SEBRING - For 22 years at one point of his life, Joseph Bernard's career was literally up in the air.
But now, he is firmly grounded in Highlands County and busy setting priorities.
April 2, Bernard became the new chief executive officer at Highlands Regional Medical Center, a 126-bed, full-service medical facility offering emergency, surgical, inpatient and outpatient services. He takes the place of interim CEO Robert Palussek, who served since August 2012.
The hospital was acquired from Naples' Health Management Associates by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems in 2013.
Bernard's transition to heading a hospital is a drastic change from his first career.
From 1983 to 2005, Bernard, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Marines, spent his time as a Marine 1 helicopter pilot, transporting former President Bill Clinton and his family around the country, as well as dignitaries such as Pope John Paul II, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Jordan's King Hussein. He also spent a year after 9-11 with the Central Intelligence Agency in Virginia and as executive assistant director of operations, U.S. Pacific Command.
Now, his focus is much more local.
Speaking Monday in a conference room in the hospital, 3600 Highlands Ave., Bernard was accommodating with an authoritative air and said he's happy in his non-military role.
During a rare break, he said he had already made a prioritized a list of early goals, primarily wanting to establish a rapport with local physicians while looking for ways to bring experienced doctors and health professionals to Highlands County.
Bernard, 53, said what's important for himself and the hospital is to recruit physicians, work to privatize all rooms, capitalize on the hospital's strengths and build on doctors' relationships with the hospital.
"That's important for me...to reach out to the physicians that are here, to enhance relationships with in-market physicians already here," he said. "It's important to address those relationships and get to know them one to one, do all we can do to satisfy their expectations of our hospital."
Working with the hospital Chief Financial Offier, Vicki DeRenzis, Chief Operating Officer Robert Palussek -- who served as interim CEO -- and Chief Nursing Officer Adam Kless, Bernard's other top priorities, he said, are to privatize rooms and recruit top doctors.
"We want people to know this it the community's hospital and we want to collaborate to make it the best possible hospital it can be," said Bernard, who counts sports, exercise and reading political, biographical and historical non-fiction as his pastimes.
Bernard moved to Sebring from Naples, where he was chief operating officer at Physicians Regional Medical Center since 2005. His wife, Mary Kay, and daughter, Anne, 17, still lives there while their house is being sold. He has three sons -- Matthew, 23, Michael, 21 and Jake, 19.
A native of Saugus, Mass., and a 1983 civil engineering graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Bernard holds a 1995 master's degrees from Webster University and a 2013 master of healthcare administration from the University of Cincinnati. His Marine Corps career ended in 2005 as a executive officer at the Officer Candidates School.
Bernard is now working to keep the hospital and its staff of about 400 up to date on the latest medical innovations and practices as well as coordinating work with 10 medical providers from Sebring's Highlands Medical Group.
Gwen Shaw, practice manager for Highlands Medical Group, said although Bernard has been on the job for less than a month, she's been impressed with his professionalism and said his military background is an asset.
"I'm very impressed so far. He has a lot of leadership and strong moral character," she said. "He has a lot of enthusiasm and that's good for the hospital staff."
Bernard started in healthcare management in 2005 with Health Management Associates as the associate administrator at Lehigh Regional Medical Center, Lehigh Acres. He also served as the associate administrator at Charlotte Regional Medical Center, Punta Gorda and was promoted to chief operating officer at Peace River Regional Medical Center, Port Charlotte. In 2008, he became the chief operating officer at Physicians Regional Medical Center, Naples,
As for leading Highlands Regional, Bernard said he was notified in January of the position after Highlands Regional's former CEO Brian Hess transferred within the CHS system to Venice Regional Medical Center. Bill Hussey, a CHS division president, offered him the job.
"I was excited about the CEO opportunity. I was intrigued by Sebring. I knew very little about the hospital and even the area so I was interested to find out what Sebring is all about," he said.
According to its website, Highlands Regional was opened in 1965. The main hospital building has always been owned by Highlands County. The main building has been remodeled several times since opening and additional space has been added to the original building.