrait remains near his former office in the old facility, which still houses administrative offices.

“That looks like an intelligent man and a superb leader,” Dr. Donald Nix recalls saying when he first saw the portrait. Dr. Nix was Dr. Stange’s best friend, colleague and long-time golf buddy. “I think those are the qualities that best describe Paul,” he added recently.

Career starts in left-over World War II barracks

Dr. Nix said that although Dr. Stange was their boss, the Vallejo doctors loved him. His two executive secretaries dubbed him “Mr. Wonderful.” When Dr. Stange began his tenure as PIC in 1965, the Vallejo Medical Center was housed in barracks-type buildings originally constructed for the Mare Island Shipyard war workers. His son, Paul, described them as rickety, green-finished wood buildings that Kaiser Permanente took over from the government when they opened a makeshift medical center in Vallejo right after World War II. Dr. Stange served through the construction of the $12 million, seven-story medical center, which was dedicated in 1973.

After stepping down as PIC, Dr. Stange continued his medical practice until 1991. He continued to lend his medical expertise by returning to the facility to give follow-up readings of radiology reports and mammograms. Maribel Guerrero, the breast care coordinator for Kaiser Permanente’s Napa-Solano Service Area, writes in gratitude to Dr. Stange in a 2006 letter: “The Kaiser Permanente organization should be proud to have you in its midst. . . . My job as breast care coordinator would not have been possible without your gracious help.”

Dr. Stange with his fellow Kaiser Permanente associates circa 1950. From left to right: Wallace Neighbor, A. LaMonte Baritell, Morris Collen, Cecil Cutting, David Steinhardt, Paul Stange, and Joseph Sender.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1921, Dr. Stange attended the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine during the mid-1940s. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1947 to 1951. After initially failing to get a residency in obstetrics, he completed a residency in pathology in Washington, D.C.,  in 1950. Three years later, he finished a  residency in his preferred field, obstetrics, at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. Dr. Stange joined the Vallejo Medical Center’s  OB/GYN department later in 1953.

Dr. Stange also had an active community life. He served on the board of directors  for both the Vallejo Housing Authority and the Solano County Medical Society,  which honored him with a lifetime achievement award in 1997.

Stange inspires two generations  of medical professionals

Perhaps his greatest legacy to the medical community, though, is his family. Three of his daughters are registered nurses — Joan Pottenger, Gail Stange and Cynthia Stange-Zier.  Another daughter, Susan Stange, works in patient care in Santa Rosa, California.  And two of his grandsons are well on their way to becoming doctors; one of whom, Lucas Zier, recently received his medical  degree from the University of California, San Francisco, where he is in his third year of residency for Internal Medicine. Brent says that Lucas plans to complete a cardiology fellowship next to finish up his training.

Brent C. Pottenger, another of Dr. Stange’s grandsons, will attend the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the fall. He wrote the following essay about Paul E. Stange’s legacy, and how his grandfather influenced his decision to pursue a career in medicine.

Carrying on the tradition of physician leadership

By Brent C. Pottenger, MHA

From a hospital bed at Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center, where he served as  a physician and leader for five decades, my grandfather, Dr. Paul E. Stange,  first heard that I had been admitted to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, often ranked the top medical school in the nation.

“Number one!” he proudly exclaimed when my mom, his daughter Joan Pottenger, herself a registered nurse for over thirty years, shared the news.

Groundbreaking ceremony at Vallejo in 1970.

Upon hearing this story, I felt a responsibility to build upon his legacy of physician leadership; a legacy that, thankfully, my mom fostered in me by  connecting her own experiences as a health care leader with memorable stories about my grandfather’s career.

My grandfather passed away at 90 years old on April 28, 2011. I decided to write this memorial essay for him not only because he inspired me to pursue a career in medicine, but also because of his dedication to managing the quality and cost of health care as a physician  leader — a passion that ties in deeply with the legacy of Kaiser Permanente.

While I pursued a master of health administration degree at the University of Southern California, there was a primary question that drove my research: “Can  physicians manage the quality and costs of health care?” The question is derived from Dr. John G. Smillie’s book, “Can  Physicians Manage the Quality and Costs of Health Care: The Story of The  Permanente Medical Group,” which traces the history of Kaiser Permanente. (The book also features a photo of my grandfather with fellow physician executives of The Permanente Medical Group sitting around a table during the early 1950s.)

In many ways, my grandfather has shown that, yes, physicians can help manage the quality and costs of health care. Throughout his career as PIC, for example, he constantly balanced budget constraints with optimal medical care delivery to provide the most effective health care services to Kaiser (Permanente) patients. After retiring, he also spent about five years leading the creation of a partnership program in Solano County that established a much-needed safety net for patients from underserved communities.

Building bridges defined my grandfather’s legacy — he constantly thought broadly about how to create partnerships that could benefit wider communities. Genuine efforts like those mentioned above capture his interest in health policy and administration considerations: Dr. Stange was passionate about Kaiser Permanente because he believed deeply in the tremendous value that its integrated health care system provides to patients. From prevention to efficiency, my grandfather’s personal values magnificently matched those of Kaiser Permanente.

At Johns Hopkins, I hope to build on my grandfather’s legacy to improve our health care systems. In an effort to combine lessons learned from both my grandfather and my mom, for example, I hope to found the Doctors-Nurses Alliance (DNA) at Hopkins to better integrate the medical training of our future clinicians. The DNA program at Hopkins would facilitate increased interaction between the medical students and the nursing students. I believe that Doctor-Nurse-Aligned teamwork forms the double-helix DNA of medical care delivery, so hopefully I can contribute to this cause during my medical training.

With projects like DNA, I plan on carrying with me throughout my career those inspirations that led to my grandfather’s steadfast dedication to Kaiser Permanente — his legacy inspires me to learn, serve, and lead.

* Edward J. Derbes is a 2010 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), earning a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric with High Distinction (Magna Cum Laude).  He co-founded and was senior editor of Divergence Magazine of Cypress, California, and formerly served on the editorial staff of the College of Environmental Design e-News at UCB.  Derbes grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana.