A“I think it’s important to have a good time at work.”
casual conversation with Pete Duarte, a neighbor who happened to be CEO of a local hospital, put then-college student Monica Vargas-Mahar on track to work as a hospital administrator with aspirations to be a CEO herself. Vargas-Mahar says she was intrigued by Duarte’s suggestion that she consider healthcare as a career, and eventually shadowed the CEO of what is now University Medical Center of El Paso (Texas) before deciding, “OK, this is where I can see my calling,” she says.
That first step into healthcare combined with other fortunate turns has allowed Vargas-Mahar to move quickly through the ranks, having been named chief operating officer of a 110-bed hospital at the age of 34 and COO of a 359-bed hospital at the age of 38, the job she currently holds at Providence Memorial Hospital, El Paso, owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp.
Current and former colleagues speak highly of VargasMahar, citing her management style, which combines operational precision with personal warmth. “She’s an absolute joy to work with,” says Sally Hurt, CEO of Sierra Providence East Medical Center in El Paso, where Vargas-Mahar first worked as COO. She has great problem-solving skills and encourages the same from her colleagues, Hurt says. “Monica is going to hold you accountable, but at the same time, she’s not going to be unreasonable, and she’s willing to listen,” Hurt says.
Vargas-Mahar, who is married and has two dogs, says the more analytical side of the job comes more naturally and she’s had to work more on developing her personal connections, something that Hurt helped her learn. Vargas-Mahar was both the instigator and recipient of some friendly pranks. She once toilet-papered a colleague’s office who had a birthday, while somebody hid her phone behind a ceiling tile in response to a prank she played, she says. “I think it’s important to have a good time at work,” she says. She says she got another lucky break when it was time to apply for residencies in graduate school. Because so many of her classmates were applying to meet with Douglas Hawthorne, CEO of Texas Health Resources, about a potential residency position, VargasMahar says she didn’t want to waste a bid and didn’t try for a slot. But when she got home the day Hawthorne was interviewing, she got a call asking her to meet with him at his request, she says. Hawthorne, who got CVs on all the students, had picked her name out of the stack on his own, she says. She ended up getting a residency, a fellowship and her first job with THR. “Doug Hawthorne is someone I hold special in my heart,” Vargas-Mahar says.
She also says she owes a lot to a former Tenet executive, Thomas Casaday, and to Tenet itself, which has given her opportunities for advancement, such as by letting her work on the development of a greenfield hospital—Sierra Providence East Medical Center.
38, chief operating officer, Providence Memorial Hospital, El Paso, Texas