By Jon Hermanson
In July 1998, I sat quietly in the surgical recovery room of the University of Tennessee Hospital, waiting to hear if my son, Erik, would make it. A few hours earlier, my family had been notified that Erik had been catastrophically injured in a car accident.
During those hours, I became more acutely aware that what we do in life is about those we love, and that is what makes life worth living.
My son had suffered multiple injuries, but a permanent brain and brain stem injury was the most emotional and serious. He was only 16 at the time. But the injury was to all of us. Everyone who loved him was injured.
As traumatic as the event was, it also became the catalyst for my passion to develop medical devices. As head of product development at Albahealth in Rockwood, Tenn., I have been involved with developing many medical textile products and devices commonly used in healthcare settings today.
Albahealth is a leading healthcare manufacturer of medical products and devices focused on patient safety and comfort. I have coordinated efforts at Albahealth that have led to two patents and seven patent-pending products.
My path to this point has not been easy. I have experienced five corporate takeovers, acquisitions and divestitures. The days of giving a company 40 years for a gold watch are rare. Yet, each experience helped prepare me for my role today.
I earned my bachelor’s degree in journalism from UWO in 1974. I was a member of Sigma Delta Chi, and I served on the staff of the newspaper and the yearbook as a writer and “sometimes” photographer.
The academics at UWO prepared me very well. My involvement in activities built many friendships. I learned from my professors that, as a student and a person: I was valuable, I had potential, I had talent; and I had their support and encouragement.
After graduation, I spent 11 years with Sand Knit in Berlin, learning the fundamentals of textiles. The company made knit fabrics and custom athletic uniforms for professional teams and major colleges.
During that time, I returned to UWO and earned an MBA in 1984. My graduate school path included four years of night school, taking foundation courses to gain acceptance into the MBA program, and then completing the coursework — a true marathon experience!
When Sand Knit was sold and a new management regime was installed, I joined Bike Athletic in Knoxville, Tenn., which sold textile products but also marketed sports medicine products. In the early 1990s, Bike was divested in segments, and I began to seek out career changes as the company redefined itself.
Times were hard. I had experienced the sadness of a marriage ending, an employer being sold off in parts, and limited financial resources. I took what jobs I could find to get by.
Ultimately, I made a conscious choice to pursue healthcare as a new opportunity. I wanted to learn as much about the business as possible, so I enrolled in the graduate school of Public Health at the University of Tennessee, earning a master’s degree in 1998.
During that time, I worked evenings in an in-patient psychiatric hospital near Knoxville. Balancing academic studies in healthcare administration with real-world exposure to the delivery of healthcare service proved valuable. I was most affected by working with patients suffering closed head injuries.
Even though times were hard at that point, little did I realize that I was being prepared for bigger events, bigger opportunities in life. God always puts you where He needs you, not necessarily where you want to be.
Soon, the hospital system supporting the psychiatric hospital was sold, and I was given the opportunity to move into a director’s role with the new organization, where I was able to apply my newly formed skill set.
However, after two years Tennessee’s Medicare waiver, known as TennCare, dramatically cut funding to hospitals and my position was eliminated. Shortly after that, my son suffered his injuries.
My wife, Debbie, and I had just married and had pooled our limited monies together and bought a house. Within the first year of our marriage, we ran through a host of unexpected events, but in looking back, it made our marriage … our commitment to each other… stronger.
In time, I received a call from a professional recruiter who was looking for a product development manager with a textile background. The recruiter asked if I knew anyone with such credentials. My answer was simple and direct, “Me!”
I soon became a key part of the management team at Albahealth. In 2004, the company was sold to Encompass Group, a large medical products company, and my role continued to expand as more and more products were launched. However, I am never far from events that keep me grounded and passionate about my work.
I have several heroes in my family. My son is a hero for all he has experienced. My sister is a 12-year survivor of breast cancer. She has been the inspiration behind some products that we have developed. In addition, we lost an aunt to breast cancer and now my sister-in-law is dealing with breast cancer. I have family members dealing with cancer, with diabetes and many other conditions.
I have been in many, many hospital settings. As I look at a patient in a bed, I see pumps, tubes, monitors and the like. But I also see hands holding hands. Those are connections of love that can surpass science.
I’d like to think that when we develop a product, we use the best materials, the best techniques, and we always knit in one thread of hope. We owe our patients that.