Worthy Convos: Rick Merrill on Care, Play, and Being a Red Raider in a Town of Horned Frogs
Rick Merrill, President and CEO of Cook Children’s Health Care System, has an office filled with colorful paintings, handwritten letters, and numerous trinkets – all tokens of love from the many patients that have received treatment at Cook Children’s. Listening to Merrill talk, it’s obvious that even after 14 years on the job, the magic of helping children never fades.
What led you to the pediatric healthcare world?
It was a defining moment for me, believe it or not, at Disney World. I was with [my] family and had received a phone call from a headhunter. They asked me if I would be interested in looking at Driscoll Children’s [hospital]. I was trying to decide if I wanted to leave adult healthcare and make the jump into pediatric care. We were sitting on the curb of Main Street waiting for the parade to come through with our two daughters, and right across the street from me was a special needs child in a wheelchair. I was amazed by the love that the parents had for this child. As the floats started moving through, Cinderella got off the float and went over and hugged this child. All this care playing out in front of me, it was a sign. There’s something about children who need special support and help. I made the jump then and there have been no regrets whatsoever.
What can adults learn from children?
It’s the child in us that makes the world work. It’s our innocence, our sense of play – all those things that children are. If we lived that out as adults, this world would be a whole lot better of a place. We have very challenging diseases that have hit the pediatric population. You take a look at our oncology floor, and it’s an amazing thing, while sad, to watch. A child who is terminal, they come to grips with their situation quickly, and it’s the parents who you have to bring along to finally get through it. Robert Frost, in one of his poems, said, “Seeing that way leads on to way, I doubt I should ever go back.” And I think that’s true for me. I probably would not do too well if I had to go back to adult healthcare.
Do you have a favorite patient story to share?
About eight years ago I was making rounds on the oncology floor, and this ten-year-old boy came up to me, stuck his hand out, and said, “Matthias Utley.” I said, “Rick Merrill, good to meet you.” I learned this later, but he was walking down the hall with the activities coordinator, and he looked at Trina and said, “Who’s that man in the suit?” She said, “Well, that’s our CEO, Rick Merrill.” He looked at her and said, “I’m going to make him my friend.” I got to know him over a two-year period. He was a jokester – mature beyond his years, but he loved playing tricks. There was one funny incident where Matthias had to stay in isolation, and he was having none of it. He had the nurses bring him chocolate pudding, and he put it in a bedpan. He got a spoon, sat at the door, and said, “Don’t make me call Rick Merrill to get out of here.” This guy was just really great.
Operating a hospital during a pandemic comes with extreme challenges, I’m sure. Has anything positive or surprising come about as a result of the unusual circumstances?
A lot of things bad have happened during COVID, but there have been a lot of gifts. I think some of those gifts have been just a time to pause and reflect on life. The one thing that we were very focused on through COVID is making sure that there’s resiliency in our organization. I know that our caregivers have experienced extreme exhaustion and frustration. We made the decision early on that even though our census fell significantly because we weren’t able to treat non-essential cases, and some people were home without anything to do, to pay everyone 100% of their pay regardless. We gave everyone an extra vacation day to spend time with their families and significant others. It’s hard to articulate this feeling that while we’re tired, it’s gratifying to be able to keep an organization running and moving forward in a positive way, even in the face of this pandemic.
How do you deal with being a Red Raider in a city of Horned Frogs?
Sometimes I have to keep my head low. Most people know though I’m a Tech grad, I certainly am a TCU fan as well. My wife is a physician at the TCU Health Center, so we’ve got to support the home team. I have mixed emotions when the Red Raiders come to town, obviously. I try to wear two hats when that happens. Purple and red don’t necessarily go together but that’s okay.
Aside from your career, of course, what keeps you in FTW?
In many big cities, you’re known for how much you have. In Fort Worth, you are known for how much you give. Having been at Cook for almost 14 years, the philanthropic support is amazing. But it’s not just Cook – it’s the museums, it’s downtown, it’s TCU. I mean, how do you not like Fort Worth? As Amon Carter said, “It’s where the West begins and the East peters out.”
Although she prefers burnt orange to purple, Hannah Bush is happy to call Fort Worth her new home. She began freelance writing a few years ago to break up the monotony of her 9 to 5 and to prove to her parents that she’s making good use of her journalism degree. When she’s not hanging out with her cat, Hannah can likely be found on a patio with her fiancé, talking about her cat.